Central American youth are fleeing the region in record numbers. The United States border authorities have apprehended over 52,000 unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) since October 2013. The causes of the outmigration are simple, but numerous: poverty, violence, government and police corruption at home, as well as the draw of safety, greater economic opportunity, and family reunification in the US.
It appears minors have also been motivated to leave for the US by false rumours that they would be eligible for relief under US President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme.
Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to address the humanitarian crisis at the US border and in Central America itself. However, it is time to stop thinking that more walls, faster deportations, and marginally more money for Central America are going to solve the crisis. We need to pursue policies that will bring the US and the region closer together.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are three of the region's poorest countries, with official poverty rates of 53 percent in Guatemala, 35 percent in El Salvador, and 65 percent in Honduras. Conditions have become more precarious in recent years following the global food and economic crises, natural disasters, and a devastating coffee plague.
There is little economic opportunity for an increasingly young population. However, neighbouring Nicaragua is generally considered even poorer than El Salvador and Guatemala, yet we do not see the spike in unaccompanied minors from Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Poverty clearly contributes to the region's youth exodus but it is also extreme violence that is forcing parents to risk their children's lives on the extremely dangerous and costly journey north.
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Guatemala (35 per 100,000 people), El Salvador (40), and Honduras (80) have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Worsening conditions since the June 2009 coup help to explain why the largest number of unaccompanied minors hails from Honduras. However, each country saw its murder rate improve in 2012 and 2013; Guatemala's, in fact, has improved over the last four years. While violence is a strong cause of the surge in accompanied minors, attributing the surge to increasing homicide rates at the national level is problematic.
What seems to be a better explanation for what is driving people to leave their homes is the threat from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street gangs that have been operating in Central America for two decades. Violence worsened in the 2000s when governments adopted mano dura ("strong hand") security policies rather than investing in social programmes, education, and gang prevention and rehabilitation strategies. Regional drug cartels and gangs have grown increasingly powerful as the region has become a much more important transit point for drugs. As Christopher Kerr writes: "Staying in these countries doesn't just mean being away from family members or living in abject poverty, it can be the difference between being dead and having a chance to live free of the fear of assault and violent death."
Urgent measures needed
Our immediate challenge is to demonstrate compassion and tend to the physical and emotional needs of the unaccompanied minors. We should quickly help reunite children with family members already living in the US. What we should not do is simply build more detention centres or more speedily mass deport those arriving in the US.
The White House's request for $3.7bn will most probably go towards easing capture and deportation. The last fifteen years of mass deportation have contributed to this crisis. I understand that allowing minors to stay in the US runs the risk of encouraging more of them to come but when we are dealing with thousands of unaccompanied children, there really is no other humane choice.
I often question the political will of the region's elite to support political, economic and security reform initiatives and the specific allocation of those resources, but it is clear that those who want to improve conditions lack the resources. As analyst James Bosworth notes, we need to stop thinking in the millions and starting talking about billions (more like hundreds of billions over several decades) when it comes to economic and security assistance to Central America.
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Over the next several decades, the US and Central America, as well as Mexico, should facilitate the freer movement of people across our borders. The US has free trade agreements with Central America and Mexico, but there are no provisions for the free movement of labour. Some have questioned the agreements' contributions to the current crisis but I lean towards deepening them and ensuring that their implementation does not undermine other poverty reduction efforts such as this recent US-El Salvador agreement.
Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans working in the US already return remittances in the billions of dollars, contributing 15-20 percent of each country's GDP. There is demand in the US for lower-cost labour that Central Americans provide. In the short-term, the US should increase the number of Central American work visas and there should be a push to providing people greater freedom to move and work in the region.
More than four million people of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran descent live in the US and an estimated 30 million in the Northern Triangle. We need to think long-term about policies that will make it safer and cheaper for Central Americans to move between their countries and the US, not more difficult.
Finally, the United States needs to seriously engage its neighbours in a discussion about the drug industry devastating the region. It is hard to see how conditions in Central America will improve drastically if we do not make significant changes to current drug policy. We can build on current efforts to legalise the recreational use of marijuana in the US and to further a discussion which views illicit drug abuse as a health issue.
The problems in Central America are immense. We need to consider deepening our already close economic relations, craft policies that facilitate migration between the US and the region, jointly invest billions of dollars in development projects, and enact drug policy reforms. I am afraid reforms short of these will probably just help at the margins.
Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.