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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 417 | Abril 2016



It isn’t “harvest time” yet in the Northern Triangle

No one can say whether Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador will meet the US-specified requirements for accessing the hundreds of millions of dollars Washington has allocated for its Northern Triangle Alliance for Prosperity Plan. Doing so requires resolute political will by the three countries to root out their burdensome legacy of corruption, impunity, widespread violence and administrative inefficiency.

The US Congress finally approved $750 million for the Northern Triangle’s Alliance for Prosperity Plan (PAP-TN) on December 15, 2015, after almost a year of negotiations. President Obama had originally asked for US$1 billion in February of that year. Honduras’ President, Juan Orlando Hernández, reacted euphorically: “It’s harvest time for the Northern Triangle!” Perhaps the excitement about all those dollars befuddled him because in order to reap, you first have to sow and, before that, clean the land.

It won’t be easy

Getting the funding approved for the Northern Triangle is just the beginning of a “planting season” that won’t be easy for either the State Department or the governments of the Northern Triangle’s countries. Congress didn’t sign them a blank check. To access that $750 million, the US secretary of state, the USAID administrator, and the governments of all three Central American countries will have to open, step by step, a complex system of deadbolt locks the US legislators have placed precisely to achieve the expected outcome, which is to halt, or at least reduce, the flow of adults and unaccompanied children illegally emigrating to the United States.

The corruption, impunity, widespread violence and administrative inefficiency that has heavily burdened these three countries for a very long time creates serious doubts about their governments’ ability to efficiently use these resources to promote and achieve a radical turnaround in their traditional political culture, imposing transparency, the rule of law, security and administrative efficiency.

A long list of preliminary steps

Legislative approval of that $750 million doesn’t mean immediate disbursement. Part of the committed funds will only be available after Secretary of State John Kerry presents a multi-year spending plan to the congressional appropriations committees, sometime before this September 30.

The plan must include how these resources will be used in each country, the objectives and progress measurement indicators (known as metrics), a calendar for implementation of the US Strategy for Engagement in Central America, an institutional umbrella to formally shelter the PAP-TN, the amounts previously assigned by law to the State Department to support the strategy and a description of how the approved resources complement, leverage and differ from the funds each of the countries will contribute—it’s been said that the three countries estimate investing about US$2.8 billion in 2016—as well as the contributions of other donors including international financing organizations.

Until November 2015 the only thing known was how the State Department had considered distributing the US$1 billion requested by Obama: 40% to promote economic development, 30% to increase security and 30% to promote democracy. The amount to be given to each of the three countries wasn’t known. Congress’ approval of 75% of the amount asked for by the White House won’t necessarily imply a drastic modification of the percentages in this distribution, although the $250 million differential will probably necessitate a redefinition of how the funds will be distributed by country. This means the technical teams will have to revise programs and projects, objectives, costs and metrics.

You don’t play with Uncle Sam’s money

Meeting the first requirement—the multi-year spending plan—will take at least until late September, and involves close and frank cooperation among the actors involved. On one side are the State Department, USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Inter-American Foundation, with the last two providing technical assistance in support of the strategy. On the other side are the governments of the three countries. The facts and figures provided by the Central American governments must be impeccable, free of any suspicion of manipulation and underhandedness because Uncle Sam’s dollars aren’t to be played with.

In order to lock in 25% of the funds ($187.5 million), Secretary of State Kerry must certify and inform the congressional appropriations committees about whether or not the governments of the Northern Triangle countries are informing their citizens of the dangers of travelling to the United States, fighting human trafficking and smuggling, improving border security and cooperating with US agencies and those of other regional governments to facilitate the return, repatriation and reintegration of illegal immigrants reaching the US who don’t qualify as refugees under international law.

A long list of conditions

An additional 50% of the funding ($375 million) will be available to the countries only after Kerry certifies and informs the appropriate congressional committees that the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are taking effective steps to establish a publicly responsible autonomous body to oversee the plan; fighting corruption, including investigating and prosecuting officials suspected of corruption; implementing reforms, policies and programs to improve transparency and strengthen public institutions, including increasing their judicial and prosecutorial system’s capacity and independence; establishing and implementing a plan for the creation of a professional and responsible civil police force that limits the military’s role in domestic security; protecting the rights of opposition political parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights advocates and other civil society activists to function without interference; increasing government revenue, which includes implementing fiscal reforms and improving customs services, and resolving trade disputes with the US, including the confiscation of property.

These conditions are theoretically achievable, but only by drastically transforming the traditional political culture of these former banana republics, characterized by autocratic government, political patronage, widespread corruption, lack of transparency, exclusion and impunity, all peppered with high levels of poverty and criminality, violence and insecurity. It will require an ongoing commitment by the State Department to its relationship with the governments of the three countries and seriousness, transparency and, above all, political will by the governments themselves.

The first lock that has to be opened

The implementation of PAP-TN will be subject to double scrutiny: on the one side by the secretary of state, who will regularly review the governments’ progress in meeting the requirements established by Congress and inform the respective appropriations committees before the end of the 2016 fiscal year (September 30); and on the other side by the autonomous body in each country as prescribed by law.

Based on the metrics established, the secretary of state must determine whether or not each government has progressed sufficiently. If not, the aid being will be suspended totally or in part, and the congressional committees will be informed in writing. If the government takes appropriate corrective measures, the secretary may order that funding be continued after informing the committees.

The US Congress has put conditions on access to 75% of the approved funding, leaving the other 25% ($187.5 million) freely accessible. It remains to be seen when the secretary of state will present the multi-year spending plan to the congressional appropriations committees, which is the first lock to be opened before the Northern Triangle governments can even start “the planting season.” A whole lot more is needed before they get to “harvest.”

Accounts that don’t add up

Without indicating how or from whom he obtained these figures, Rocío Tábora, Deputy Minister of Public Credit and Investment for Honduras’ Finance Ministry, declared this January that PAP-TN will grant $93 million to Honduras, $95 million to El Salvador, $102 million to Guatemala and $10 million to Nicaragua. He also said there’s a $183.5 million support fund for economic opportunities, prosperity and governance initiatives allocated jointly—not individually—and a further $222 million for regional security initiatives.

Days later, during a meeting in Guatemala of the Presidents of the three countries with US Vice President Joe Biden, Roberto Lorenzana from El Salvador’s presidential Technical Secretariat stated that the funding distribution was $65 million for El Salvador, $98 for Honduras and $112 for Guatemala, which totals $275 million. There was no mention of Nicaragua.

The two accounts don’t tally and both exceed the $187.5 million US Congress leaves free from conditions. The gap increases further if we add the total of $405.5 million Tábora said is allocated for joint economic opportunities, prosperity, governance and security initiatives.

In mid-January a Honduran newspaper reported, also without citing the source, that the $750 million will be distributed as follows: $299.4 million (40%) for development programs, $183.5 million (24%) in economic aid and $222 million (30%) for security initiatives. All these alleged distributions of the funding are questionable, not only because they don’t tally, but also because they don’t include mention of the 30% for the “promotion of democracy..”

Push/pull factors

In a March 3 article by Mercedes García, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC, she defined the Alliance for Prosperity Plan as “the response to the humanitarian migratory crisis that ushered in an influx of more than 40,000 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle to the US’ southern border in 2014. The plan is a five-year initiative that intends to reduce Central Americans’ incentives to migrate; it differs from other US-favored strategies in the region by focusing primarily on addressing the push/pull structural factors that have driven the recent exodus across the border instead of centering on containment and security initiatives.”

The approved aid is specifically aimed at confronting the migrants’ “expulsion (push) factors”: poverty, inequality, lack of opportunities, social exclusion, violence and insecurity. But a key element in the complex equation of this multi-causal mass migration of unaccompanied children and undocumented persons is outside the scope of the Capitol, the White House and even PAP-TN: how to deal with family reunification, which is the most powerful of the attraction (pull) factors, induced by the children’s parents who already live in the United States, most of them illegally.

This is the factor that gives the impetus to the steady flow of children and unknown number of adults towards the southern US border. The children don’t decide to emigrate on their own. Reuniting with their parents is what motivates, attracts and induces them to do it.

An unstoppable surge

The incremental trend in the flow of children to the US began between fiscal years 2012 and 2013, when it more than doubled, from 10,146 to 20,805, until reaching its critical peak in fiscal year 2014 with 67,339 children, 76.78% coming from the Northern Triangle countries. The apprehensions of migrant family units increased by 4.93% between fiscal years 2014 and 2015, from 61,334 to 64,363.

The number of unaccompanied Central American children reaching the US border decreased after June 2014, although remaining close to the previous high levels. This increase was demonstrated in September 2015 when the US Border Patrol apprehended 111% more unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle than in September 2014.

Just an illusion

Data from October and November 2015 enable us to project a reduction in the arrival of children to the US/Mexican border throughout fiscal year 2016, accompanied by an approximately 8% increase in the arrival of family units. However, the reduction in the number of unaccompanied children reaching the border doesn’t prove a slowdown in the illegal migration flow of unaccompanied children and undocumented persons from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras attempting to reach it; what has happened up to now is nothing more than an illusion presented by the governments of the United States and Honduras in an attempt to credit themselves with a “success.”

Mexico is increasing its
role as a retaining wall

What is causing the decrease? The Mexican government under President Enrique Peña Nieto is making the Mexico-Guatemala border a veritable retaining wall against the surge of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries via implementation of the Southern Border Plan with munificent US support—provided with minimal transparency regarding dollar values, recipient units, equipment and the training Mexico receives.

According to the Center for Migration Studies of the Mexican Interior Ministry’s Migration Policy Unit, Mexico officially deported 85,651 Central Americans from the Northern Triangle in 2014: 15,933 from El Salvador, 30,209 from Guatemala and 33,517 from Honduras, 80.01% of them men. That is a 21.27% increase over 2013 in what the ministry euphemistically calls “assisted return.”

The main findings of a November 2015 study by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reveal the two sides of the transfer to Mexico of the US role in controlling the migrants. The first: “Between July 2014 and June 2015, the Mexican government’s apprehensions of Central American migrants increased by 71% over the same period one year earlier, before the launch of the Southern Border Program.”

And the other: “Whereas Mexico apprehended 67% more unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between October 2014 and September 2015 compared to the same period in the previous year, US authorities apprehended 45% fewer unaccompanied children over this time period.”

Hundreds of raids

Two days before Christmas Eve 2015, The Washington Post reported that the US government planned to raid the homes of hundreds of immigrant families from Northern Triangle countries that had entered the United States illegally since the beginning of 2014. The raids would be conducted by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had pressed the Obama administration to take this decision, especially after a court ordered the DHS to release families imprisoned in this department’s detention centers, but the idea for this campaign dates back to November 20, 2014.

On that date the DHS director sent a memo to the acting director of ICE, the commissioner for Border Patrol and the acting assistant DHS secretary instructing them on “Policies for the Apprehension, Detention and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants,” detailing the Department’s civil immigration enforcement priorities. Priority 1: threats to national security, border security and public safety. Priority 2: misdemeanants and new immigration violators. Priority 3: other immigration violations.

The memo also covers the apprehension, detention and removal of other aliens unlawfully in the United States; the exercise of prosecutorial discretion; implementation and data collection.

“An inhuman measure”

After The Washington Post disclosed the raid plan, immigrant rights advocacy organizations and US churches raised their voices in protest against what they called an “arbitrary and inhuman measure.” Spokespersons for the institutions involved offered press statements justifying the decision based on the DHS director’s November 2014 memo. The DHS secretary himself tried to justify the raids with a public statement on January 4 in which he emphatically stated that the US borders “are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.”

Consequently, the US national and international partners are taking action: expulsion (deportation), increased border security, application of harsh measures against human traffickers, expansion of US cooperation with Mexico, expansion of the public messaging campaign concerning the risks of illegal migration and the creation of alternative, safe and legal paths, among them approval of the financing for the Northern Triangle Alliance for Prosperity.

“I recognize the pain they cause”

At the end of his public statement DHS Secretary Jeh C. Johnson made an act of contrition: “I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don’t go far enough. I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. At all times we endeavor to do this consistent with American values and basic principles of decency, fairness and humanity.”

Seemingly the new immigration surge of unaccompanied children and family units in September-December 2015 was the main reason the DHS started raids on Central American immigrants in various US states during the year-end holidays. In those four months 17,370 unaccompanied children were apprehended on the US southern border, more than double the 7,987 apprehended in the same period of 2014. There was also a 187% increase in family units arriving in that period compared to 2014.

The raids caused panic in the immigrant community and infuriated some of Obama’s important democratic allies. Paradoxically, these raids, conducted in the middle of the night or early morning, aren’t a solution to the migrant crisis, whether of children, entire families or only adults. They just seem to be a warning to those in Central America who keep trying to make the perilous journey to the United State.

Resignation and even justification

Organizations in the Northern Triangle advocating human rights and the rights of migrants condemned the raids while the governments of the three countries reacted with resignation and even justifications.

Their foreign ministers made haste to deny that it was about “mass” deportation—preferring the word “selective”—of illegal immigrants who have unresolved issues with the justice system and those with court deportation orders. And while Honduras’ National Commissioner for Human Rights hinted at a slight criticism of the raids and deportations, claiming they are “incompatible” with the Northern Triangle Alliance for Prosperity Plan, First Lady Ana García barely managed to assure that “we’ll treat the deported migrants decently.”

El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez was the only one who dared to criticize US immigration policy, saying that “it encourages the migration of natives from one country and punishes those from other countries,” clearly alluding to the Cuban Adjustment Act and the “Dry feet, wet feet” policy. “It’s a discriminatory law, a double standard for immigration and, of course, we have both publicly and privately pointed out that we’re unhappy with this double standard. We would like all Central American migrants to be treated the same.”

Consulates “on alert”

The Foreign Ministries of all three countries were quick to alert their consular networks in the United States and instruct their fellow countrymen and women about what they should do and how they should behave (duties and rights) if immigration officers should come to their homes. They also stamped the telephone numbers for their respective consulates in the US onto official communications.

El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved a statement on the raids announced by Washington, an invitation to the US ambassador to meet so she could “explain” the details of Washington’s “new immigration provisions,” and even a trip to Washington to meet with US government officials and lawmakers. They also discussed the three parliaments “acting as a bloc” against the raids. But it was just empty rhetoric, as the US ambassador wasn’t summoned to the parliament and no legislators traveled to Washington; nor have they acted as a bloc as they promised.

The effect of the letter to Obama

Good intentions are one thing and reality another. The first deportees began to arrive back in their respective country by plane on January 4 of this year. Everything seemed to indicate that nothing and no one could reverse this situation, when suddenly the raids were stopped, albeit only briefly, after 146 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama on January 12 strongly condemning the DHS operations against refugee mothers and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“The DHS operation,” said the letter, “has generated widespread fear and panic in immigrant communities and has far-reaching impacts beyond the alleged targets for removal. The operation raises numerous due process concerns including meaningful access to legal counsel for mothers and children after apprehension and DHS officers reportedly using deceptive tactics to gain entrance into private residences. For these reasons and others we believe that this operation should be immediately suspended until we can ensure that no mother or child will be sent back to a country where they would face persecution, torture or death.”

Meanwhile, through their consulates in the US, the governments of El Salvador and Honduras were able to temporarily halt the deportation of family units still being processed in the immigration courts.

The letter from the Democratic legislators urged President Obama to “immediately halt the current enforcement actions towards Central American mothers and children and take steps to engage in a comprehensive effort with our hemispheric partners to address this regional refugee crisis in an appropriate humanitarian manner.” The White House didn’t directly respond to the letter nor is the DHS showing signs of stopping the deportations of Central American children and adults that started early this year.

For the first time they’re
not called “illegal aliens”

The letter did have some immediate, although not definitive, effects, however. The very next day, at a lecture in the National Defense University, Secretary of State John Kerry stated, without details: “I’m pleased to announce that we have plans to expand the US Refugee Admission Program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits.” Shortly afterwards, the State Department issued a note assuring that the US government “will collaborate with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and its NGO partners to identify persons in need of refuge or protection.”

Although it isn’t known how the relationship between the State Department and UNHCR will operate or in which countries the processing centers will be established, the State Department’s decision is a novel one, as it’s the first time Washington hasn’t referred to Central American immigrants as illegal aliens and the first time it has implicitly recognized that this is a refugee crisis and therefore a humanitarian one, and no longer an immigration or national security crisis, as US authorities have always treated it.

Even before Secretary Kerry made this announcement and the State Department reported it, senior State Department officials had assured The New York Times that the Obama administration was seeking help from the United Nations to identify immigrants fleeing from violence in Central America before they start the journey to the US and hoped that the UN would help establish processing centers in different Latin American countries in the expectation that this would halt the invasion of families illegally crossing the US Southern border.

The officials said that under the plan, the UNHCR will work with the US government to establish such processing centers in neighboring countries where migrants will be temporarily out of danger, adding that every year thousands of migrants—perhaps as many as 9,000—from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras could eventually settle in the United States and some refugees could also be sent to other countries.

The New York Times saw this as the Obama admini-stration’s response to the furious reaction of the congressional Democrats and migrants’ rights advocates to the arrests and deportations of Central American women and children during the holidays, after they had failed to get asylum in the US.

It’s not the solution

Subsequently, 55 US immigration courts have issued 10,142 deportation orders against unaccompanied Central American minors who have come to the US across the border with Mexico since 2014. Of these, 88% were issued in absentia, which means that some 9,000 of these children must be with their parents and didn’t go to the hearings for fear of being deported or because they couldn’t afford the costs of legal representation.

The plan announced by Kerry was the trump card Vice President Biden took to Guatemala for the inauguration of President Jimmy Morales on January 14. While there he met with the Presidents of the three Northern Triangle countries to analyze the implementation of the Alliance for Prosperity Plan. The three heads of State raised the issue of the raids on immigrants from their countries, which the Salvadoran foreign minister insisted, “won’t resolve the immigration situation” because “the only sustainable and lasting solution is comprehensive immigration reform for those already in the US and the implementation of plans like the Northern Triangle Alliance for Prosperity Plan for those still in their countries of origin, so we can improve conditions here and motivate people to stay.”

The expansion of the refugee program is an important step in addressing the crisis, but won’t resolve it because the processing centers the UNHCR will establish in the Northern Triangle and neighboring countries will only consider cases of those fleeing from criminal violence. But what will happen to the children fleeing from criminal violence who have parents in the United States illegally?

Not Cruz nor Trump nor Clinton

While many children, young people and adults from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras do indeed live under the threat of gangs and drug traffickers, and their insecurity is one of the push factors, the measures planned by the US government won’t have any effect on those who migrate for economic reasons or those driven by the most persuasive of pull factors: the imperative of reuniting families.

The migration issue has become one of the hottest topics in the US electoral campaign. Among the Republicans, both Ted Cruz and the xenophobic Donald Trump, looking to win the angry white vote, have come out strongly in favor of mass deportations. On the Democrat side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hopes to secure the Latino vote, but not even she has raised the need for a real immigration reform in the US, such as Obama broached in his State of the Nation address on November 20, 2014. Even less have the leading candidates spoken about the serious economic, social and security emergencies facing the Central Americans who live in the Northern Triangle countries. Only Senator Bernie Sanders has published a 6-point “comprehensive and humane” immigration policy proposal that includes dismantling inhumane deportation programs and detention centers and paving the way for a swift and fair legislative roadmap to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented immigrants. He also sent a letter urging both Obama and DHS Secretary Johnson to declare Central America so unsafe that people from that region are allowed to stay and work in the US—a policy known as temporary protected status.

The main factor

The push factors are unquestionably still firmly rooted in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The $750 million approved by the US Congress for PAP-TN, plus any resources these three countries invest on their own to reduce poverty, inequality, lack of opportunities, social exclusion, violence and insecurity could help relatively improve the economic and social conditions and provide reasonable levels of security by reducing the high levels of crime.

But none of this aid will have any effect on the urgency of family reunification, which is the most intense of the pull factors, one that can virtually never be resolved or eliminated. This poses a serious challenge if the goal is to significantly reduce the immigration flow of unaccompanied children and family units to the United States. The complex migration equation won’t find a solution as long as such an intricate factor isn’t resolved. And resolving it isn’t in the hands of US or Central American authorities.

More doubts than certainties

Does PAP-TN offer a promising future for the Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans? Establishing a responsible body to oversee the Plan wouldn’t seem to be a major problem but are the governments of El Salvador and Honduras able to effectively combat corruption and prosecute officials suspected of corruption? In Guatemala, the Public Ministry and the International Committee against Impunity (CICIG) are already doing this.

Are the three Northern Triangle governments able to implement reforms, policies and programs to improve their exceedingly precarious levels of transparency, strengthen their public institutions, and expand the capacity and independence of their questionable judicial and prosecutorial systems?

Will they really be willing to create professional and responsible civil police forces given that the attempts made so far have been monumental fiascos? Will they restrict the role of the armies in acts of public security?

Will they really protect the rights of the opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists and other civil society activists so they can act freely and without hindrance? And with their structurally highly informal economies, what will they do to increase government revenue through fiscal reforms and to strengthen the customs bodies?

No one can venture to positively answer these questions because the dismal track record of these three governments creates more doubts than certainties.

Roberto Cajina is a civil consultant on security, defense and democratic governability and a board member of the Network of Security and Defense of Latin America (RESDAL).

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