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The U.S. faces an urgent and mounting humanitarian crisis — in the past nine months, 52,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed our border without authorization. The desperate parents of these children have sent them on a 1600-mile trek north to escape violence, poverty and disease, all the while unwittingly exposing them to rape, abuse, trafficking, and other dangers, including death from starvation and exposure to the elements. After arriving on U.S. soil, their harrowing journey continues as the federal government scrambles to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter while they wait to be processed through a system that is over-burdened and under-funded.
This is widely seen as an American border problem, but in reality, this crisis is primarily driven by the violence and bleak prospects facing the citizens and families of Central America. Passing immigration reform is certainly an important component of addressing the current problem, but beyond that, a comprehensive economic development and security plan for Central America is needed to tackle the root causes of the current humanitarian crisis. Such a plan and the resources to implement it must be adequate in order to address the deadly combination of extreme violence perpetrated by ruthless gangs, ineffective law enforcement and inadequate administration of justice, and unacceptably high poverty levels in Central America.
President Barack Obama has rightly called on Congress to appropriate supplemental funds to meet the immediate challenges of significantly reducing daily crossings while simultaneously tending to the humanitarian situation of the children already here. This short term fix, while necessary, will not solve the problem at its roots.
It is no coincidence that the vast majority of children coming across the border are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the countries with the highest rates of violence in the region. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, while El Salvador and Guatemala rank 4th and 5th respectively. This, coupled with high levels of unemployment and underemployment, plagues their ability to survive, let alone thrive. In El Salvador alone, 60% of 18-24-year-olds are unemployed or underemployed.
For years, the U.S. has made significant investments to strengthen personal security throughout the hemisphere by working to reduce gang and drug violence. Since its launch in 2000, Plan Colombia for example, has been particularly successful, providing more than $7 billion in U.S. assistance to bolster the Colombian government’s counter-narcotics and security capabilities, and can be a model for Central America with appropriate adjustments. The Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) provides some assistance and is a good start, but it should be scaled up to meet the current challenge. Although the immediate focus of our security assistance would be Central America, such an investment would yield results in our own country as we know that many of the gangs that operate in the region export drugs and violence into the United States.