Joining hands on migration

A US-Mexican agreement recognizes that solutions to the flow of migrants begin with improving conditions in Central America – and with working together on the problem.

Leah Millis/Reuters
Migrants receive food Dec. 12 at a camp in Tijuana, Mexico, that holds hundreds of migrants. They arrived at the US border from Central America in a caravan with the intention of applying for asylum in the US.

Tragedies at the US-Mexico border begin with tragedies in Central America. 

When conditions in countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala become unbearable, desperate people make a tough but logical choice: Head north, and hope to find a better life.

The problems they create at the border for both the US and Mexican governments are well known. Many of them live miserable lives in camps and shelters waiting to find out if they’ll be allowed to enter the United States. Some have died. Youths waiting on the Mexican side are in danger of being recruited into criminal gangs. Some migrants have taken out loans to pay smugglers to bring them north; they dare not return home without any means to repay them. 

Americans, meanwhile, remain torn between deep compassion for the migrants’ plight and a desire to maintain an orderly and secure southern border.

Yesterday the Trump administration, along with the government of new Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took encouraging steps to begin working together to address the root cause of the migration crisis: civil and economic chaos in the migrants’ home countries.

The US said Tuesday that it has pledged $10.6 billion to help develop Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, along with southern Mexico – that country’s most impoverished region. Much of the aid is in the form of loans or private investments or funds that were already designated for this use. 

Still, the move represents a 180-degree reversal by the current US administration, which had threatened to cut off aid to Central American countries unless they stopped the flow of migrants. The Trump administration had reviewed aid to the region during the Obama years and had concluded it had been ineffective.

For its part, the Mexican government pledged to spend $25 billion to develop southern Mexico over the next five years. Mr. López Obrador has argued that employment opportunities in that region could keep Central Americans looking for work from traveling on to the US border. 

While Mexican manufacturing jobs flourished along the US border under the NAFTA trade agreement and the tourism industry has lifted employment on the sunny coasts, Mexico’s south, which borders Central America, has languished.

The most encouraging aspect of the announcement may be that the US and Mexico have agreed to work together to solve a thorny issue. “The announcement reflects the importance that both countries grant to our bilateral relationship,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said.

The agreement, which costs US taxpayers nothing in extra taxes, is a “creative solution” to the problem of how to take joint action, says Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. It’s a recognition that “migration from Central America [is] a regional issue, not something that one country can handle on its own,” he says.

At this stage the US-Mexico agreement may be more a gesture than a solution, but it is a step in the right direction.

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