Supporting Central American migrants at US borders and beyond

Supporting Central American migrants at US borders and beyond
© Getty Images

Sindi Gordon, a farmer in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is no stranger to hardship. She has struggled to support her family, taking out a loan to plant a grove of cacao trees in the hope of providing a steady income. Despite contending with the unpredictable weather brought on by climate change, she had hope.

And then hurricanes Eta and Iota swept through her country, burying her cacao trees under feet of mud. She was forced to flee her home with her family to one of the many overcrowded community shelters that were hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. 

"I only have enough money for another month," she told one of our staff members recently. "After that, I don’t know what I am going to do to feed my family."

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It is desperation like Gordon’s that is driving so many to give up on their homeland and migrate, forming caravans bound for the U.S. border, like the one that formed only to find its way blocked in January. They are following in the footsteps of millions who have fled from a continuing crisis of poverty, criminal violence, corrupt governance and impunity that have helped fuel migration to the U.S.

All indications are that the Biden administration will be tested as a surge is predicted at the southern border of the U.S. in the near future, driven by the impact of COVID-19 and the damage caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota. The United Nations forecasts that hunger in Central America will rise dramatically due to the double hit of COVID-19 and hurricane damage, with the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity expected to nearly double to 3 million. Conditions must be extreme to impel people  to leave, given the harrowing danger on the journey, especially for women and unaccompanied minors.

The bottom line is that these migrants are not fleeing because they chase an American dream. They are fleeing because of the daily reality they face death threats, government corruption, economic instability, lack of jobs and basic livelihoods, lack of education and basic healthcare in their own countries. 

Immigration from Mexico and Central America has been a policy focus and political flash point during the last four years of the Trump administration. In an attempt to severely limit the number of entrants, both legal and illegal, officials instituted draconian policies such as severe restrictions on the ability to apply for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, the “remain in Mexico” policy that requires asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. to stay in Mexico throughout their asylum process and the practice of child-family separation.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to engage with Central American countries in a way that will yield sustainable and long-term impacts through more focused and coherent diplomacy and assistance. There is not a moment to lose in recognizing the challenges in the region and how their mutual futures are inherently linked.

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The good news is that Biden, with the experience of working on the issue during the Obama administration, already has announced a plan to reverse many of these policies and is starting to enact and renew investment in the region to address root causes and is already introducing some aspects of this through executive orders. His emphasis on aid effectiveness, the role of civil society and issues affecting women — their access to financial capital to spur entrepreneurship, for instance — resonate with our organization’s experience of effective approaches. 

As announced, the Biden approach to the region goes well beyond immigration enforcement to include restoring a workable asylum system and establishing a path to citizenship for those already in the U.S. This broader engagement will include upholding humane and values-based assistance and migration policies toward the region. 

A promising approach in this vein is to invest more deliberately in assistance to internally displaced people and migrants all along the North American corridor stretching from Panama to Canada. This should include a more durable public-private system of humanitarian assistance that provides complementary pathways to both protection and livelihoods. Our organization, for instance, works with local and international businesses, educational institutions and municipalities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to train young people in entrepreneurial and workplace skills so they can start businesses or gain long-term employment. 

The Biden plan looks to increase support for proven humanitarian, health and development programs at the local level, especially those targeting young people that promote employment skills training. That’s critical, but support for sustainable jobs growth must go beyond rhetoric to truly include the impact of the climate crisis in planning with its Central American partners, including investments in disaster preparedness and risk reduction, as well as assistance that will help farmers adapt to climate changes that are decimating their harvests and forcing them to leave their farms. 

Central America faces many challenges that can seem intractable. But we are hopeful that the Biden administration’s approach to the region and its understanding of the overlapping issues underlying its political and economic crisis corruption, climate change, loss of livelihoods, insecurity will refocus U.S. policy on the roots of the root causes: people like Sindi and her family, who have experienced so much hardship and suffering.

Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador to Greece and Belarus, served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and is a former senior official at NATO. He is also the president and CEO of Corus International, a family of faith-based organizations, including Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health.