Getting to the root of why people leave home

by Charissa Zehr

A quick scan of current news focuses on the high levels of violence in Central America, particularly in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, commonly referred to as the Northern Triangle. While insecurity, militarization and impunity are serious concerns that impact migration from these countries, other aspects are at times overlooked. For many, the lack of opportunities, economic inequality and grinding poverty combine to rival insecurity and crime as factors that propel migration.

Economic dissatisfaction in the region is high. People feel excluded from the benefits of financial growth that often go to large, international corporations or the elite business class. Jobs that pay a living wage are scarce. Many head north, seeking educational opportunities and better paying jobs. Work visas, including temporary and seasonal worker visas that provide legal avenues for economic migrants, are limited and cannot keep up with the demand for migrant labor in the U.S.

The national governments of the Northern Triangle invest heavily in responding to unrelenting and urgent security concerns. They spend much less on the underlying issues of inequality and economic stagnation. Mirroring those concerns, foreign assistance from the U.S. government to Central America has heavily emphasized border security, military support and counter-narcotics, not development.

With increasing demands to address the root causes of migration, the U.S. government is gradually shifting aid for Central America to place a greater emphasis on development priorities and strengthening government institutions. It is a welcome change, but has a long way to go after years of security-focused funding.

As with any foreign assistance package, it is necessary to advocate for local civil society groups to have a seat at the table for determining priorities, designing programs and implementing new projects. MCC’s partner organizations in the region have a long history of development and peace-building work.

These are exactly the types of programs the Central American and U.S. governments admit are necessary to address factors that fuel insecurity, hinder development and ultimately drive people to leave their homes. An important catalyst for real change is the political will to address the underlying problems.