By Kara D'Ascenzo '22; Image by Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
The recent surge of migrants from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) has cast a spotlight on the region: more than 709,000 individuals fled the region in 2019, prompting an investigation into both why and what the US can do about it. This investigation reveals complex and interconnected migration drivers, including high violence rates, limited economic prospects, and weak civil societies. A deeper investigation contextualizing modern migration trends with the region’s fraught history of military regimes and civil wars uncovers damning instances of US interventionism; the US is undeniably and unforgivably at the locus of migration drivers’ roots. Simply put, the US must assume its moral responsibility to aiding the Northern Triangle. In doing so, immigration policy must acknowledge and incorporate the reality that many Northern Triangle migration push factors stem from actions the US overtly or covertly instigated and enabled. This has two components: working to find solutions for migration drivers within the Northern Triangle and providing legal pathways for entry into the US, effectively tackling Northern Triangle migration from both ends. Ideally, this will be mutually beneficial for both the US and the migrants themselves: improving conditions in the Northern Triangle and providing legal entry will both decrease the regional flow of undocumented migration and work towards sustainable, long-term solutions to lessen overall migration from the region in the future.
Any implementation of the above will first require a substantial departure in both policy and rhetoric from the past three decades of border militarization and “crimmigation.” Immigration policy throughout this period has rested on two core premises that need to be dismantled: 1) a growing“Latino Threat Narrative” that paints all Latinx migrants (regardless of documentation status) as a national security threat to justify criminalizing undocumented migrants and 2) the idea that undocumented migration will be deterred by an increasingly hostile border. The reality is that undocumented migration has persisted–surged, rather–despite both premises. Massey et al. provide striking such proof in finding that the undocumented population grew from 3 million to 12 million people between 1986 and 2008 despite substantial increases in Border Patrol officers (400%), hours spent patrolling the border (200%), and nominal funding (1,900%), ultimately displaying that border miltiarization is wholly ineffective in deterring undocumented migration. Clearly, immigration policy is in dire need of a radical reconstruction.
Where does that leave us? Migrants are entering and will continue to enter the US from the Northern Triangle, regardless of whether they have a legal method to do so. Traditional efforts to contain this migration — namely, pouring a lot of money into border militarization — have been and will continue to be ineffective. This already makes a compelling case for reconstructing immigration policy and finding a more effective solution that better serves the US and the migrants themselves. But there’s another far more important piece to immigration policy’s reconstruction: the acknowledgment of the US’ involvement in creating (or at the very least aggravating) the Northern Triangle’s plight. What demands discussion is the US’ obligation to help: not because it has the resources, not to perpetuate its “beacon of democracy” image, but because it played a direct role in creating the crisis driving people to flee in the first place. Can the US acknowledge it helped to create the very push factors driving the migration it seeks to prevent? And, in doing so, can it manage to craft immigration policy that lessens undocumented migration by implementing effective solutions, both at the border and in the origin countries themselves?
It doesn’t take much to find damning instances of US interventionism in the Northern Triangle. It takes even less to realize their disastrous consequences. Take Guatemala, for example: the US provided military training and $33 million in aid to a military regime that committed a genocide against indigneous Maya, killing and disappearing over 200,000 and displacing over one million more. The US’ fingerprints cover the decades-longconflict (ending with peace accords in 1996)– not only did it begin with aUS-backed coup of elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, but it was also actively perpetuated and elongated by US military funding, training and assistance.
In El Salvador, the US moved to suppress a potential popular uprising by funnelling military aid, training, and resources to the hardline oppressive military regime that took power in 1979. In the early 1980s, El Salvador was the second-largest per capita recipient of military aid in the world, despite the obvious collusion between the military and the paramilitary death squads who committed atrocious acts of repression and violence.
Honduras became the US’ staging ground for its counterrevolutionary efforts in Nicaragua. To the US, particularly in the height of the Cold War under Carter and Reagan, Honduras came to symbolize opposition to leftist revolution in Central America. This meant that Honduras received copious amounts of military aid ($78.5 million in 1984) to strengthen its repressive government against communist influences. It also meant that the US used Honduras to operate covert Contra training camps, build air bases, and station US troops. US intervention in Honduras had an economic component as well; Honduras’ agrarian countryside was systematically exploited for the profit of American corporations (most famously the United Fruit Company), rendering Honduras both poor and economically dependent upon the US.
Instances of US interventionism in the region are therefore both abundant and severe, especially in their immediately damaging impacts. How, then, do they connect to the current flood of migrants from the Northern Triangle? The conflicts outlined above in the ‘70s and ‘80s triggered initial waves of migration and exacerbated fundamental fissures that continue to drive contemporary migration today.
Three of the largest Northern Triangle migration drivers are poverty, violence, and corruption; regional rates of all three are among the highest in the world. Each factor is also heavily cited by migrants as a primary motivator for migration. These issues are both systemic and deeply intertwined, culminating in a sense of hopelessness at both the severity of the region’s plight and the lack of faith in the respective governments to fix it. The Northern Triangle hasn’t fully recovered from the turbulence aggravated by US interventionism in the ‘70s and ‘80s, providing the moral imperative for the US to aid in finding future solutions. While the US didn’t singlehandedly cause Honduras’ 48.3% poverty rate in 2018, for example, it did create an export-based, subservient economy that exploited Honduran labor and land for the benefit of American corporations and continues to contribute to Honduras’ contemporary income inequality and lack of economic infrastructure. Similarly, the US is not the sole cause of corruption in Guatemala, but the often corrupt elites cemented their power during the civil war, which the US actively prolonged. Similar power structures exist in contemporary Guatemala, which remains plagued by impunity for human rights abuses and blatant corruption alike.
Violence in El Salvador mirrors the above pattern (the problems the US contributed to during late 20th century interventionism persist and drive contemporary migration) yet has a more direct connection to immigration policy and its ramifications. With its origins in the civil war, namely the mass militarization of citizens/police and the opportunity for gangs to seize regional power, gang activity in El Salvador has skyrocketed since the ‘90s due to increased deportations from the US. Thousands of Salvadoran gang members who left during the war were deported between 1996 and 2002, and mass criminal deportations correspond with spikes in homicide rates. Not only did the violence and instability from the civil war which the US helped to fund and therefore enable create situations for gangs to arise, but contemporary immigration policy worsens gang violence in El Salvador by strengthening gangs when their members are deported.
Is the US the only actor at fault? Did it single-handedly create an unstable region riddled with systemic problems? Absolutely not. But is its involvement significant enough to warrant at least partial culpability? Absolutely. Whether it’s ready to admit it or not, the US worked to advance its own interests in the Northern Triangle at the expense of lives, government stability, and civil society health. The current situation is the foremost ramification of this interventionist choice, and its effects demand a contemporary reckoning.
Opening its borders to Northern Triangle migrants is an important first step, and one that is sure to reduce the dangerous bottleneck at the border. It must, however, be accompanied by real and effective efforts to remedy the situation driving migrants to flee. The Biden Administration has taken important first steps in doing so, recently issuing a February Executive Order with provisions for investment in Northern Triangle civil society and migration drivers and for expanded legal pathways for entry for Northern Triangle migrants. This provides the first step of a long walk towards taking responsibility for American culpability and complicity in fostering the root causes of Northern Triangle migration and working to remedy such harm with effective solutions to serve nations, migrants, and citizens alike.
 Meyer, Peter J and Taft-Morales, Maureen. (2019) Central American Migration: Root causes and US Policy, Congressional Research Service, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IF11151.pdf
 Massey Douglas S. et al. (2016) “Why Border Enforcement Backfired.” American Journal of Sociology 121, 5 (March): 1557-1558.
 Farah, Douglas. “Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses.” The Washington Post. WP Company, March 11, 1999. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/march99/guatemala11.htm.
 Livingstone, Grace. “Reagan and the Central American Tragedy,” in The United States and Latin America: From the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, 87-91.
 This document (in the hyperlink) is a declassified CIA briefing from 1983 detailing intelligence about Salvadoran death squads. It establishes that the Reagan Administration knew about the death squads’ existence and activity.
 Livingstone, Grace. “Reagan and the Central American Tragedy,” in The United States and Latin America: From the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, 97.
 Alvarado, Karina O et al. “Introduction.” in US- Central Americans, 12-13.
 Olson, Joy and Eric Olson.2021. “Hopelessness and Corruption: Overlooked Drivers of Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America.” Gordon Institute: FIU, available at: https://gordoninstitute.fiu.edu/policy-innovation/publications/hopelessness-and-corruption- by-j-olson-and-e-olson.pdf
 El Salvador’s Politics of Perpetual Violence. 2017. International Crisis Group Report 64, (December), p60-63, available at https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/central-america/el-salvador/64-el-salvadors-politics-perpetual-violence