Central American leaders on solving child migrant crisis: We can't do it alone

The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras meet with President Obama and Vice President Biden on Friday, and two of them discussed the child migrant crisis ahead of time on Thursday.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California (c.) meets with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina (r.) and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.

Americans got a preview Thursday of what will be on the minds of the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras when they meet with President Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House on Friday. Most of the surge in the child migrant crisis comes from those countries.

Making the rounds on Capitol Hill and at a think tank, two of the presidents – Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras – said they are working hard to resolve the crisis and its underlying causes. But they can’t do it alone.

“There needs to be an aggressive plan,” said Mr. Molina, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The foreign minister for Honduras recently proposed a “mini Marshall Plan” for the region, referring to the US effort to rebuild Europe after World War II.

“The problem is that both the Central Americans and the Americans are going to say they are doing everything they can. It’s not true in either case,” said Eric Hershberg, director of American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington.

Both presidents pointed to regional cooperation efforts and reforms in their own countries to get at the root causes of the migrant crisis, which they identified as unprecedented levels of drug violence, a lack of economic opportunity, and poor living conditions.

Add to that the “ambiguities” in US immigration policies and the false promises spread by human traffickers, so-called coyotes, said Mr. Hernández, who stressed the need for humanitarian treatment of the children who make it to the United States.

Guatemela’s president cited his efforts at tax reform to raise revenues for public services, education reform, and the confiscation of arms used in the drug trade – arms that he noted come from the US.

The Honduran president cited the government's work to clean up corrupt judicial and security forces, the shutting of the immigration office because it was in cahoots with drug smugglers, and drug interdiction efforts at sea and in the air.

But, he said, his country is “simply overwhelmed” by the drug violence. Indeed, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. It stems, he said, from the “successful” US efforts to help Mexico and Colombia fight the drug lords – who were then pushed to Central America. Today’s child migrants, he said, are coming from the most violent municipalities in Honduras.

Both men sharply criticized the US program to help support better security in the region – the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. Molina said it raised expectations and then failed in commitment. Hernández called it “almost a farce.”

That’s right, Professor Hershberg says. “The Americans have not been willing to systematically rethink CARSI,” he said. Washington has no credible plan for long-term economic development of the region and is “obsessively security-focused.” But he also faulted both Central American countries for falling far short in their reform efforts, Honduras more than Guatemala, while praising El Salvador.

“The Americans should push very hard for action on reform and cleaning up of security and judicial institutions in all three countries,” Hershberg said, explaining that, to date, the pressure has been coming from embassies, while it ought to come from the Oval Office.

But he also cited a lack of US resources as a problem. Congress is not in a spending mood, and pressure without a promise of help and actual resources doesn’t work very well. As Simon Henshaw, the principal deputy assistant US secretary of State for population, refugees, and migration, told Reuters, the international and regional development banks will have to play a larger role.

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