- - Thursday, July 24, 2014

The surge of illegal immigrants at the U.S. southwest border
should sound the alarm for the President and Congress to lead an
international rescue mission to confront murderous narco-traffickers
and street gangsters who threaten U.S. security along with the lives and
livelihood of millions of Central Americans.

President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency
funding to cope with the influx of illegal immigrants along the
US-Mexico border. Notwithstanding that considerable sum, it is clear
that the programs currently being implemented and planned by the
administration are primarily stopgap measures. They do nothing to
address the long-term driver of the problem: the escalating
criminality and corruption in Central America—most of it fueled by
illegal drug trafficking driven by U.S. demand—that undermines
democratic institutions, rule of law, economic opportunity, and public
safety.

The immediate task is to staunch the current explosion of
illegal crossings, including thousands of unaccompanied minors.
Although the uptick in violence in their homelands contributes to
economic dislocation and fear, loose talk about a more permissive U.S.
immigration policy has contributed significantly to the surge.
“Coyotes” have drummed up business by advertising that people reaching
U.S. territory will be permitted to stay. Until such
misrepresentations are disproven by the quick and steady return of
would-be immigrants, thousands more every day will begin the perilous
1,000-mile trek northward.

To deal with this extraordinary humanitarian crisis,
Mr. Obama should allow U.S. border patrol and immigration officers
at the scene to use their experience and legal discretion to assess
cases in order to facilitate the urgent return of most illegal
immigrants. Arranging the immediate voluntary return in most cases
would help deter the dangerous migrations and undercut the business
model of smugglers. Although this policy can be adopted without
changing existing U.S. law, the bipartisan Helping Unaccompanied
Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act, if passed,
would help expedite due process for minors with possible refugee or
asylum claims.

Central American governments should invite UN and private
relief agencies to establish centers in their countries that will
receive returning migrants, weigh refugee claims and, if necessary,
arrange resettlement in another country. The UN, U.S., and other
countries should consider the need for an “orderly departure” program
to allow in-country processing of persons seeking asylum; in recent
decades, such programs were established to accommodate Vietnamese,
Haitian and Cuban migrants.

The current surge is an international crisis, not just a U.S.
problem—and it is more than a migration crisis. To address chronic
security problems, a U.S.-led multinational initiative is needed to
better equip regional Central American governments to confront
criminal organizations that smuggle drugs and people.

The UN reports that Central America has a homicide rate more than four times the global average. Reported incidents of robberies, extortion, kidnappings, and human trafficking are on the rise—making personal security a widespread concern. Most of the violence can be attributed to the drug trade that has migrated
there since Colombia and Mexico cracked down on local cartels in the
last 15 years. The State Department estimates that almost 90 percent
of the cocaine smuggled into to the U.S. transits the Mexico–Central America corridor.

The increased crime and violence exacts a heavy economic
toll. A UN Development Program report puts the financial costs of
violence at a 2.5 percent loss of gross domestic product in Costa
Rica, with a loss of more than 10 percent in Honduras. The loss of
domestic and foreign investment because of security concerns has a
drastic impact.

Local governments, plagued by weak institutions and poorly
trained law enforcement, have proven no match for these well-financed
international criminal organizations, which are aided and abetted by
local gangs. Mr. Obama should work with the Central American
counterparts with whom he is meeting in Washington on Friday to
convene an international summit—including representatives of regional
governments, the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN,
and other international development agencies—to address the broader
security crisis.

Central Americans leaders should request a UN security
mission to deploy international police personnel to mentor, monitor
and mobilize local security forces to confront the transnational
organized criminal organizations, including international human and
narcotics traffickers and street gangs. A key task of this mission
would be to ensure more professional police forces that respect human
rights and reject corruption.

The current surge of illegal immigration is a symptom of a
larger problem. Until we deal more effectively with the insecurity and
resulting economic woes in Central America, the costs of illegal
immigration will continue to grow.

Roger F. Noriega, a former senior U.S. Department of
State official, is a visiting fellow at AEI and managing director of
Vision Americas LLC.