The comedian Milton Berle had a bit of shtick for moments when his audience broke out in uproarious laughter and applause at one of his jokes: He would hold up one hand like a traffic cop signaling stop, even as his other hand, held lower down, beckoned the audience on.

When I think of Berle’s old sight gag today, it conjures up an image of the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — standing with their backs to the U.S. border and holding up one hand like traffic cops, while with the other they motion the migrants from their home countries to keep a-comin’.

Because as applause was to Berle, migrants are a bonanza to the Northern Triangle economies.

That reality is captured in the term “workers’ remittances” found in the International Monetary Fund’s “Balance of Payments and International Investment Position Manual.”

In discussions of illegal immigration to the United States, remittances hardly figure in the picture, especially in the mainstream media and among the commentariat. But they should.

Dry sounding “workers’ remittances” represent money that migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador send back home to their families and communities. By any measure, remittances have more transformative economic power in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala than all U.S. aid contributions to those countries combined.

A little context.

Some two-thirds of all emigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean reside in the United States, making this country the largest — and, given our economy and currency, the most reliable — source of remittances for the region. Workers’ remittances — money sent by people working mostly in low-paid jobs in housekeeping, construction, food preparation, etc. — are a crucial source of investment and external financing for the Northern Triangle.

In 2018, remittances from the United States to the Northern Triangle region exceeded $19 billion, accounting for 21 percent of gross domestic product in El Salvador, 20 percent in Honduras and 12 percent in Guatemala. The following year, remittances again made up a fifth of El Salvador’s and Honduras’s GDPs, and they accounted for 14 percent of Guatemala’s.

The flows remain steady. After a dip caused by covid-19 in 2020, remittances to the Northern Triangle economies returned to pre-pandemic levels.

To be sure, socioeconomic and security conditions — poverty, violence, natural disasters, poor governance — push asylum seekers and migrants, including families and children, many unaccompanied, to make the risky journey north.

But the main incentive for migration is economic: no jobs, not enough work or wages too low to live on or cover a family’s needs. In addition, family unification — the desire to rejoin a spouse or parents — is a strong push.

In efforts to help turn the Northern Triangle into a region in which to stay, successive U.S. administrations have directed millions upon millions toward economic growth and social welfare programs.

The Biden White House is also reversing the Trump administration’s xenophobic, racist and cruelty-based approach to migration, replacing those horrible practices with what will hopefully prove to be more humane, safe and orderly processes. The media should watch and report on how it performs as carefully as it monitored the Trump debacle. And Biden is also proposing to spend $4 billion more in the region over four years.

Northern Triangle leaders may listen stoically as Vice President Harris delivers her “do not come” message of dissuasion to migrants. They may even delight in Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweeted retort: “The U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

But those leaders can’t brush past the fact that their people residing in the United States are putting food on the table and covering family emergencies and medical expenses back home. They, not their governments, are the lifelines for their families.

The Biden administration may steadfastly focus on getting at the region’s “root causes” with more dollars, public jawboning about corruption, and pleas to turn away from wicked ways of the past and toward “good governance” policies.

But if Biden and Harris believe their message is going to cause the Northern Triangle trio to do anything to disrupt the billions in workers’ remittances flowing from here to there, that would be a joke to impress even the great Milton Berle.

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