Central American migrants: Trump attacks symptoms, ignores causes, and will make a bad situation worse

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE insists the increasing flow migrants from Central America must stop, but he and his administration’s pronouncements, policies, and actions are only making a bad situation worse, now and in the future.

Trump’s announcement that he will cut all U.S. assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the sources of most of the migrant flow, is perhaps the most obvious example that he neither understands the problem nor the tools the U.S. has to deal with it.


Central American migrants are a symptom of chronic problems in their region, such as crop failures, poverty, the break down of law and order, and unchecked violence that particularly threatens young men and women. Before Trump’s announcement, U.S. assistance to Central America was focused on the underlying causes of regional migration by promoting actions, policies, and investments that can lead to more physical and economic security in each country, encouraging the people of the region to seek their future at home.  Vice President Pence said as much at a regional conference in 2017.

U.S. assistance prods local governments to do more in areas the U.S. thinks are important. Little or no U.S. aid goes directly to these governments, but instead supports the work of largely American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private contractors. Shutting off U.S. assistance to Central America will almost certainly produce more migrants; it certainly will not stop the flow.

The Trump Administration’s policy to abandon global and U.S. efforts to deal with climate change is similarly the opposite of what is needed to stem migration from Central America. The proof that climate change is happening is found in the Central American farm families stacking up on our southern border. The region has a growing dry corridor, which alternates between droughts and floods. A 2014 surge in family migration from Central America followed a drought in the dry corridor. A record 2016 drought left 3.5 million people needing humanitarian assistance in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, some of whom inevitably headed to the U.S.

A Guatemalan official estimated 100,000 Guatemalan farm families lost corn and bean crops in 2018 due to climate issues; many of the Guatemalan migrants at the U.S. border are from small farm families. Unless global and regional action is taken to slow climate change and adapt regional agriculture to its effects, climate change’s negative impacts in Central America will increase the flow of migrants seeking to avoid abject poverty or starvation.


The Trump Administration’s hostility to family planning is another example of how not to address conditions that lead to migration. The most recent instance of this was Secretary Pompeo’s announcement March 26 that the U.S. would stop funding a small Organization of American States human rights program that did not forbid abortions. Large, unplanned families combined with the economic stresses of climate change and the security stresses of violence and broken justice systems will almost certainly produce more migrants seeking to find a more prosperous and secure life.

Finally, Trump’s proposed wall on our southern border would be as effective at stopping migrants turning themselves into immigration authorities as the Maginot Line was at stopping Hitler’s tanks from invading France. Trump’s wall fixation diverts resources and diplomatic capital that could be better used to address migration’s root causes, which if left unaddressed will only produce more migrants coming to our border.

Despite our polarized politics, most Americans want the Administration to take effective action to deal with the migrant problem, consistent with American values and interests. To do this, the Administration needs to stop issuing threats and instead commit the diplomatic and financial resources needed for a regional initiative that collaboratively tackles the region’s security and development problems. This will require more U.S. foreign assistance not less, more commitments by regional governments to address problems that produce migrants, more engagement with the U.S. and regional private sectors, and a recognition by all concerned that this is a long-term problem that will require steady, long-term commitments of action and resources.

Among the most important long-term actions will be the need to address the negative impacts of climate change on the region’s agricultural economy. But if the Trump Administration continues to ignore climate change and thwart global efforts to deal with it, then the U.S. will be faced over time with a hemispheric migration problem that will dwarf the migration flows of 2018/2019.  The Congress must focus more attention on the climate-migration issue and help the Administration see what needs to be done.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career diplomat who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and a senior intelligence official in the Bush and Obama Administrations. He also worked on climate change issues in the Clinton and Bush Administrations.