Stopping the Next Border Surge

A better direction.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is right to propose tripling U.S. aid to Central America -- to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras do their part to stem the flow of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. Now, it's up to Congress and those countries to see that the $1 billion package is effectively spent.

Last year’s wave of children was driven in large part by epic violence in the so-called Northern Triangle countries, a reality reflected in the region's astonishingly high rates of homicide and judicial impunity. So the administration understandably wants to double U.S. funding to bolster weak courts and law enforcement. Even better are the package's bigger bumps in development assistance and economic support aimed at the root causes of instability, poverty and crime in the region.

Political Asylum

The overall price tag -- $1,004,864,000 -- is likely to trigger sticker shock in Congress, but naysayers have good reason to shift their perspective: The region’s weak states not only export scared children but also shelter drug traffickers. In 2011, 13 times as much cocaine was seized in Central America as in Mexico. Day in and day out, turmoil and lawlessness in Central America have had more direct impact on Americans than has the distant fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a war that has so far cost the U.S. close to $1 trillion.

That said, it's not enough to help the countries with border control, law enforcement and counternarcotics efforts. After all, organized crime and drug trafficking aren't the main forces pushing Central Americans to flee. (They are much more likely, for instance, to have been victims of "unorganized" street crime.) The underlying problem is that the Northern Triangle countries don't offer their citizens enough opportunity. Half the population is mired in poverty, birth rates are high and economic activity is sluggish. These countries need roads, power plants and bridges, not fences, and Congress can make sure that this broader U.S. assistance is effective and targeted toward the communities that most need it. (In El Salvador, for instance, homicides are concentrated in just 14 of the country's 262 municipalities.)

The leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have put forward an ambitious plan to revitalize their region, and they've not been shy about rattling their tin cups. Citing big U.S. aid packages to Colombia and Mexico, they're reportedly asking for $15 billion in assistance over four years. They should keep in mind that, by some reckonings, for every dollar that the U.S. kicked in, Mexico put in 10 and Colombia, 8.

These leaders could make a more convincing case by fulfilling their own pledges to improve their governments and economies. Guatemala, for one, has repeatedly punted on reforming its tax system, which takes in proportionally less revenue than any country in Latin America and stokes inequality. Honduras's president should be pursuing community-based initiatives but is instead militarizing its police, a dubious strategy that is likely to increase human-rights abuses. Even without aid, the three countries can spur regional investment and economic integration by coordinating their regulations on everything from energy generation to border control.

One way the White House can increase the odds that its billion-dollar package will succeed: Appoint a special envoy with the stature and authority to keep all parties working together. Without its southern neighbors' sustained cooperation, neither money nor muscle from the U.S. will stop the next surge of Central American families and children from trying to cross the border. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.