This migrant surge calls for cross-border solutions

Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. can recognize each other’s urgent needs and stem the flow of families seeking asylum.

Women in San Salvador, El Salvador, protest violence against women March 29.

With immigration facilities in the United States overwhelmed by thousands of Central Americans seeking asylum, now may be the right time for creative – and cross-border – leadership. The U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as other stakeholders, know where the problems lie. They just need to agree on thoughtful solutions.

There is plenty of blame to go around in the way governments have responded to the exodus of Central Americans, most of whom are fleeing violence, food scarcity, corruption, and poverty. The last big migrant surge spanned from 2013 to 2014, but the latest flow of families points to an urgent need for cooperation. All the countries involved can find constructive ways to respect laws, norms, and values rather than making the situation worse. A starting point is to agree that the difficult issues should not be used for domestic political gain.

One model of cooperation is a recent U.S.-Mexico agreement on increasing investment in southern Mexico and northern Central America. The various programs have yet to generate jobs to prevent people from migrating. Yet the serious work is beginning and shows promise.

Mexico has also made some progress in recognizing that the flow of migrants effectively interferes in the domestic affairs of the U.S. The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has signaled that in addition to respecting the human rights of migrants, it will beef up efforts to control migration flows. 

Mexico has been overwhelmed by the number of people crossing the southern border. It has been unable to manage well the migrants or to care for them. Many of the migrants can find quick transport northward, often provided by organized traffickers. Some are subject to violence along the way or near the U.S. border.

The northern three Central American countries continue to fall short of their basic obligations to deal with the criminal violence, poverty, and poor governance that prompt so many to flee. Correcting that is a long-term effort, but progress has been made. Various U.S. aid programs have helped specific areas, reducing crime and creating alternative income sources, for example.

Just last week, Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Homeland Security chief, signed a “historic” law enforcement agreement with counterparts in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador designed to improve cooperation to stem irregular immigration. However the U.S. is now threatening to cut off all aid aimed at helping to keep migrants at home.

Though the three countries are being lumped together, each has different urgent issues. Media reports suggest that most of the recent families arriving at the border are fleeing food scarcity in Guatemala. While in El Salvador and Honduras the danger motivating people to flee seems largely criminal violence. Assistance, aid, and requests for action need to be targeted appropriately to address the causes pushing migrants to leave.

In the U.S., the political debate has focused mainly on building out a border wall rather than seeking a bipartisan and comprehensive agreement to improve the immigration system. The most immediate need is to increase the number of federal immigration judges and other personnel necessary to improve and speed processing for asylum-seekers and to build and staff facilities to humanely house them while their claims are adjudicated.

America’s southern neighbors are now quite aware of U.S. concerns. Good solutions will not come from further threats or inflicting broader harm on any of the countries involved, such as closing the border. The value of trade between the U.S. and Mexico averages about $1 million a minute. The urgent need is for wisdom in making decisions consistent with America’s highest ideals, the law, and the best interests of all involved.

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