There has been a surge in immigration in 2019, with more than 75,000 migrants apprehended or turned away during the month of March alone. The Border Patrol is overwhelmed and the numbers are only increasing. The White House has committed to alleviating the “root causes” of these issues by focusing on securing the border. President Trump has emphasized his desire to successfully solve these issues internally through greater pressure on Congress to update asylum laws and by completing his campaign promise to build a physical wall along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border. Externally, President Trump is targeting the nations from where most of the migrants are coming. On 30 March 2019, United States President Donald Trump cut off funding to Central America. He claimed this was in response to the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador not doing their part to stop irregular migration or to stop the widely-reported migrant caravans. Unfortunately, this approach is unlikely to resolve the issues, which are causing irregular migration. Instead, it will very likely make them far worse in the long-term, threatening stability in North America, U.S. hegemony in the region, and negatively affecting the American image abroad.
Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador experienced a Civil War which killed more than 75,000 and internally displaced a half million civilians. Upwards of 25% of the entire population fled the country and half of those went to the U.S. to find refuge. Only two percent were granted asylum. During the civil war, the U.S. was backing the Salvadoran government and felt taking in fleeing citizens would contradict its efforts. For those who were turned back to El Salvador, tens of thousands faced retribution and execution from that very same U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. Fear of retaliation significantly increased the migrants’ desire to stay, so many of the Salvadorans who were denied asylum fled inward, remaining in the U.S. illegally. During the same period, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, and 146,000 Salvadorans received legal resident status. This substantial base of legally residing Salvadorans formed the foundation for immigration numbers to increase further a generation later.
The number of Salvadorans within the U.S. has grown to an estimated one-fifth of the Central American nation’s 6.5 million population. This has been through policies which allowed immigration to unite families, temporary protected status (TPS)notices due to natural disasters, and illegal migration. Of those, the majority reside in California and Texas, although pockets of Salvadorans live in major cities throughout the entire U.S. TPS extensions are valid for less than two years at a time and have been signed by both sides of the political divide since the 2001 decision to continue the status. The last TPS approval for Salvadorans was signed in 2016. However, in 2018, President Trump denied a further extension to TPS, putting 200,000 Salvadorans living legally within the U.S. at risk of deportation. An injunction was set into place, putting a temporary stay on ending the TPS and so the issue still sits, currently unresolved. The impact for those individuals is multifaceted. For Salvadorans, as well as the Sudanese, Nicaraguans, and Haitians also affected by TPS, those being deported have to choose whether they should take their families –specifically their children, who are U.S. citizens and were born legally in the States. Many of those protected by TPS have lived the majority of their lives in the U.S. and some do not even speak the language of the countries in which they were born. They are, by and large, working, tax-paying, law-abiding civilians who have had to register every 12-18 months to maintain their legal status and ability to work.
Salvadorans and policymakers in El Salvador know and understand that changes are required to stem irregular migration. The causes are many but can be summarized as a lack of economic prosperity, decreasing safety due to ever-growing gang populations, and political corruption. The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, has been almost exclusively focused on irregular migration since 2016. This is not to say that El Salvador is happy with the current system or that the nation has given up on resolving matters. Throughout El Salvador, there are well-established U.S.-Salvadoran partnerships with every embassy organization. Salvadorans have even established their own organizations to improve education, quality of life, and other essentials required to obtain future growth.
Further, on 3 February 2019, an outsider to the old regime of Salvadoran politics – Nayib Bukele – swept the first round of presidential elections, earning more than 53% of the total votes cast. The election was significant for three reasons. First, Bukele ran with a third party, one not representative of the traditional political groups from which Salvadorans typically choose a President. Second, presidential elections typically go through an initial round of voting in February and then have a second round in March. This year’s vote favored Bukele so much so that he was able to claim victory before the end of the first round of voting. The national consensus, which had a very low number of voters compared to previous elections, was still so severely in favor that he didn’t have to wait for official counts or final tallies to know he had won. Third, Bukele, one of the youngest democratically elected officials in the world, represents the millennial generation.
During his campaign, Nayib Bukele shunned the media, refusing to debate with his competitors on their national platforms. Instead, he campaigned via social media, speaking directly to his voter base. Bukele himself previously left the dominant two political parties after briefly working within each of them. He spurned their political corruption, recent disaffection with the U.S., closeness with China, and lack of support to the population amidst the immigration crisis. In fact, he worked as an anti-party candidate, very similar to recent presidential elections in nations who were attempting to change the status quo, like the U.S., the Philippines, Slovakia, and increasingly throughout Europe.
In a sense, President Trump is focusing on giving his border guards a better bullet-proof vest instead of working to stop them from being shot in the first place. El Salvador is a North American nation which ranks among the poorest on the continent. The Northern Triangle -Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – are within the lowest 50 for GDP in the world. The root causes for the migration flow from El Salvador are bound to require support in the form of long-term nation-building, policy changes, and financial aid. This support needs to outlast presidents and take on a long-term investment viewpoint for the continent as a whole across generations.
The outgoing Salvadoran presidential administration was willing to look to China for support, going so far as recognizing Beijing over Taiwan last year. The U.S. response to this action was baffling. It recalled its senior diplomat to El Salvador and publicly weighed levying penalties against a nation who needed more support than it was getting. Actions like this cede maneuverability space for other great powers to step in, which China seems anxious to do. The U.S. should instead redouble its efforts in Central America to increase influence and show a commitment to the region. Generationally this will foster continued support for U.S. values and help to ensure that the U.S. remains a partner-of-choice for Central American nations concerning future national decisions.
President Trump would do well to increase the longevity of TPS Salvadorans – even granting permanent residency. Since their arrival, the TPS applicants have maintained and renewed their residency applications with the government, showing a significant adherence to the law. 88% of them are working legally, paying federal taxes to support both Social Security and Medicare. Those Salvadorans who are in the U.S. illegally earn less than their TPS counterparts and do not pay taxes. That means the remittances they send home are less and none of what they are paying is taxed, so the U.S. federal government sees no benefit. However, if these workers were residing in the U.S. legally using work visas, they could obtain better-paying jobs, pay income tax, and lessen the burden on the Border Patrol and related immigration agencies. President Trump should seek to loosen work-visa requirements and allow more Central American migrants to positively participate in the labor and tax structure of the U.S. His ‘tough stance’ at present is in fact operating at cross-purposes to his supposed long-term goals.
Instead of investing money on a physical barrier with no impact on the issues causing immigrants to flee, the White House should invest in programs that promote education, reduce violence, and fund the infrastructure required to build social capability. This will buoy the nations around the U.S., causing all of the countries to prosper. President-elect Bukele is coming into office having decreased the crime rates of a small town and large city when he was mayor, so he knows successful change. Bukele wants to prevent brain-drain and retain capable Salvadoran talent for the long term. Bukele is also vigorously seeking to end the gangs who threaten Salvadoran stability and impede long-term approaches that could lead to a resurgence. His landslide election was proof that the people of El Salvador are looking for that same change. The U.S., the world’s most powerful democratic nation, should work to applaud and support these policies. President Trump should encourage the agenda Bukele has set. Conditions like this would not simply cause people to stay in El Salvador: it could potentially cause them to return, thus positively ending the illegal migration ‘crisis.’ Attacking the issues in a neighborly way would reduce generational emigration, improve the security of North America’s southern nations, and promote U.S. policy on Salvadoran home turf. Providing for the region supports a positive image of the U.S. and prevents Central American countries from crumbling due to inequality or looking to other powerful nations, like China, for stability. For real success, the United States must stop viewing the Northern Triangle as a political Bermuda Triangle.