Editorial Board

The Americas' Immigration Problem

The U.S. can't heal the Northern Triangle -- but it can help.

They deserve better.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Their numbers may have declined, but the violence they are trying to escape persists. As Congress considers the plight of the thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who still head north every month, it should keep this fact in mind.

The best -- and most cost-effective -- policy for the U.S. is to help address the poverty and crime that still plague the so-called Northern Triangle. This requires the cooperation of the countries themselves, of course, and there are signs that their leaders -- pressured by a restive public -- may be up to the task. Congress should not let this opportunity pass.

Public outrage over corruption and impunity has reached a political tipping point -- unseating the vice president, central bank chief and several other ministers in Guatemala. There and in Honduras, governments have responded to protests without resorting to outright repression. And there is evidence, especially in Guatemala, that prosecutors (with help from the United Nations) are more willing and able to hold corrupt officials to account.


It helps, too that the region's economies have recovered from the 2008-09 recession and are benefiting from global tailwinds. The U.S. recovery is boosting their exports; a strong dollar is raising the value of remittances that account for big chunks of their gross domestic products. Lower oil prices have reduced fuel import bills. Steps toward greater regional integration, such as a customs union between Honduras and Guatemala, have the potential to spur trade and investment.

Here's where the U.S. comes in. It cannot end the violence in Central America, but it bears some responsibility for it and stands to gain from its decline. The U.S. appetite for drugs sustains Central American gangs, whose members were often incubated in U.S. prisons. Until this violence slackens -- and there is a reduction in the "unorganized" crime that affects even more citizens -- the river of migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, will continue running north to the U.S. border.

Tighter controls on the border between Guatemala and Mexico have temporarily stanched the flow from last summer's highs. Stopping it at the source will take the kind of sustained assistance, totaling about $1 billion, which President Barack Obama proposed last January. Most of the money would go toward civil-society programs and economic development.

Many in Congress worry that this money would be wasted. Or they want to appropriate a much smaller amount -- in the House bill, it is $300 million -- to be spent mostly on fighting crime and tightening border controls. (The Senate's broader approach, though still funding only about two-thirds of Obama's request, makes more sense.) They don't particularly want to make it easier for people and goods to move among the countries of the Northern Triangle.

Yet there's evidence that just beefing up the police and military cannot reduce the violence. To restore public confidence in their governments, these countries need stronger judiciaries, better mechanisms for fighting corruption, and measures to strengthen political accountability. Moreover, people who live on $4 or less a day will always be drawn north in search of better opportunity.

The governments of the Northern Triangle are hardly models of efficiency or accountability. But public pressure is a powerful force, and continued economic growth is a strong incentive. It's in the U.S. interest to give them the help they need.