Two years ago, a stream of Central American kids began showing up on the southern U.S. border, mostly along Texas, pleading for humanitarian relief to stay in the country. In response, the U.S. government decided to spend millions of dollars to convince them to stop coming.
The Obama administration mobilized Congress to approve a $750 million appropriations bill to provide assistance for the three governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — which make up what’s known as Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — to improve security, promote peace, and tackle gang violence. Meant to boost the economies in these countries, the plan would also upgrade security efforts to prevent kids from making it past Mexico.
The administration, focused on the ultimate goal of stemming the flow of future border crossers, typically frames this as a humanitarian effort.
The security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own.
“The security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own,” Vice President Joe Biden (D) said in December 2015, noting that the Central American governments were ready to help support the effort through this so-called Alliance for Prosperity plan. “This decision by Congress to invest $750 million in Central America demonstrates that we honor our commitments and believe in a future where the Western Hemisphere is middle class, democratic, and secure.”
But human rights organizations are skeptical. They say that funneling U.S. funds to these Central American countries is actually backfiring, leaving people in those countries even worse off than they started.
For one, the Alliance for Prosperity plan could have the inverse effect of flatlining wages and aggravating the migration situation. Previous U.S. efforts in this area don’t have a great track record. For instance, Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative — two anti-drug initiatives meant to help Central America and Mexico reduce drug trafficking — have instead led to the death of more than 100,000 people in Mexico alone from drug-related violence.
“The assistance to date has not helped abate the root causes, which most people recognize as being the extreme level of violence and the systemic economic problems with extremely high levels of poverty and few employment opportunities,” Alexander Main, the Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy, told ThinkProgress. “The question is whether the aid will help alleviate these problems.”
After a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied Central American kids apprehended along the southwest border in the 2014 fiscal year, the rate started to slow. But now, border agents are once again seeing elevated numbers of children mainly in the Rio Grande Sector in Texas, triggering the Obama administration to issue warnings about taking enforcement actions to detain and deport border crossers. So far this year, immigration agents have arrested 121 Central American women and children, resulting in the deportation of at least 77 immigrants.
The Alliance for Prosperity Plan hopes to create economic opportunities for immigrants in their home countries by attracting private investment, encouraging development in underdeveloped areas, and promoting tourism. It would also develop plans to provide technical and vocational training and improve the quality of secondary education. The plan claims it will “prevent and control the impact of gang violence” by investing in interventions like leisure, sports, and artistic activities.
The U.S. Agency for International Development will be responsible for distributing the funds, with $65 million going to El Salvador, $89 million to Honduras, and $112 million to Guatemala.
But Alexis Stoumbelis, the executive director at the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), doesn’t believe that throwing money at those countries will actually halt the growing drug war in the region. She’s more worried that the funds will fuel the militarization of security forces, which could lead to children taking more dangerous routes to get away from deepening poverty and state-sanctioned violence.
We’re extremely concerned about the direction of the money that was approved by Congress.
“We’re extremely concerned about the direction of the money that was approved by Congress,” Stoumbelis told ThinkProgress, explaining that the economic model of the development plan is similar to other economic agendas that the U.S. has pushed in Central America for the past two decades, which resulted in “high levels of inequality and poverty in the region.”
“Who is really going to benefit?” Stoumbelis said. “Because if recent history is any illustration, it will be again for the benefit of transnational corporations and the tiny elite of Central America that already runs most of the economy.”
Increased U.S. pressure on Mexican authorities to intercept children before they cross the border has resulted in a 70 percent increase in the number of deportations from Mexico. But this has come at the cost of expedited deportations from Mexico without the chance for due process, meaning many asylum-seeking children are not screened for humanitarian parole.
“One big concern in this increase in funding is a lot more security assistance — $349 million is going to the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI),” Main said.
Main has described CARSI as a “multilateral cooperation mechanism that is notoriously opaque, leaving the public and members of Congress with little idea of where and how funds are used.” He said that the CARSI funds continue to go to the Northern Triangle even though there have been “countless reports of abuses” by police and army forces.
“The U.S. has tried to … recruit Mexico and these Central American countries to suppress migration so you have more militarized borders, essentially doing the dirty work for the U.S. with even less due process than the U.S.,” Main said. “They’re just rounding up people haphazardly and shipping them back to their countries where they face appalling dangerous conditions.”