Editor’s Note: Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte served as the US Ambassador to El Salvador from 2012-2016. She was also the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Western hemisphere for the US Department of State, serving as the top diplomat for Latin America. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Central America is a change in posture for the United States. It sends a signal of hope to the region that the US is engaged and willing to do the hard work of solving complex regional problems to achieve long term stability and prosperity.
By deciding to visit both Mexico and Guatemala, Harris seems to recognize that immigration does not simply begin and end with our southern border. To make real change, we must address the root causes of migration in Central America.
When I served as US Ambassador to El Salvador, our diplomacy focused on crime prevention and economic growth so that Salvadorans could find opportunity at home. I saw firsthand how corruption infected and dominated public institutions. Combined with socioeconomic conditions that perpetuate poverty, a breakdown in the social contract between government and citizens led to a vicious cycle resulting in Central Americans feeling they had no choice but to make the dangerous journey to the US southern border.
When we discuss migration, we often fail to recognize that when families come to America from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, they don’t do so lightly – they face dire circumstances. According to the World Bank’s ranking of GDP among Latin American states, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are in the bottom six, and poverty rates are extremely high in all three countries.
Decades of political instability have opened the door to organized crime, threatening the lives of thousands in the region and creating some of the highest homicide rates in the world. With the region hard hit by hurricanes, drought and the Covid-19 pandemic, migrants have been forced to uproot their lives and leave their ancestral homes.
Through greater regional leadership, the US can help residents find hope at home.
President Joe Biden demonstrated the administration’s commitment to addressing the issue of immigration when he tapped his vice president to work with the Northern Triangle. While the previous administration was trying to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, institute a Muslim ban, slow the citizenship process, and separate families at the border, then-Senator Harris established herself as a leading voice against these atrocities – and she is well-positioned to lead the fight for a more humane and effective approach to immigration.
We’ve already seen action. USAID recently announced the deployment of a Disaster Assistance Response Team to the Northern Triangle, which will fund programs focused on disaster response, food assistance, poverty reduction, economic growth and other factors that cause increased migration from Central America. Harris also announced a pledge of $310 million in regional humanitarian aid and secured commitments from 12 companies and other organizations to support economic development in the Northern Triangle as part of the administration’s “Call to Action” launch.
Biden proposed a $4 billion plan on his first day in office to address the root causes of migration. This plan would also establish Designated Processing Centers throughout Central America to register and process displaced people for refugee settlement without forcing them to take the dangerous journey to the US border.
As Harris continues to lead the administration’s efforts on this issue, we can expect her to emphasize the importance of stronger and better governance in the Northern Triangle, with the central aim of combatting corruption. Rather than meet with corrupt or authoritarian leaders she should engage with civil society stakeholders about rule of law, transparency and the need for strengthening democratic institutions.
Harris’ visit also sends a clear message that the entire region is important to the US government and that it will not cede ground in Central America to countries like China. Given this geopolitical context, we can expect to see a sustained commitment to shifting aid and resources there, while emphasizing security and economic opportunity.
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Harris’ trip marks the Biden administration’s attempt to strike a different approach to immigration. We’ve already seen the pitfalls of using immigration as a political scare tactic over the last four years – it is not only exploitative, it’s a waste of time and resources. The enforcement-first immigration strategy has failed us in the past. Instead of a heated rhetoric that paints immigrants as dangerous, we need real, evidence-based solutions that get at the heart of why migrants leave their homes and make the trek to the US. Anything less will lead to a continuation of a predictable cycle we’ve seen over again.