One way to deter Central American migrants from attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico is with a message that they are not welcome here.
Last summer, when thousands of Central American children overwhelmed border authorities, the U.S. began a campaign in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to spread the word that those caught entering this country illegally would be shipped back.
A new advertising campaign has been launched to keep migrants away in coming months, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told The Arizona Republic this week.
“We have developed an outreach plan with the State Department and the three Central American countries with a two-part message,” he said. “One, it’s very dangerous to come. Two, if you do come, you will not be given sanctuary. You’ll be detained and you will not be allowed to stay.”
Such hard-line messages will help in the short term, but decades of violence in those countries cry out for a long-term solution.
The U.S. should be part of a remedy because for too long it has been part of the problem.
About 25 years ago, U.S. immigration officials began a concerted effort to expel undocumented immigrants, especially gang members, caught up in criminal behavior. It was and still is the right thing to do.
But coming off civil wars, Central American countries were ill-equipped to cope with the influx of criminals. They took a page from the U.S. playbook and tried an iron fist, overcrowding third-world jails that only hardened inmates.
“The first thing [the U.S.] should have done is figure out what is going to happen if we send these kids back to Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala. To the extent anything was done was mostly driven by the notion that they should be tough on criminals,” said Oscar A. Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities based in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Chacon fled El Salvador in 1980 amid violent times tied to the military-led government.
Gang activity in Central America took on new life as drugs began flowing through those poverty-stricken countries from South America to meet demands of U.S. consumers. And despite a U.S. war against drugs that has gone on for decades, our demand for illicit drugs rages on.
“To the extent that the source of the problem continues to be that we consume drugs the way we do, we bear responsibility,” Chacon said.
It’s shared responsibility by the U.S., Central American countries and Mexico, but a stark reality nonetheless for America.
In recent years the ruthless Zetas crime syndicate expanded from Mexico into Central America to gain tighter control of drug shipments. They showed lower-level crooks how to extort money from taxi drivers, sidewalk vendors and teachers, who must pay a so-called tax to do their jobs.
Out of despair, Central Americans will continue to look for ways out of countries that have some of the highest murder rates in the world.
If the U.S. and Central American governments agreed on a plan, the U.S. could be a vital resource to those countries, Chacon said. Schools, basic health services and infrastructure such as hydroelectric power and roads could be improved.
Or, we can keep turning away people at our door.