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Confronting a Crisis: Child Refugees at our Southwest Border | Commentary

The U.S. faces an urgent and mounting humanitarian crisis — in the past nine months, 52,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed our border without authorization. The desperate parents of these children have sent them on a 1600-mile trek north to escape violence, poverty and disease, all the while unwittingly exposing them to rape, abuse, trafficking, and other dangers, including death from starvation and exposure to the elements. After arriving on U.S. soil, their harrowing journey continues as the federal government scrambles to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter while they wait to be processed through a system that is over-burdened and under-funded.

This is widely seen as an American border problem, but in reality, this crisis is primarily driven by the violence and bleak prospects facing the citizens and families of Central America. Passing immigration reform is certainly an important component of addressing the current problem, but beyond that, a comprehensive economic development and security plan for Central America is needed to tackle the root causes of the current humanitarian crisis. Such a plan and the resources to implement it must be adequate in order to address the deadly combination of extreme violence perpetrated by ruthless gangs, ineffective law enforcement and inadequate administration of justice, and unacceptably high poverty levels in Central America.

President Barack Obama has rightly called on Congress to appropriate supplemental funds to meet the immediate challenges of significantly reducing daily crossings while simultaneously tending to the humanitarian situation of the children already here. This short term fix, while necessary, will not solve the problem at its roots.

It is no coincidence that the vast majority of children coming across the border are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the countries with the highest rates of violence in the region. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, while El Salvador and Guatemala rank 4th and 5th respectively. This, coupled with high levels of unemployment and underemployment, plagues their ability to survive, let alone thrive. In El Salvador alone, 60% of 18-24-year-olds are unemployed or underemployed.

For years, the U.S. has made significant investments to strengthen personal security throughout the hemisphere by working to reduce gang and drug violence. Since its launch in 2000, Plan Colombia for example, has been particularly successful, providing more than $7 billion in U.S. assistance to bolster the Colombian government’s counter-narcotics and security capabilities, and can be a model for Central America with appropriate adjustments. The Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) provides some assistance and is a good start, but it should be scaled up to meet the current challenge. Although the immediate focus of our security assistance would be Central America, such an investment would yield results in our own country as we know that many of the gangs that operate in the region export drugs and violence into the United States.

Even more important than security assistance, we need a comprehensive economic development program for these three most vulnerable Central American countries. Toward this end, we recommend greatly expanded capacity building assistance to enable market-based economic development that promotes the establishment of a reliable legal and judicial system, transparent and effective government, infrastructure upgrades that enhance trade and competition, as well as investments in education and healthcare. Security, economic development, and an effective legal and judicial system go hand-in-hand. These countries need a holistic approach that addresses all three at the same time.

To better use and leverage U.S. government resources for economic development and administration of justice capacity building, the Obama administration must make good on its promise that the $300 million assistance request for Central America will be a “down-payment” on a more comprehensive, balanced, and well-resourced strategy for the region. To this end, we recommend the formation of an inter-agency task force, to coordinate this assistance to the region. This task force should be empowered to leverage resources from businesses and nonprofit organizations, by creating public-private partnerships and bringing matching funds from international donors and U.S. agencies.

Finally, as was the case with Plan Colombia, the countries themselves should also be prepared to claim ownership of both the problems and the solutions. They need to invest heavily, both in political and economic terms, and show leadership and increased regional collaboration. Central American governments must commit to take tough decisions, and we and the rest of the international community should be prepared to assist them in a transformational effort.

We have already seen the benefits of this sort of coordinated strategy in Colombia where we now have an ally in the drug war and the fight against narco-trafficking and a strong commercial partner. Similar successes are possible with intensive investment in economic development tailored to Central America’s needs. Indeed, they are imperative given the effect that insecurity and underdevelopment in Central America is having on our own country.

The challenge before us looms large, and it can only be tackled with an effective long-term solution that provides both immediate relief for the humanitarian crisis at the border and significant investments in security and economic development across Central America. The current crisis has made it crystal clear that helping Central America is not just the right thing to do. It is in the U.S. national interest and will ensure a safe and prosperous future for America and our neighbors to the south.

Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., is a longtime advocate of comprehensive immigration reform. Claude Fontheim is the CEO of Fontheim International, LLC, a global public policy and social responsibility consultancy.