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Let’s move beyond defense at the 1-yard line at the border

July 14, 2018

We can no longer afford further delay in addressing instability in the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The longer assistance is delayed to this region, the longer it will take to remedy the societal issues that cause the mass migration of Central Americans, including unaccompanied minors, to the United States in the first place.

These individuals’ desire to flee their homes suggests that their governments are not fully meeting their needs. It also reveals an unsettling fact: the current crisis will persist until we ensure that the region’s citizens can feel safe at home and thrive in an economy that will provide jobs to support their families.

As one of the first people to bring national attention to the mass detention of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border in 2014, it is encouraging to see the American people rally to address the issue of family separation.

However, the Executive Order the president signed recently — ending family separations — does not address the root causes of mass migration from Central America into the United States.

Rather than playing defense at the 1-yard line, the U.S.-Mexico border, we must focus our efforts to make the Central American region safer and economically stronger in order to stop the mass influx of immigrants in the first place. Less poverty, corruption and violence in our neighbor countries to the south will mean a more secure border for us at home.

I represent 294 miles of the border in my district, which means that I see the impact that the recent influx of unaccompanied children and migrant families from the Northern Triangle countries has on our country. In fiscal year 2017, almost 105,000 family units were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. During fiscal year 2018 through May, we have already apprehended over 93,000 family units, and that number is expected to rise significantly.

Sixty percent of these arrivals occur between Laredo and Brownsville, alone. This increase in crossings has garnered the attention of American citizens across the nation and prompted a necessary question: What can we do to stop this?

During the Obama administration, Congress determined it was in our country’s best interests to promote an economically prosperous, lawfully secure, and well-governed Central America. To achieve these objectives, the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America was launched to address issues in the Northern Triangle countries with a broader perspective.

These initiatives were based on the premise that efforts to promote prosperity, improve security, and strengthen governance in these countries would be mutually reinforcing and of equal importance to the United States. Simply put, it is in our best interest to have a secure and prosperous Central America.

As of March 2018, my fellow appropriators and I have secured about $1.9 billion in funding for this purpose. And these resources have yielded results: in the Northern Triangle, U.S. programs contributed to the creation of over 29,000 jobs in 2017. In El Salvador, there was a decrease in homicides per 100,000 people, dropping from 81 to 60 in 2017. In Honduras, per 100,000 people, homicides decreased from 59 to 46 in the same year. In September 2017, U.S. government support for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras contributed to a coordinated operation against gang members, yielding the arrest of over 3,800 gang members in the United States and Northern Triangle.

More jobs and less crime in these countries means a more secure place in which people feel safe to live and work, decreasing migration to the United States.

Unfortunately, not all of this critical funding is getting to Central America; and when it does, it sometimes takes years, which may help explain the increase in migration from the region.

Of the $1.9 billion appropriated for the strategy, over $800 million has not been not spent, and the State Department has yet to certify that any of the Northern Triangle countries meet the legislative requirements for fiscal year 2017. This delay is unacceptable, especially when migration from the region is on the rise.

Last month, I successfully included language, and $595 million in funding for Central America, in the fiscal year 2019 foreign assistance spending bill to make funds available more quickly to the Northern Triangle countries. The bill directs the Department of State to expedite the processing of our foreign assistance to Central America.

The more expeditiously Central America receives these funds, the more effectively we can promote national security, prosperity, good governance, and stability in the Western Hemisphere.

It is important to note that the U.S. ensures that this aid is not misused by corrupt governments in Central America. The State Department actively builds public-private alliances with civil society, community organizations, and the private business sector to sustain program efforts, directing it toward able governments. Specifically, these third parties follow secure means of allocating this funding, making certain that it falls into the right hands.

What has become increasingly clear is that we need to stop playing defense on the 1-yard line, the U.S.-Mexico border. If we start playing defense at the 20-yard line on Mexico’s border with Central American and beyond, I believe that the U.S.-Mexico border will no longer be the first line of defense for people and drugs coming into the United States.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar currently represents the 28th District of Texas and sits on the House Appropriations Committee and Subcommittees on Homeland Security and Defense. He has previously served as Laredo’s state representative and as Texas secretary of state.

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