A massive influx of unlawful immigrants from Central America has policymakers searching for quick fix. While inadequate border security and false perceptions of U.S. immigration law have undoubtedly helped fuel the problem, they are just part of the equation. A thorough understanding requires a look further south.
No longer do Mexicans constitute the majority of unlawful migrants to the U.S. Currently, they are estimated to account for only about 25 percent of border-crossers. Clearly, Mexico's economic growth — combined with an improving security situation — has lessened the incentive to migrate. The same cannot be said for the Northern Triangle countries of Central America.
Located directly below Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are caught in the cross hairs of drug trafficking organizations and the violent regional gangs that support them. The erosion of Colombia's cartels and subsequent growth of their Mexican counterparts shifted drug trafficking routes to the isthmus. With that came the violence and criminality associated with these organizations.
In Guatemala, impunity reigns supreme. El Salvador remains home base for the most violent regional street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18). Honduras holds the dubious honor of being the murder capital of the world, averaging 91 murders per 100,000 citizens every year. Its most dangerous city, San Pedro Sula, averages 169 homicides per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the U.S. murder rate is 5 per 100,000, and in Chicago, our most dangerous city, the average is 15.
The White House cites these statistics to explain the burgeoning crisis at our border. Yet the administration neglects to mention its inadvertent complicity. In overlooking traditional partners and embracing emerging foes, the administration has left the entire Central American region in limbo.
Consider the Obama administration's response to Honduras's constitutional crisis in 2009. For months, it tried to reinstate Manuel Zelaya, Honduras's legally deposed president — a man who had blatantly violated his country's constitution.
Rather than support the democratic ambitions of a traditional partner, the administration responded by declaring the legal impeachment a military coup. It suspended critical aid and joint military operations, much in the form of counternarcotics assistance. Control over the country's Caribbean coastline quickly fell to the drug traffickers.
Predictably, homicide rates spiked. Honduras is now the layover spot for nearly 80 percent of northward bound drug flights. Sadly, considerable restrictions on U.S. security assistance remain in place.
Conversely, the administration continues cozying up to leaders who undermine American interests. Following the lead of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's now-deceased strong man, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia have shut down counternarcotics efforts, expelled U.S. diplomats and hampered trade relations. Just this year alone, Ecuador abruptly expelled all U.S. military staff and prematurely terminated USAID programs. Prior to that, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa shutdown access to the country's Manta military base. As a result, surveillance operations over the Andean Ridge, the exclusive source for coca, have never recovered. However, the Obama administration continues making futile attempts at friendship.
The humanitarian and security crisis on the southwest border should be a wake-up call for Congress. Lawmakers need to recognize that ensuring regional security is essential to protecting U.S. interests.
Security cooperation with the Northern Triangle countries must be expanded. The Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was conceived as a supplement to Mexico's Merida Initiative. Follow-up efforts have proven to be insufficient. Burdensome cooperation restrictions must also be lifted. Since fiscal 2012, Congress has withheld at least 20 percent of promised security cooperation funding to Honduras. In FY 2014, that increased to 35 percent. These same prohibitions limit Washington's ability to help Guatemala secure its porous 600-mile-long border with Mexico.
As Congress deliberates how to address our border crisis, it needs to look beyond securing our border and fixing a broken immigration system. Lawmakers must also reconsider whether funding restrictions are in America's national interest. If security conditions in those countries continue to deteriorate, the incentives to flee to the United States will only increase.
•Ana Quintana is a research associate specializing in Latin American issues for The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.