Policy Alternatives for Central America in Conflict and Crisis

The media spotlight has all but moved on from the recently white-hot humanitarian crisis on the Southern U.S. border involving upwards of 60,000 child refugees from Central America. Sadly, the region has faded from the headlines, but the conditions on the ground that force families from their homes persist.
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The media spotlight has all but moved on from the recently white-hot humanitarian crisis on the Southern U.S. border involving upwards of 60,000 child refugees from Central America. Sadly, the region has faded from the headlines, but the conditions on the ground that force families from their homes persist. Our Human Rights Office in San Salvador every day continues to receive new cases of Salvadorans who desperately seek protection from persecution by organized criminal groups who use instruments of terror -- murder, rape, extortion, and kidnapping -- against them. That is not to say that the media frenzy passed without impact. The international attention on the region exposed the existence of a refugee crisis in our hemisphere and created a heightened awareness among North Americans about the violent conflicts in the Central American countries they flee.

This impasse presents both an opportunity and responsibility to advocate for new U.S. policy approaches to protect our hemisphere's refugees and transform the conditions they flee. The continuation of the current strategy intended to address the refugee crisis, however, is both an economic and moral failure. It sinks billions of dollars in a perpetual system of expulsion, detention and deportation. It does not recognize the right of victims of persecution by organized crime to international protection as refugees. In failing to protect, it forces the persecuted to expose their lives to further risk as subjects of human trafficking. The newest ingredient to this approach is a halfhearted "prevention strategy" in the form of an informational campaign warning families about the "myths " and "dangers" of illegal immigration. The imminence of massive deportation of children has the countries of origin scrambling to set up and fund programs to repatriate children into countries where 60 to 70 percent have determined their lives are in peril.

An alternative policy approach might include:

1. International protection and humanitarian assistance to victims: The United States, in cooperation with Central American nations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, should build a hemispheric refugee strategy to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of persecution and violence in Central America. This strategy should provide assistance to refugees in obtaining status outside their country, as well as guarantee their rights as refugees to access the legal system, work, and education in their host countries. This multilateral approach should mobilize cooperation between Northern Triangle countries and potential receiving countries including Canada and the Central American countries with improved security situations like Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Local networks including churches and civil society groups can play key roles by providing humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement support.

2. Family reunification: Central American families have been weakened by decades of forced migration. Family disintegration weakens Central American societies and makes them vulnerable to the criminal organizations that embed themselves into communities and operate with impunity. Strengthening Central American families is a violence prevention strategy worthy of investment. The United States should loosen travel restrictions on Central Americans with Temporary Protection Status and create transnational family visas that allow these families to maintain connections through regular visitation. To ensure visiting family members do not overstay their visas, both the continuation of residency status for family members in the United States and transnational family visas could be contingent on visiting family members returning to their country of origin.

3. Temporary Foreign Worker and Student Work Visa programs: Family systems can also be strengthened by expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker program to allow more Central Americans to work in the United States and return to their countries of origin. Currently, Central Americans who leave their countries are cut off from their families with the exception of sending remittances, which has in turn produced weak economies of consumption, not production, in Central America. A robust temporary worker program would allow for Central Americans to earn money and return to their families with financial resources, job skills, and entrepreneurial experience to build a productive economy. Temporary workers benefit the United States by feeding labor markets, spending money, and paying taxes in the U.S. Normalizing human mobility between the Northern Triangle and the United States will also weaken organized crime by decreasing demand for human trafficking while strengthening regional engagement and cooperation.

4. Collect taxes and eradicate corruption in the Northern Triangle: The United States should work with Central American governments to prosecute and eradicate judicial and police corruption, embezzlement and tax evasion. Infiltration of organized crime into state security and criminal justice systems has produce a lack of confidence among the citizenry in these institutions, consequently, most violent crime goes unreported and unprosecuted. Embezzlement and other forms of financial corruption erode the state's ability to create minimum social and economic conditions for peace and stability. In the case of El Salvador, the amount of taxes owed by large national and multinational companies amounts to $3 billion, which is nearly the equivalent of all state income annually. Collecting taxes and ending impunity would yield high rewards in terms of producing good governance and financial self-sufficiency to further protect and invest in the well-being of citizens.

5. Institute a regional peace and reconciliation process: The United States should include in the Central American Regional Security Initiative support for Northern Triangle governments in establishing national peace and reconciliation processes to end the violent conflicts. Over the last 15 years, military and police repression has only accelerated the criminal organizations' sophistication and diversification of their activities. Policy makers must leave aside generic fears that negotiations will legitimize criminal organizations. Gangs have become part of the social fabric; they are not foreign militias or insurgents but integrated members of communities and families. We must acknowledge that victory will look like a new social contract, not a white flag on the battlefield. This peace processes should promote dialogue, reconciliation, and justice for crimes already committed. It must have international support and become official state policy to guarantee legitimacy and the technical and financial resources needed to carry it out. The process should be bottom-up, engaging broad participation from local state and non-state actors to produce agreements on the community level that can be aggregated into a national pact and program.

The current political climate in the United States makes even simple political reform seem far-fetched. On the issues of immigration and the refugee crisis, we are in desperate need of new ideas, and U.S. citizens should insist that their representatives put them on the table. The United States can do better and our Central American neighbors deserve better.

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