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What we learned in the Northern Triangle: We will fail to fix this crisis if we keep thinking of it as a problem at the U.S.-Mexico border


The bodies of two boys who were kidnapped and killed arrive to a cemetery for burial on February 14, 2017 in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala. More than 2,000 people walked in a funeral procession for Carlos Daniel Xiqin, 10, and Oscar Armando Top Cotzajay, 11, who were reported abducted walking to school Friday morning. Residents found the boys stuffed in sacks over the weekend, with the boys' throats slashed and hands and feet bound. Neighbors reported a ransom demand was made. Such crimes have driven emigration from Guatemala to the United States, as families seek refuge from the violence. (John Moore/Getty Images)

We recently traveled to Central America’s Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — to understand better the surge in migrants seeking refuge in America. We learned that concentrating only on the numbers at the United States border is to focus on the symptoms and miss the underlying causes and reality thousands of miles further south.

In our five-day, three-country trip, many knowledgeable people generously shared their time and insights with us. Through the efforts of Catholic Relief Services, we met government officials of the local countries and the United States, NGO’s, humanitarian agencies, labor leaders, Church leaders, migration officials, farmers, family members and youth.

A clear but harrowing picture emerged: Many communities in these countries are wracked by gang violence, extortion, lack of opportunity and pervasive poverty. People are being driven from their homes, frequently, more than once displaced within their own countries before deciding to flee north.

One mother gave her young daughters birth control in case they are raped while heading north; many families are forced to pay “gang taxes” and too fearful to seek help from corrupt authorities; labor organizers violently and fatally attacked.

Bleak, without a doubt. But we also saw glimpses of progress. And we saw hope for change among many people that seems stronger than we would have imagined, given the distressing obstacles.

It was also clear that aid from the U.S. is making a positive impact on the ground in the Northern Triangle. We visited a youth program in one gang-violent neighborhood where we had to take extra security measures to pass through. This USAID-assisted program run by several NGOs has been providing an effective alternative to gang life, and job- and life-skills training and opportunities for hundreds of youth each year. Programs like these have created opportunities that make a difference in enabling families to stay and have eliminated the need to emigrate for some.

Are these initiatives perfect and sufficient? No. But recent threats to take away assistance could worsen conditions in these countries and increase the surge of migrants at the border of the United States.

There are some hopeful signs in dealing with the violence. All three countries have seen a recent decrease in homicides. In Honduras, new educational requirements and salary increases have improved the quality of the police. Again, not perfect and not uniformly felt by the people, but moving in a better direction.

U.S. border crossings had been on the decline for years, but the spike in families seeking asylum, largely from Honduras and Guatemala, is concerning. It’s the result of many trying to escape crippling poverty or being driven off failing farms by volatile coffee prices and climate-change-related droughts. Large numbers are fleeing violence, forced out of their homes by gangs or other threats, and women are fleeing violence and sexual assault.

Characterizing the current crisis “at the border" in ways that demonize and misrepresent reality exacerbates the problems and diverts us from establishing effective policies to address the crisis.

Rather than cause further harm, we should address the problems that force many to seek refuge and commit to supporting long-term programs that reduce the need to emigrate. Our country needs broad-based comprehensive immigration reform that treats asylum-seekers with dignity and respect.

Perhaps chance scheduling or more likely, providential grace, brought us, on the fifth day of Easter and the sixth day of Passover, to the chapel where Archbishop St. Oscar Romero gave his life for the sake of his Salvadorean people. As we prayed together there, it was not lost on an elected official, a labor leader and a religious nonprofit director that both Easter and Passover mark the triumph of hope over the darkness of slavery, suffering and death.

So we share the insight that we in the United States need to look beyond the southern border to see the faces of our neighbors in the Northern Triangle who need a strong, persevering helping hand to transform the present dire reality into a future of greater security and opportunity for all.

Sullivan is executive director of Catholic Charities of New York. Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. DiNapoli is controller of New York State.