Troubled Countries Can’t Keep People From Leaving

Trump wants El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to stop emigration by force of will. They can’t.

Central American migrants en route to the United States
Central American emigrants, en route to the United States, cross the Suchiate River from Tecun Uman, Guatemala, to Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. (Jose Cabezas / Reuters)

Making good on previous threats, President Donald Trump recently declared an end to aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, blaming the three governments for failing to stop the flow of their citizens to the United States. “They have ALL been taking U.S. money for years,” he tweeted, “and doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for us.” If his public statements are any guide, Trump appears to believe that the three countries—Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle—can shut down the flow of emigrants at will.

They can’t. The same factors that lead to outmigration—crushing poverty, widespread crime and violence, and weak government institutions—also limit these governments’ ability to entice residents to stay. Trump can fire up his political base with his demand that emigration cease immediately, but addressing conditions that developed in Central America over many decades will demand a longer time horizon.

Perhaps Trump is imagining that armed guards posted at the Northern Triangle countries’ borders could keep would-be emigrants from leaving, but doing so would violate both international norms and national constitutions. Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all recognize freedom of movement as a right. Forbidding citizens to leave is what authoritarian dictatorships do.

Still, Trump is incorrect in saying that these countries have done nothing to stem the outflow of people. After the unexpected 2014 surge of migrant children and families, the United States devised the Strategy for Engagement in Central America, a comprehensive multiyear approach to replace Washington’s conventional narrow focus on fighting the drug trade. In the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity, the Northern Triangle governments promised to fund complementary investments, especially in infrastructure, education, and law enforcement. Both plans explicitly aimed to discourage emigration by expanding economic opportunities, increasing security, and improving government effectiveness.

Initial spending on these multifaceted initiatives began in 2016. Of an eventual $1.8 billion in U.S. funds, most were to be allocated to nongovernmental organizations that had been contracted to implement the programs at the local level. In all, the Northern Triangle governments report having spent more than $4 billion from 2016 to 2018  to complement U.S. appropriations, funding numerous initiatives, from providing training and credit to small businesses to increasing support for returning emigrants.

Early evidence suggests that the efforts have had some success in addressing the push factors behind migration. But the Trump administration sought to slash and obstruct U.S. funding over the past three fiscal years, and the president’s order to cut off aid would end the programs before they could show real results.

What would make more Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans want to stay home? The necessary changes would be enormous. According to the World Bank, income per capita is just $4,600 in Honduras, and $7,500 to $8,000 in El Salvador and Guatemala. The poverty rate is nearly 30 percent in El Salvador, and about 60 percent in Guatemala and Honduras. Tax revenues are low, so governments don’t have the funding needed for adequate public services. Only a minority of young people complete high school. Inadequate infrastructure and low skill levels inhibit economic growth. A severe drought has ruined many farmers, and malnutrition is common, especially in Guatemala.

Crime is endemic. Levels of violence are among the world’s highest outside of war zones, mostly due to drug-trafficking organizations, street gangs, police, and vigilantism. Large and small businesses lose substantial sums to gang extortion. On surveys, a fourth of households report having been victims of crime in the previous year.

Even the best-governed countries, with the most committed leaders, would find such severe problems daunting. Tragically, the Northern Triangle governments are short on will and capacity to act. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 ranks Guatemala and Honduras in the top third of the most corrupt countries in which to do business. Only El Salvador has shown improvement, and it still falls in the top half. All three countries have recently seen high-ranking government officials, including former and sitting presidents, implicated or indicted in major corruption scandals or drug trafficking. Valiant efforts by some officials and organizations to enforce accountability have met with some success but even greater resistance. Trump’s order to end aid undermines the very reformers that could make a difference.

We cannot expect any of the Northern Triangle governments to respond strongly to demands, domestic or foreign, for greater security and increased economic opportunity. None of the countries even exercises complete control over its own territory. Paradoxically, even when governments have met criminal violence with an iron fist, the bloodshed has simply escalated. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all scored below 40 out of 100 on the World Bank’s 2017 measure of how well governments deliver public services. As multiple measures by Freedom House and the World Bank indicate, a lack of press freedom gives citizens little voice and makes public officials unaccountable for how the government performs.

Trump might find that cutting aid provides him with far less leverage over these troubled countries than he expects. As a source of income for families and foreign exchange for imports, U.S. assistance pales beside the remittances these countries receive from their citizens residing in the United States. The World Bank estimates that together the three countries received remittances from the United States totaling $16 billion in 2017—36 times their appropriation of foreign aid from Washington. Losing that aid won’t force the Northern Triangle countries to change their ways. It will just make their citizens worse off.

The cutoff in aid might not occur. Trump could change his mind, or Congress might successfully challenge his authority to redirect the funds. Officials in the Trump administration have to know that the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador neither can nor will shut down the flow of emigrants. Grandstanding will not substitute for steady diplomacy or reliable foreign assistance in addressing the conditions that motivate Central American emigrants to embark on the treacherous journey north.