President Obama did get something right about the current immigrations crisis. The root of the problem is not in the United States, it is the miserable social and economic conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And, true to form, the Obama administration has completely ignored the root problem – that is until it became a political problem.
The statistics tell the tale. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are the poorest countries in the continental western hemisphere with per capita incomes of less than $8,000 each (at purchasing power parity) according to the World Bank. Honduras’ per capita income is only $4,591. With the exception of Nicaragua, all are much poorer than their neighbors (Mexico has a per capita income of $16,463). Homicide rates are even worse, with Honduras suffering a rate of 90 per 100,000. Guatemala and El Salvador have rates of 40 and 41, more than triple Costa Rica and Nicaragua. By comparison, Mexico has a murder rate of 22 and the United States only 5.
Predictably, the poverty and violence have spawned an exodus. From 2008 to 2012 the number of illegal immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras rose by 270,000. At the same time, as Mexico has become relatively more prosperous, the number of Mexican illegal immigrants has fallen by 200,000.
Overlaying these problems is the challenges that small countries in general face. Small in economy, population and geography, the countries of Central America are vulnerable to shifts in the world economy and external shocks. Natural disasters take a proportionately large toll. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch caused over 5,000 deaths and displaced 1.5 million people in Honduras alone. The equivalent figures for the United States would have been over 250,000 deaths and 66.7 million temporarily homeless.
We have all heard the knee-jerk responses. ‘Let them solve their own problems.’ ‘Illegal immigration is their fault.’ ‘We should spend our taxes on our own people.’ Sorry to say, this perspective is penny wise and pound foolish. We should be actively engaged in assisting these countries because it is in our interest to do so. Nothing more. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are not going anywhere. They will continue to be just beyond the Gulf of Mexico. As long as these nations are poor and violent, they will continue to hemorrhage people to wealthier nations.
Working to improve Central American economies, strengthen their democratic institutions and improve their internal security not only will reduce the incentives for people to leave, but will also create markets for U.S. exports. Additionally, the countries in Central America have been generally supportive of American international policy (except Nicaragua). Shouldn’t that merit reciprocation?
As we have come to expect, the Obama policy is a lot of talk and no action – or action only when Obama is damaged politically. The president has neglected our own backyard in favor of whatever nation or international problem happens to make headlines in the New York Times.
But now that the headlines have started, Obama has belatedly become engaged, sending Joe Biden to Guatemala to pledge $93 million in additional aid to combat gang violence. Lost in the panic to grab the federal checkbook is any discussion of a long-term plan to address the fundamental challenges to Central America. Where is the strategy to build their economies? What is the long-term strategy to improve governance? Given the weak engagement the Obama administration has demonstrated, it seems likely that once the issue leaves the headlines, Central America will return to the back burner.