Trump’s Border Speech Missed the Real Crisis in Central America
U.S. President Donald Trump took his case for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border directly to the American people in a brief televised address on Jan. 8. Trump characterized the situation at the border as a humanitarian crisis that required urgent action and defended his refusal to sign compromise legislation that would end a partial federal government shutdown that began in late December.
Trump made immigration a central component of his 2016 presidential campaign, with his promise to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it becoming a signature catchphrase. Throughout the campaign, he demonized Mexican and Central American immigrants in particular, saying many of them are murderers and rapists. Since taking office, he has resorted to a number of controversial anti-immigrant measures—including separating young children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border, refusing asylum to anyone entering the U.S. outside of official ports of entry, and deploying the U.S. military to the border—although many of these moves were subsequently blocked or overturned by the courts. His insistence on including funding for the border wall in any stopgap congressional budgetary resolution has created an impasse in negotiations with the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
But if Trump has used fear-mongering over crime to rally his anti-immigrant base, the nature of the crisis at the border is entirely different, as even he was forced to concede in his prime-time address: The migrants he has demonized are not criminals, but increasingly victims fleeing crime, violence and poverty in their home countries, predominantly in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This collection of recent WPR articles looks at the conditions driving out-migration in these countries and the impact of the Trump administration’s policies on the region.
In November, the Trump administration declared in a proclamation that it would deny asylum applications to anyone who entered the country through illegal ports of entry, even though it has been clear for months that asylum-seekers are being denied access at official ports of entry. It was the latest attempt by the administration to discourage migrants, primarily from Central America, from coming to the United States. What administration officials fail to acknowledge is that these efforts are unlikely to stem the flow of migrants from Central America. On top of that, they endanger already vulnerable populations caught in a complex web of violence and corruption, poverty and inequality.
In the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections in November, President Donald Trump whipped up fear about migrant caravans hundreds of miles from the U.S. border, calling Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States an “invasion.” Obscured by Trump’s rhetoric are the real conditions the estimated 400,000 Central Americans who enter Mexico “irregularly” each year face on their northern migration. It’s estimated that some 70 percent of migrants will be assaulted during their trip through Mexico, and a staggering 80 percent of women will be raped. The journey is horrific, and people undertaking it are under no illusions about the dangers they’ll face. But they take the risk because the countries they’re fleeing, primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, are among the most violent in the world.
In June 2017, the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador met in Miami with officials from the United States and Mexico to discuss the longstanding challenges of combating transnational crime, narcotrafficking and corruption in Central America. Any discussion of migration policy, however, was explicitly off the table at the Conference on Prosperity and Security, which included U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.* Despite brutal conditions in the region that have driven a northward spike in migration in recent years, the Trump administration’s narrow priorities in Central America became clear in Miami, if they weren’t already. The conference focused on security-based initiatives to train and equip military and police in the Northern Triangle, while encouraging foreign investment to fill in the gaps left by cuts to State Department aid to the region, signaling a shift in U.S. policy under Trump toward militarized drug-war tactics and a focus on foreign investment rather than development.
The Trump administration is closing off lifelines for asylum at a time when Central America is still in the throes of a serious humanitarian crisis. While annual homicide rates declined slightly in 2017, the region’s Northern Triangle—as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are collectively known—still has the highest homicide rate in the world. A recent spike in homicides in El Salvador shows just how precarious perceived improvements in crime and security can be. Just last week, 76 people were murdered there in 72 hours. Limiting access to asylum will no doubt have serious repercussions for those in the Northern Triangle, as well as neighboring countries that are increasingly absorbing these populations. Not only will these misguided policies fail to make the U.S. more secure, but they increase the potential for further destabilization in Central America.
In June, at the height of the political battle in the United States over President Donald Trump’s unprecedented measures against migrants and asylum-seekers along the southern border, including forcibly separating children from their parents, Vice President Mike Pence set out on a tour of Latin America. Pence’s main focus, or at least his hoped-for focus, was Venezuela, a country whose economic and social collapse are of enormous concern for the entire region, not only for humanitarian reasons but because of the millions of refugees it has forced into neighboring countries. Instead, Pence was forced to defend Trump’s immigration policies while calling for Latin American leaders to open their borders to Venezuelan migrants. The entire rhetorical package brought charges of hypocrisy, as Pence touted American humanitarianism while images of children in cages in Texas played on the evening news. It made for some very awkward diplomacy, showcasing how some of Trump’s most disruptive policies are undermining Washington’s foreign policy objectives.
Editor’s note: This article was revised to clarify that the Conference on Prosperity and Security mentioned in one excerpt took place in 2017, and that several U.S. government participants no longer hold the positions they did at the time.