Anita Isaacs is the Benjamin R. Collins Professor of Social Science at Haverford College and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Anne Preston is a professor of economics at Haverford College.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center as the International Displacement Monitoring Center. This version has been corrected.

The Trump administration is on a mission to guard Fortress America against an invading caravan of migrant families from Central America. And it is pulling out all the stops: denying those families their rights to seek asylum, threatening to cut off foreign aid, deploying thousands of troops to the southern border, using tear gas against women and children, and closing vital border crossings.

But no matter how much President Trump increases the intimidation tactics, his strategy of deterrence is bound to fail. The United States is failing to recognize the blind desperation of the Central American migrants. If the president were serious about regulating undocumented migration, he would consider a strategy of constructive engagement with regional governments and migrant communities, which is the only policy with a realistic chance of working.

In response to a wave of unaccompanied child migrants crossing the southwest border, the Barack Obama administration in 2014 partnered with Northern Triangle countries — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — and earned bipartisan support from Congress for a new approach to curbing migration. The strategy recognized that slowing undocumented migration meant addressing its root causes. It encouraged Northern Triangle governments to recognize their responsibilities to aid their poorer and more vulnerable communities. Success was predicated on promoting sustainable and integral development, and called for migrant communities to be directly involved in the design of projects funded through the program.

Despite scattered examples of success, the strategy has largely failed to live up to its hype. But there is a silver lining. The experience yielded important insights, highlighting the obstacles to success and suggesting pathways forward.

For starters, U.S. foreign assistance to the region remains inadequate to alleviate the pressures to migrate. The roughly $500 million provided in 2017 represents a mere 1 percent of the total foreign-assistance budget. Less than half of that is invested in programs designed to promote economic growth, good governance and human rights — the problem areas that contribute most dramatically to fueling migration, with some 20 percent spent on border and drug control, including hefty sums spent on military training. 

Because these numbers pale in comparison to the roughly $19 billion migrants send in remittances each year, migration continues to loom large as a solution to entrenched poverty for migrants, their families and their communities.

Making matters worse, the bottom-up vision endorsed by strategy architects has fallen by the wayside. Funding has gone to private consulting firms who have limited knowledge of local cultural norms and economic practices. Instead of engaging in community consultation or providing training to intended project beneficiaries, they disburse large sums of money to poor communities who lack the technical expertise, financial capacity and self-confidence to manage these productively.

Conversations with Guatemalan community leaders provide illustrative examples. Several complained about an approach that limits interaction with communities to an outside consultant holding a one-off workshop to explain project design.

“This is a recipe for failure,” a local development worker said. He didn’t want his name used for fear of repercussions. “They talk in Spanish to indigenous speakers, and use terms that people can’t understand. It’s worse than doing nothing because it aggravates their feelings of inferiority.”

Another derided an irrigation project planned for a community that still fetched water in buckets from the river. The director of a respected community organization recalled that when he complained that the funds earmarked for a project were excessive, the consultant found a willing group of people without a proven track record or local legitimacy to execute the project.

Too little attention has been devoted to the needs of the internally displaced and deportees — groups who are among the most likely international migrants. Migration tends to be sequential, beginning with internal displacement and eventually leading to international migration. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, more than 700,000 Central Americans are currently internally displaced as result of environmentally-induced poverty or gang violence. Rather than improve their situation, displacement aggravates it — they live in conditions of even more acute poverty and are at higher risk of violence than the general population.

Deportees are in equally desperate need of reintegration assistance, without which they will risk their lives and freedom to make a return journey. They are especially vulnerable to extortion, recruitment or revenge by the organized-crime groups or gangs they sought to escape. Those deported at the border return more destitute for having invested in a failed voyage. More established migrants who are forcibly returned lose access to income that sustained their families back home. They are deeply traumatized, face social stigmatization upon return and join the ranks of the informal economy. An unskilled Guatemalan deportee, making his way back to the United States a few weeks ago, said: “I have nothing to lose, I have no profession, no education, no hope. Going to prison is a risk I am willing to take.”

Finally, imagining Central American governments excitedly collaborating in deterring migration by addressing its root causes was a pipe dream. Those countries have historically been indifferent to the plight of their poor. Migration lets them off the hook and is good business to boot, with remittances contributing roughly 15 percent of Central America’s gross domestic product.

Their contributions to the project are at mixed at best. Honduras and El Salvador are, at least, investing in poverty alleviation and gang prevention projects, while Guatemala is failing to do much of anything. At the same time, both Honduras and Guatemala have become increasingly corrupt, authoritarian and overwhelmed by organized crime. The security and democracy aspirations of the assistance strategy have gone largely unmet and are contributing to a new wave of migrants fleeing political persecution.

The solutions aren’t obvious or easy. If the United States wants to demand more from the region, it needs to lead by example. Rather than waste millions on border walls and military deployments, it needs to dedicate greater assistance to the region in a manner that enhances the welfare of marginal communities and builds a strong and independent judiciary that guarantees citizen security. Furthermore, by failing to use its substantial leverage in the region to prevent democratic regression, the United States is exacerbating rather than stemming the causes of migration.

It is difficult to envision the president following such a course, which is also a shame. The strategy offers a welcome comprehensive response to reducing pressures to migrate, and both its major pitfalls and potential remedies are apparent. Trump could succeed where his predecessors fell short in regulating undocumented migration. And he could do so with bipartisan support in Congress.

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