President Trump has threatened to cut foreign aid and close the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the migrant caravan that recently left Honduras bound for the United States. These actions will not stop migration, but they will make the U.S. less secure.
Doctors without Borders finds that violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is similar to that observed in active war zones. The UN refugee agency notes “that a significant percentage of those fleeing … may be in need of international protection, in line with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.”
The trip to the U.S. is expensive and dangerous. Many sell all they have in a gamble to reach safety. They risk sexual violence and armed robbery during the journey. Parents flee with children because they are in danger if they stay. Police do not protect them at home.
Comparing neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua sheds light on the role of violence in migration decisions. The World Bank reports annual per capita income around $2,000 in both countries. According to Insight Crime, the homicide rate in Honduras was 59 per 100,000 people in 2016 and 43 in 2017, one of the highest in the world. The rate for Nicaragua was 7. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 47,900 migrants from Honduras and only 1,098 from Nicaragua in 2017.
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Harsh policies along the border do not stop migration. Instead, they drive desperate migrants to increasingly use human smugglers. Human smuggling provides funds for transnational criminal organizations that also traffic cocaine. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has blamed violence in the region on these organizations, which cater to U.S. demand for illegal drugs. Tougher migration policies increase their revenue, which decreases U.S. security.
Foreign aid targets economic development and security concerns in Central America. The U.S. will spend approximately $600 million in the region in 2018, with about half allocated to region-wide initiatives to counter violence and drug trade. The U.S. aid package, along with funding from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, contributes to the Alliance for Prosperity program. Kelly and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that the program’s purpose is to “regain control over territory, end the cycle of violence … and create conditions for sustained and inclusive economic growth.” Threatening to cut aid ignores the reality that aid addresses the underlying problems causing migration.
The path to security and economic growth for these countries will be long and complex. Aid can help, but change will take time. U.S. policy must address current migrant flows as well as plan long-term for reducing violence. Short-term U.S. security will be enhanced by allowing those fleeing violence to enter and remain in the country legally.
The government can pretend that tough policies will stop desperate people, or it can acknowledge that they will continue to come – legally or illegally. Providing a path to legal entry and status allows the government to monitor the flow of people, respond to needs of local communities, and screen those entering.
Studies show that refugees commit crimes at lower rates than the general public and become net contributors to the economy. Refugees helped create Comcast, Google, Intel, PayPal and WhatsApp, along with hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs. The government could cut spending on deportation and enhance economic growth by allowing refugees to remain and work legally.
Finally, it is important to put numbers in perspective. In 2016, the U.S. government detained 224,854 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras —less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Even if the rate is maintained for a decade, it will be a smaller share of the U.S. population than previous waves of migrants from Ireland, Italy and Russia. Respecting norms for the treatment of refugees is not advocating for open borders. Open borders allow anyone to come, for any reason. Granting protection to people fleeing violence lets in those who have a genuine fear for their safety. This is consistent with long-held American values and will enhance border security and economic prosperity.
Sarah Bermeo is associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and author of “Targeted Development: Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World” (Oxford, 2018).