Homeland Security Chief’s Central America Conference Ignores Human Rights

Police anti-gang operation in El Salvador.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will meet with Latin American leaders this week amid fears that changes in United States policies are destabilizing the region. The meeting, called the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, will be held in Miami and has drawn criticism for ignoring issues of justice and human rights. A broad coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) has issued a statement criticizing the meeting, saying that:

“the conference aims to discuss U.S. policy towards the region solely from a security and economic lens, without addressing the protection needs and human rights of families, individuals, and children from the region. By doing so, it fails to consider the nexus between the multiple causes of and solutions to forced displacement and migration—the right of individuals to seek protection outside of their countries of origin alongside their rights to education, employment, safety, and justice in their homes.”

The NGOs worry that the location of the meeting, at a United States military base, and the convening of it by General Kelly “sends a dangerous signal that the citizen security and justice challenges that the Northern Triangle countries [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras] face will be addressed from the perspective of the military and defense and not by the State Department and by USAID, which have prioritized development assistance, institution-building, and strengthening justice systems.” The groups warn that “Militarized approaches to law enforcement put Central American citizens at risk and do not build sustainable approaches.”

Following the influx of tens of thousands of Central American children into the United States beginning in 2014, the Obama administration began new programs to address the underlying causes of the migration. Gang violence and the lack of functioning local governments in parts of the three Central American nations had led to unprecedented levels of violence that made them three of the five most dangerous countries in the world. Corrupt and brutal police forces in these countries compounded the problem. Civilians were often as afraid of the police as they are of the gangs.

U.S. assistance was used to strengthen the judiciary, train police in modern procedures and tactics and human rights protections, and create programs for at-risk youth. The Trump administration has announced that funding for many of those Obama-era programs will cease, being replaced by a stronger military response and greater levels of border enforcement.

Increases in the number of deportations from the U.S. recently also worry those concerned with Central America’s future. Many of those being deported have lived all of their adult lives in the United States and have few skills useful in Third World countries. The threatened loss of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) next year by nearly 400,000 Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans could set off an economic crisis in the region as breadwinners in the United States lose the work permits their families in Central America depend on. Many of those with TPS have been living here for 16 years or more. When the Trump administration later moves to begin deporting these formerly protected individuals, further damage will be done to the region.

Noah Bullock, director of the violence prevention organization Cristosal in El Salvador, told The Guardian that: “Deportations that exceed the 2016 level could lead to great social instability and [such a policy] has little chance of reducing migration. Rather, it would likely feed the cycle of migration and insecurity that is already destabilizing the region.”

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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