Op-Eds

This past spring, Americans were stunned to see tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families arriving at our country's southern border. These migrants weren't sneaking across an unsecure border, trying to evade border patrol agents. They were surrendering voluntarily, often seeking asylum.

Most of these migrants were coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – three Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle. I visited all three of these countries last year. During my time there, I saw first-hand how the lack of security, economic opportunity and hope for the future in these countries led so many parents to do the unthinkable – to put their children in the hands of smugglers to undertake a dangerous 1,500-mile journey to the United States.

Corruption and violence in the Northern Triangle are widespread, fueled in part by America's appetite for illegal drugs. The governments are weak, and all too often fail to deliver the basic services Americans take for granted. I heard many stories about how police officers don't police, prosecutors don't prosecute and judges don't administer justice.

Gangs rule large swaths of these countries, using the threat of violence to recruit teenagers and young children. These gangs routinely extort the public and force small businesses to close – 15,000 in Honduras alone – causing hope for a more prosperous future to fade.

Thankfully, the surge of migration at our border has significantly receded, due to seasonal factors and coordinated efforts by the United States, Mexico and Central America. But if we don't address the root causes driving people on the desperate journey north, we will witness this phenomenon again.

I believe that, despite the adversity these countries are facing, a long-term solution is within reach because we have helped address this kind of problem before.

Several hundred miles to the Northern Triangle's south lies Colombia, which is today a prosperous democracy. It was a very different place 30 years ago.

In 1985, Colombian leftist rebels took the country's Supreme Court hostage, leading to the deaths of 11 justices and almost 100 other people. Violent paramilitary groups controlled much of Colombia's countryside and powerful drug cartels operated with impunity. But just as hope was fading, ordinary Colombians and some courageous leaders resolved to take back their country.

It didn't happen overnight, or without suffering and sacrifice. But with the help of the United States and others, Colombians initiated "Plan Colombia," a national strategy to bring order, foster economic growth, and take down the cartels and rebels. Over the next decade, Colombians pulled their country back from the abyss.

Inspired by Plan Colombia's successes, in November the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – joined by Vice President Joe Biden – announced their own coordinated effort to take back their countries.

The "Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle" directs action in four key areas: fostering economic growth by strengthening trade and building critical infrastructure such as roads, energy pipelines and the electric grid; investing in education and workforce development; promoting the rule of law by tackling corruption, improving public safety and strengthening the judicial system; and rebuilding citizens' trust in the government by increasing transparency and improving the delivery of basic services.

This past November, I witnessed the strategy's first steps in a visit to Honduras, the "murder capital of the world." I was pleased to see considerable efforts underway, led by a new president committed to making fundamental changes.

Honduras is purging its corrupt federal police force, rebuilding it with better-trained and screened individuals. In the meantime, it is temporarily deploying military police to help patrol city streets. With the cooperation of Mexico, the Inter-American Development Bank and others, plans are moving forward to provide affordable energy options and improve roads. The U.S. Agency for International Development, partnering with communities and companies, is providing thousands of youth with safe havens for after-school activities. Youth are being encouraged to stay in Honduras and help build its future. Hundreds of small businesses have reopened. There are promising signs in Guatemala and El Salvador as well, bolstered by an unprecedented commitment among the three nations to work together.

With courage, hard work, leadership and help from their neighbors, the Northern Triangle could follow in Colombia's footsteps. Given that America's drug addiction contributes to the misery in the Northern Triangle, we need to be part of that effort. We can't do it for them, but we have a moral – and fiscal – obligation to help.

Over the past decade, our nation has spent nearly $250 billion to strengthen our borders and enforce our immigration laws. Meanwhile, we have spent less than 1 percent of that amount to help address the root causes – fear, hopelessness, lack of economic opportunity and corruption – that compel so many Central Americans to risk life and limb to come here.

The children and families arriving at our border truly are some of the neighbors we're reminded to love as ourselves in the parable of the Good Samaritan. By tackling the root causes driving this surge in migration, and helping these countries help themselves, we will not only make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of people – we'll likely save American taxpayers billions of dollars.

This op-ed ran in The News Journal (link)