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Short and Long-term Solutions to Migration in Central America

During the past few months, the United States, Mexico and Central American governments have brought attention to the number of unaccompanied minors fleeing towards the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that the number of unaccompanied children ages 12 and younger caught at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year rose 117 percent, compared to last fiscal year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that by May 31 this year, unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southwest U.S. border included 13,282 children from Honduras, 11,577 from Mexico, 11,479 from Guatemala, and 9,850 from El Salvador.  The Wall Street Journal stated that the total number of unaccompanied children taken into custody at the end of June had climbed to 57,525.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security published a map that identifies the origins of the unaccompanied children and the factors causing child migration to the United States. In the case of Guatemala, the map indicated that many Guatemalan children come from rural areas and are probably seeking economic opportunities in the U.S., while many children from Honduras and El Salvador are coming from regions with high crime rates and are likely seeking refuge from violence.

Different opinion leaders have begun to analyze the situation from a variety of perspectives.  Some, like Joaquín Villalobos, a former Salvadoran guerrilla leader, argue that the private sector is not taking action to reduce migration. Mary Anastasia O'Grady, a conservative writer from The Wall Street Journal, has focused on violence and impunity in these countries, mainly resulting from the war on drugs in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

Muzaffar Chishti and Faye Hipsman argued in a recent article for The Migration Policy Institute that “In reality, there is no single cause. Instead, a confluence of different pull and push factors has contributed to the upsurge. Recent U.S. policies toward unaccompanied children, faltering economies and rising crime and gang activity in Central American countries, the desire for family reunification, and changing operations of smuggling networks have all converged.”

While there is an urgent need to resolve the situation and reduce the number of unaccompanied children migrating to the U.S., the problem requires a combination of short- and long-term solutions. It is important to impose harsher penalties for “coyotes” or smugglers, since this has become a very lucrative business for organized crime, according to recent reports by Prensa Libre and Emisoras Unidas.  It is also important to communicate to Indigenous leaders in sending communities why crossing illegally into the U.S. is a crime (both in Spanish and in different Mayan languages).

In the case of Guatemala, the private sector is already working with different the Guatemalan government, international organizations and cooperation agencies to accelerate economic growth and generate long-term solutions that will reduce immigration towards the U.S. through the Mejoremos Guate (Let’s Make Guatemala Better) initiative, led by the Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) and the Guatemalan Development Foundation (Fundación para el Desarrollo de Guatemala—FUNDESA). 

Guatemala’s private sector is implementing different projects in rural areas to increase economic opportunities: for example, by financing irrigation programs to increase agricultural productivity and by creating more English programs to increase the number of people that can work in call centers. Other projects include public policy advocacy for flexible labor laws—flexible hours and work contracts, more temporary employment or working from home, greater flexibility in pay arrangements, and reducing red tape to generate business and increase real income. In the pipeline, other initiatives involve supporting increased funding for low interest rate credits to increase investment in the departments of origin of unaccompanied minors, and promoting exports to southern Mexico by building manufacturing industries close to the border. In addition, it is important to increase the capacity of crime prevention projects in violent areas of Guatemala City, to support crowdsourcing initiatives like Alertos, which can support integrated solutions to reduce violence, and to build technical capacity for public law enforcement officials, both from the National Civil Police and Municipal Police.

U.S. policymakers, think tanks and NGOs that promote development in Guatemala and other countries in Central America must begin focusing on projects to increase productivity and reduce social exclusion in rural areas. These initiatives will have a direct impact on development and will help reduce the lack of opportunities that leads migrants to seek a better life in another country.

*Juan Carlos Zapata is CEO of the Guatemalan Development Foundation (FUNDESA). Follow him on Twitter at @jczapata_s.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: unaccompanied minors, Immigration, Central America

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