U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Guatemala and U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto this month highlighted the thousands of unaccompanied, undocumented Central American youth crossing the U.S. southwest border into the United States.
Although the numbers don’t approach the millions of Mexicans and other Latin Americans crossing the U.S. border in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the fact that many of these migrants are minors creates significant complications.
Traditional approaches to immigration control are not likely to be effective as long as the factors that cause youth migration remain unaddressed. A big one is the worrisome state of urban neighborhoods and rural municipalities in Central America, as well as in parts of Mexico.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that during the 6-month period from October 2013 to May 2014, some 47,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America and Mexico crossed into the United States in southern Texas as undocumented migrants—a 90 percent increase over the same time period the previous year.
The problem is complicated by the question of whether some young migrants could be placed with family members already residing in the United States, and humanitarian concerns that some do not have homes to return to in their native countries. The problem is bad enough that DHS has set up temporary holding facilities at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.
Although low-skilled Central American migrants typically come to the United States seeking work, the growing numbers of migrating youth suggest a different incentive: survival and safety. What’s well known is that the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) and parts of Mexico are plagued by drug traffickers and youth gangs that emerged as a result of the internal conflicts of the 1980s and the economic downturns of the 1990s. Today, the triangle has some of the highest murder rates in the world. Honduras is in the worst shape, with some 90 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
To understand why, one doesn’t have to look very far back in history. Rising U.S. drug consumption in the 1980s, combined with social and political turmoil in Central America, fueled the expansion of trafficking and other criminal networks throughout Central America. Youth gangs flourished in the 1990s as undocumented Central American juveniles already in the U.S. criminal system were deported back to their native countries, where there were no programs to integrate them and provide viable economic alternatives to criminal activity.
Only after military regimes gave way to civilian-elected government did military police forces transition to civilian law enforcement, while municipal governments were rudimentary at best—often lacking authority, alliances with the ruling political party, and the necessary skills and experience to handle finances transparently. As a result, a lot of capital has been spent on setting up nationally controlled police forces administered by public security ministries.
This centralization of power has always been the accepted model. However, nationally controlled police—coupled with ineffective courts, porous penal systems and administrative constraints at the local level—ensure that only a few politically connected neighborhoods get the right kind of attention. Weak governance at the grassroots level is therefore an obstacle to greater citizen involvement in community life—putting a brake on development and contributing to the unemployment and crumbling neighborhoods that make easy pickings for criminal networks.
Despite this situation, a few of the region’s leaders are trying to change things. Allan Ramos, the current mayor of Puerto Cortés, Honduras created a citizen security commission responsible for receiving emergency calls and dispatching national police officers to wherever there is trouble. In Guatemala’s highlands, the town of La Esperanza is installing its own camera surveillance network. Fortunately, Guatemala’s Interior Ministry is promoting municipal security commissions to build a bridge between citizens, local governments and police elements. In many of these localities, crime rates are coming down.
The region needs more examples like these—lots more. And while most U.S. support tends to benefit agencies at the national level, help developing governing competencies at the grassroots community level could produce a positive result as well. That’s where ordinary citizens can more easily participate in decision-making, have direct interaction with elected authorities, and contribute most effectively in making their communities more productive and safer.
Why mention U.S. assistance? The U.S. should recognize that this recent influx of migrants—many of whom are simply seeking a better and safer life—is a shared responsibility. To the extent that we can help our neighbors become more secure and prosperous, we will also be more secure and prosperous.
Acknowledging a shared responsibility for a shared problem doesn’t absolve El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras of the need to get their houses in order. They can do so by empowering communities, so that they can be integral in the process of making their neighborhoods safer. That means improving the quality of local governance—and the U.S. can help by supporting such efforts.