To secure U.S. borders and win Republican support for immigration reform, President Obama stepped up deportations of unauthorized immigrants, especially those with criminal records. Whether the border is now more “secure” is debatable.
For the nations of Central America, these policies have been a disaster. An influx of displaced deportees has fed crime and violence that were already out of control—spurring more El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans to seek safety in the U.S., which has led to more asylum requests and deportations.
The U.S. government has a strong interest in stopping this perpetual mayhem machine. Central America’s instability and weakness have helped make it a transshipment point for 80 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Central American migrants to the U.S. rose by more than 50 percent; after Mexico, the three countries that produce the most unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. are El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. What did the U.S. expect would happen when it dumped more criminals into countries already notorious for their high homicide rates, thriving made-in-the-USA gang networks, and weak judiciaries? With the overwhelming majority of murders—as many as 95 percent of them—going unpunished in the three countries, it’s no wonder the number of Central Americans filing U.S. asylum claims based on “fear of return” more than doubled from 2012 to 2013.
True, allowing these criminals to stay in U.S. cities and prisons is dangerous and expensive. But if Congress and the Obama administration are going to continue deporting them, they could do some things to make the U.S. and Central America safer. Instead of cutting funding for the Central American Regional Security Initiative by 20 percent this year, to $130 million, they should be raising it and speeding up its delivery. Never mind the immorality of the U.S. outsourcing the drug war to those least capable of prosecuting it and U.S. culpability in incubating Central America’s gangs: Day to day, the region’s lawlessness and violence affect more Americans than does, say, the war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. also needs to shift more of its funding from helping with drug interdiction and beefing up Central American militaries and police to building up judicial and community institutions. To help Central American authorities cope with more deportees, the U.S. ought to provide more advance warning and better information on their criminal records.
Thankfully, Obama recently said his administration would re-examine U.S. deportation procedures. No nation, acting alone or with its neighbors, can hope to eliminate unauthorized traffic across its borders, whether of guns, drugs, or people. But in seeking to manage such traffic, as a country must, it would be wise to honor the principle of first do no harm—to others and to itself.