To address Central American migrants, the US must confront its own past

To address Central American migrants, the US must confront its own past
© Getty Images

When it comes to border issues these days there is a lot of finger wagging outside the White House and hand wringing within it. However, if we are looking for someone in the White House to blame, or to U.S. immigration policy to find a solution, we are in the wrong century and thousands of miles off course. 

The original root cause of today’s migration from Central America is — or was — U.S. policy toward the region during the Cold War. Simply put, that policy was to stomp out Soviet influence anywhere around the world, but especially in nearby Central America by supporting despotic regimes at all costs — including human lives. The Cold War was extremely hot for millions of Central Americans, many of whom were forced from their homes to flee elsewhere within their countries, the region, or to the U.S. That movement has not stopped since, though we try to convince ourselves of more modern — and convenient — causes.

We blame gangs for instilling violence and terror among communities. Gang violence is indeed reprehensible and intolerable, but we must recognize that the gangs of today are the product of lessons learned on U.S. streets by refugees from wars in Central America who were then deported back to the region. We blame drug trafficking for corrupting local and national governments, but we must recognize that the drug routes of today are the product of insatiable demand that was established while attention was on Cold War enemies versus domestic demons. We blame a lack of economic opportunity and jobs, though the U.S. has continued to support the elites that fought by our side despite their records of abuse and disdain for democratic norms, not the least of which has been maintaining inequality and poverty through tax dodging and state capture. 

ADVERTISEMENT

These may be original sins that resulted from a global struggle of a different time. However, now the U.S. turns away those that flee these very problems. History will judge whether that is our sin.      

The good news is that it need not be this way. The U.S. has the opportunity to address the fundamental root cause of migration versus treating festering symptoms alone. To be sure, our research has shown that unemployment and violence are proximate causes for migration, and that we have some of the tools to combat them. However, treating these symptoms alone will not heal the region. A job gained can just as easily be lost, one community pacified most likely means another will see more violence, and for every case of corruption exposed, there are dozens more that go unseen.    

Following the example of past peace processes around the world, what is needed is a full-scale reparations program that acknowledges the role of the U.S. in creating the border crisis it now confronts. The reparations program would start by recognizing the suffering and dignity of each individual and their plight in the context of history. This would include recognizing gang violence and gender-based violence as credible threats for asylum and holding a fair asylum hearing for each individual after presenting themselves at the border or in their home country before they make the dangerous journey. The investment in asylum hearing officers would be more than paid for by the reduced need for enforcement and processing at the border.

Reparations should also include enforcement and expansion of investigations and prosecutions of Central American leaders and elites under the bipartisan Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and bar them from entering the U.S. using the Engel list to demonstrate that the U.S. will pursue those involved in collusion and corruption. As a second step under enforcement, the U.S. should support a regional anti-corruption body similar to the national anti-corruption commissions that were closed by respective governments with the tacit approval of the U.S., and make further support for regional governments contingent on their participation. This body would also supervise aid and national budget investments in health, education and social services to ensure their proper use. The reduction in corruption and misappropriation of resources would reduce the need for long-term aid. On Thursday, the Biden administration said it is considering such a task force of U.S. government officials to help to fight corruption in Central America. 

The U.S. should increase trade opportunities by raising or suspending import quotas from the region and incentivize U.S. companies to expand manufacturing, agriculture and retail presence in the region. While these take root, the U.S. should significantly expand legal opportunities for short-term work in sectors already dominated by migrant workers. This program would also ensure more protections for workers rights by enforcing safeguards on health, safety and pay that are not currently available to undocumented workers. It would also increase remittances to family members in Central America and reduce the need for long-term aid. The announcement of additional temporary visas this week is a positive step, but many more are needed. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Under the existing bipartisan Global Fragility Act and other aid mechanisms, the U.S. should prioritize and expand work with civil society in the region to address typical root causes of education, violence and employment to alleviate immediate suffering and forced migration.  

The tapping of Vice President Harris to lead administration efforts and the naming of Ricardo Zúñiga as special envoy to the region are good steps in this direction. However, what is needed are not the short-term fixes of policymakers’ dreams. Migration from Central America is not a short-term problem. If the White House and Congress do not also recognize the long-term work that must be done to improve the lives of Central Americans, the past will continue to haunt us in the faces of desperate Central Americans at the border.

Tom Hare is a senior associate in the Pulte Institute for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. Hare's research primarily examines rule of law and human rights programs in Central America. Hare is the author of Zonas Peligrosas: The Challenge of Creating Safe Neighborhoods in Central America. Hugo Noé Pino is a Honduran economist and served as president of the Central Bank of Honduras, finance minister and ambassador to both the UN and the U.S. He also served as director of the Central American Postgraduate in Economics at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Executive Director of the Cetroamerican Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), and as a research professor at UNITEC in Honduras.