Curbing Northern Triangle Emigration
Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador straddle the magnificent Pacific and Atlantic coasts south of Mexico. The so-called “Northern Triangle” boasts snow-dappled peaks, biodiverse jungles, verdant farmland, and pristine beaches. Slightly smaller than Michigan, the region is home to more people than Texas. Given its strategic location, abundant labor force, and proximity to the U.S. market, the region could be an economic powerhouse. Instead, it is one of the poorest, most corrupt, and insecure regions in the Western Hemisphere.
U.S. policy has long contributed to the region’s instability. During the Cold War, the U.S. propped up repressive regimes that ruthlessly terrorized their people. Democratization and peace in the 1990s sowed optimism. But the U.S. undercut regional stability in the decades since by unilaterally deporting millions back to the poor, fragile region. After decades in the policy wilderness, the U.S. rolled out a comprehensive regional strategy in 2014. The whole-of-government approach targeted the region’s underlying security, governance, and economic challenges with technical and monetary assistance. The U.S. should return to this strategy.
The Trump administration suspended most foreign assistance to the region early in 2019. The administration reasoned that the approach failed at its core goal—curbing migration—citing unprecedented levels of Honduran and Guatemalan border apprehensions. This reversal is misguided. The suspension of foreign assistance exacerbates poverty, poor governance, and insecurity—key migration push factors. The Biden administration should reverse course before programs are irreparably damaged. Congress should continue to fund this long-term strategy. It is the only viable path to curbing migration that unsettles foreign and domestic communities.
The U.S. should continue to support anti-corruption initiatives. Curbing corruption in the region improves governance. It tightens fiscal management. It builds trust in institutions. And it increases the legitimacy of regional governments. The U.S. should support independent, anti-corruption bodies with monetary and technical assistance. Corrupt actors must be held to account. Regional governments must root out corruption to realize equitable economic growth.
The U.S. should continue to support capacity-building initiatives. Regional governments fail to provide basic services due to poor funding, inadequate training, and weak oversight. Reforming the police and justice system, professionalizing the civil service, and expanding access to education are critical to reducing inequality. Regional governments must provide these services to rich and poor alike. Only with rule of law, trust in institutions, and adequate service provision will a hospitable business environment develop for all.
The U.S. should partner with regional governments to support economic development. The region is urbanizing but lacks the industrial base to employ displaced labor. As a result, unemployment is high, especially in disadvantaged communities that suffer from gang violence. Regional economic integration, infrastructure development, and a pivot to manufacturing will better employ this labor and foster sustainable, long-term growth.
Some argue that this comprehensive strategy failed. Emigration from the region is higher than ever. However, the current conditions at our southern border cannot be the only gauge of this long-term approach. This strategy correctly targets the fundamental push factors of migration. Remediating these conditions is the only viable way to curb future migration. But remediation takes time. It requires sustained investment over multiple administrations and a patience rare in today’s political environment. And like all investments, it requires upfront costs before long-term benefits can be realized. The U.S. should not let political expedience undermine the only long-term solution—regional stabilization and equitable economic growth.
Past administrations have pursued counterproductive policy toward the region for far too long. Today, a fundamentally sound strategy exists. The Biden administration should return to it. Yes, the pandemic complicates the picture. It increases economic hardship. It provides cover for power consolidation. It threatens regional stability. But it also presents an opportunity. Borders are temporarily closed. Migration has virtually stopped. The U.S. has an opening to reengage in the region and address critical needs. U.S. institutions and regional partners are ready to act. They should seize this opportunity. Together, they can make the Americas great again.