The U.S. helped cause the problems many migrants face in their own countries; we should help fix them

News of a so-called “caravan” of migrants reaching the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday, seeking entry into this country, raised anti-immigration rhetoric to a fever pitch, adding urgency to the call to build a massive wall on the southern border.

But let’s take a step back from the wall. It is smarter policy and a much better use of our resources to address the root causes of this northward migration to help people remain in their communities, rather than clamor to join ours.

The fact is that the nations in what’s referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are grappling with a set of economic and social problems that the U.S. played a role in making, and we have a huge stake in their future.

The civil wars that gripped El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s, fought with varying degrees of U.S. military support, have given way to criminal activity by gangs and criminal organizations that have forced many families to flee. Honduras did not have a civil war but was nonetheless affected by the fighting in neighboring countries, for example, having served as a staging area for the Nicaraguan contras.

The resulting organized crime and extreme violence that has bedeviled these countries has been a key driver in migration to the United States. In the case of El Salvador, these gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), were formed in the United States and exported back to Central America by deported Salvadoran members.

Many humanitarian organizations, including my own, Lutheran World Relief, work with dozens of local NGOs on rural development to strengthen the economies of these Central American communities and build resilience and stability to counter gang recruitment and the flows of northward migration. Our work is often affected, and at times imperiled, by this violence.

In the eastern part of El Salvador we are working with dozens of young people, training them in the latest agricultural best practices in growing cacao. The goal is to create a cadre of agricultural extension workers who can help farmers improve the productivity and quality of their cacao, a valuable cash crop that will lift the standard of living of farming families and entire communities.

But even this project that has the potential to help thousands of poor farming families must deal with the threat of gang violence. Organizers must take great care in assigning farms for the young extension agents to visit, as someone who lives in an MS-13 neighborhood enters rival gang Barrio 18 territory at great risk, despite not being gang-affiliated.

The U.S. has already made a substantial investment in the development of Central America’s Northern Triangle through its support of the Alliance for Prosperity, a regional initiative that seeks to reduce violence and spur economic development. Congress conditioned these monies on the three governments taking steps on migration, rule of law and transparency.

While the Trump administration has announced the end to Temporary Protected Status, which threatens to send many Central Americans living in the U.S. back to often dangerous local environments, it is also on record as endorsing a conditional-aid approach for development and better governance to get at the fundamental causes of the migration. In a newspaper op-ed this past June, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were joined by the president of the Inter-American Development Bank in saying they saw encouraging early results from the Alliance for Prosperity.

“Creating an environment that accelerates private sector investment in the Northern Triangle countries benefits all involved — the United States and Mexico will see a decrease in the number of economic migrants illegally entering, and the Northern Triangle countries will benefit from increased economic prosperity and domestic cohesion,” they wrote.

I couldn’t agree more. Continued support to tackle the root cause is likely to be a more effective to the challenge of illegal immigration and regional security than billions spent on a wall that, over time, is likely to be both futile and extremely costly.

Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador and senior official at NATO, is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, a global humanitarian and development non-profit. He can be reached at president@lwr.org.

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