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Washington’s disagreements over immigration and border security run deep, but what if I told you that a road to bipartisanship ran through contested terrain? Or to put it another way: “Maybe we can solve one problem with another,” as Madison aptly declared in Hamilton.
President Trump has repeatedly tied migrant caravans from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – known as Central America’s Northern Triangle – to his objective of funding a border wall, but his administration has also been focused on a better solution: addressing the region’s crippling combination of insecurity and poverty at its origin.
The Northern Triangle’s situation has arguably never been more dire, with many facing no choice but to emigrate as a result of unrelenting violence, endemic corruption, and abrogation of rule of governance. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all rank among the top five countries worldwide in homicide rate. It’s critical to ensure these governments prioritize the well-being of their beleaguered citizens and business communities, and the U.S. is uniquely positioned to organize a comprehensive regional response.
Fortunately, there’s a recent precedent of the U.S. coming to the aid of a regional ally, helping transform it from a near-failed state to the 21st century’s most inspiring international turnaround story. Devised in 1999, Plan Colombia was essential to securing swaths of Colombian territory paralyzed by conflict, laying the foundation for inclusive economic growth that has lifted millions of out of poverty and seen Colombia’s GDP triple since 2000.
From a U.S. political perspective, the initiative has also been a triumph in bipartisanship. The Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations − together with both parties in Congress − grasped the national security imperatives of the strategy and expended critical political capital to assure its success.
With the lessons of Plan Colombia in mind, the White House and Congress have an opportunity to mitigate the border crisis through steps such as:
Significantly increasing U.S. funding to support security, governance, and economic development in the Northern Triangle
Through FY 2016, Congress had appropriated more than $10 billion in U.S. taxpayer funding to support Plan Colombia and related programs. In contrast, the annual $750 million per year appropriated by Congress for the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P) doesn’t go far enough, once spread across the three Northern Triangle countries.
In a more positive development, initial data tracking the A4P show progress in strengthening oversight over U.S. funding. Bolstered by enhanced fiscal controls and transparency in each of the three countries, increased U.S. government investment to strengthen rule of law and institutions in the Northern Triangle can create a virtuous circle of lasting security and sustained economic development.
Seeking enhanced collaboration with – and support for – multilateral institutions and regional partners addressing Northern Triangle challenges
While the United Nations’ anti-corruption campaign in Guatemala hasn’t been free of controversy, credible multilateral institutions have an important role to play in strengthening rule of law in the Northern Triangle. Efforts such as those of the Organization of American States in Honduras have been recognized by the U.S. State Department and others for the progress they’ve yielded in prosecuting corruption and enhancing credibility of institutions in the three countries.
Achieving permanent legislative solutions for DACA and TPS beneficiaries
As we first wrote here early last year, it is imperative to secure the status of those permitted to reside in the U.S. under the auspices of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In addition to being a matter of upholding American principles and supporting U.S. business, it is an economic necessity for the countries of the Northern Triangle.
In sum, supporting lasting peace and prosperity for the Northern Triangle should be every bit the bipartisan U.S. national security priority that Plan Colombia has been. For the Trump administration and Congress, championing these few steps could lead to achieving what their predecessors couldn’t: stemming the flow of immigration from Central America at its source.
In so doing, President Trump will be able to deliver his supporters the enhanced border security he promised by permanently reducing the number of undocumented migrants arriving in the U.S., in addition to securing a major win for U.S. business in the region. A Trump administration rightly concerned about China’s growing influence in our hemisphere will also ensure our neighbors don’t enlist Chinese support to address these critical needs.
And in the midst of it all, the White House and Congress can embrace the best of American principles by helping make emigration a choice rather than an imperative in the Northern Triangle.