Hunger, not crime, is driving Central Americans to US border

By Teresa Welsh

Not having enough to eat is driving people to cross the U.S. border.
Not having enough to eat is driving people to cross the U.S. border. ASSOCIATED PRESS

More people are fleeing poverty-stricken El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for the southern border of the United States because of hunger and a lack of food than over fears of crime and gang violence.

According to a new report from a coalition of international aid agencies, almost half of the families interviewed in the study were food insecure, meaning they don’t regularly have enough to eat.

The report’s authors argued that their findings show if the United States wants to stop illegal immigration across its shared border with Mexico, it should help Latin America grapple with its food crisis.

“This is not as complicated as it seems,” said David Beasley, the executive director for the World Food Program. “If you want to solve the migration problem, solve the food security problem.”

The report was a joint effort by the WFP, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Organization of American States and the International Organization for Migration. It examined what the authors called “food insecurity” in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — an area known as the Northern Triangle. Frequent droughts there make agriculture a challenge.

“Human nature is the same everywhere in the world. If people can’t get food, they will move,” Beasley said. “We’ve been reducing malnutrition and hunger, but we’ve hit a wall and we now seem to be going the wrong direction.”

Across Venezuela, cities are erupting in protests and looting over food shortages. Nicholas Casey, The New York Times’s Andes bureau chief, and the photographer Meridith Kohut provide a view from the ground.

Of households interviewed, 72 percent were already taking emergency steps to feed their families, including selling land, livestock or other possessions such as tools to earn enough money to buy food. While this helps people meet their immediate need, it imperils their future economic opportunities because it eliminates assets that could have been used in the future to sustain a family economically.

Emigration becomes “the ultimate coping strategy,” the report finds; an option people turn to when they have no other choice.

Young people were particularly susceptible to migration driven by lack of food. The number of unaccompanied minors is down slightly from the nearly 70,000 that arrived on America’s southern border in 2014, but the flow of young people remains a pressing issue. In fiscal year 2016, nearly 60,000 of the 400,000 undocumented people detained there were under age 16. Most were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Those countries credited the Alliance for Prosperity, a program created by the Obama administration to respond to the 2014 surge in migration north, with providing funds that are helping improve conditions in the Northern Triangle. The money, some of which also comes from the IDB, is targeted at programs to help reduce poverty and violence and to create stable communities that people feel no need to leave. The strategy was modeled after Plan Colombia.

Officials from the three countries said Wednesday that the efforts must continue.

“We want to make sure it’s not just something temporary,” said El Salvador’s foreign minister, Hugo Martinez. “What we cannot allow is factors to incubate in our region that could lead to social unrest in the future. We have to be working now.”

Congress allocated $750 million in the 2016 budget to fund the Alliance for Prosperity, but for 2017 the amount was reduced to $655 million. And President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget request would reduce funding further, to $460 million, even as his administration said it supported the strategy.

In Honduras, violence used to be the number one cause for migration north. But the country’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Maria Andrea Matamoros, said thanks to the regional efforts in conjunction with the Alliance for Prosperity, it is now third in the list of reasons driving people out of Honduras. Homicides have also reduced “substantially,” she said.

Climate change, including impacts of El Nino, is a major cause of disruption to agriculture in the region. This contributes heavily to food shortages.

“The impact of climate change is very drastic in the Dry Corridor and particularly in El Salvador,” Martinez said. “In 2015 alone we lost 470,000 tons of maize, and about 6,000 tons of beans.”

Guatemala's minister of food security and nutrition, German González, said his country experienced long dry spells in 2014 and 2015, which dramatically reduced grain output for subsistence farmers. He said some families still haven’t been able to recover their livelihoods.

“You can’t leave us on our own yet,” Martinez said. “We still need the support of the international community.”