Uninhabitable: Central America’s Northern Triangle and Beyond

Credit: Council on Foreign Relations

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Climate Columnist

Watching unaccompanied children entering our southern border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, I thought of my great-grandmother. She was an unaccompanied 13-yr-old fleeing abject poverty and starvation in Galway, Ireland. When she entered Ellis Island, her family had enough money for one third-class “steerage” around five pounds or about half the laborer’s yearly earnings. Traveling to the Northside of Pittsburgh, she lived with a distant relative that she had never met before. Later in life, she was well known for her generosity. She installed a shelf out of her Northside kitchen window and daily placed food for the needy. She would bake two pies, one for the family and the other for the window shelf. She knew hunger and lived in poverty, and that memory never left her. Moriah longed to see her family and homeland once more, but that was not to be.

Just as the Irish did during the potato famine, Central American parents are doing the hard thing out of fear. Facing systemic corruption, hopelessly struggling in an increasingly hostile climate with deadly gangs, these parents are sending offspring on a dangerous journey to America. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas summarized conditions: “Poverty, high levels of violence, and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries have propelled migration to our southwest border for years. The adverse conditions have continued to deteriorate. Two damaging hurricanes that hit Honduras and swept through the region made the living conditions there even worse, causing more children and families to flee. Mayorkas added, the Trump Administration “tore down the Central American Minors program that avoided the need for children to take the dangerous journey to our southwest border.”

The Atlantic Council Building a Better Future urged a “spirit of bipartisanship (that) has the potential to solve the region’s challenges once and for all.” Instead, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (also of Irish descent) and twelve Republican lawmakers took a trip to further divide Americans and politicize a humanitarian crisis. At the El Paso Central Processing Center, McCarthy claimed, “I came down here because I heard of the crisis. It’s more than a crisis, this is a human heartbreak. The sad part about all this, didn’t have to happen. This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration. There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis.” Biden’s policies did not create the ongoing crisis. Instead of seeking humane bipartisan solutions, McCarthy used the moment to shift blame. Hoping Americans would forget that the Trump administration tore down lawful pathways for children coming to the United States in a safe, efficient, and orderly way, McCarthy stoked further division. 

Migrants from the region are not new. Total migration had hit three million even before 2014. Since then, many unaccompanied minors appeared on the southwest border and faced Trump’s ill-treatment. McCarthy, working with the Trump administration, had the opportunity to fund the building safe and sufficient facilities to meet the needs of children seeking refuge instead of separating them from their parents or turning them back. McCarthy missed his chance to do the right thing. He is now looking for opportunities to demagog at the expense of asylum-seeking children. 

The mean-spirited practice of separating children from their parents was un-American. Representative Kevin McCarthy, Senator Mitch McConnell, and especially Donald Trump with Republican control, had four years to address the growing regional threats and failed to do anything. Mayorkas responded, “The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system. The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago.”

Instead of border walls, Trump’s efforts should have aimed at humanitarian interventions to confront crime and hunger in the region. They failed to fund foreign aid and appropriate interventions for crime prevention. Mayorkas noted, “The previous administration also cut foreign aid funding to the Northern Triangle. No longer did we resource efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to tackle the root causes of people fleeing their homes.”

Trump also reversed American efforts to address the profound threats of the climate crisis. Failing to end pollution, we must prepare for more mass migrations of displaced populations from uninhabitable regions. Here in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s overview summarized: “The U.S. has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion… The total cost of these 285 events exceeds $1.875 trillion.” Straddling the equator, conditions in the northern triangle are much worse. In the bullseye of the climate crisis, the region may soon become uninhabitable unless bold actions can end carbon pollution worldwide. In May 2017, the Atlantic Council Building a Better Future issued A Blueprint for Central America’s Northern Triangle warning, “To many Americans, the difficult issues facing Central America’s Northern Triangle…may seem distant, but the future of the United States is tied to these countries as some of our closest neighbors. Geography alone demonstrates that their stability and prosperity is critical to our national interest.” Amelia Cheatham writing for the Council on Foreign Relations 100 report Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle summarized things this way, “Agricultural setbacks, including unpredictable weather and destructive coffee rust, have fueled food insecurity and become a leading driver of migration… Experts say that population growth and climate change, which is linked to an increasing number of extreme weather events, could put further strain on Northern Triangle economies, pushing more to migrate.”

Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker wrote about how climate change that is forcing farmers in Guatemala to abandon their land, “in recent years, and what everyone said, almost to a person, was that over the last six or seven years, things really began to change. The weather patterns started to become erratic. The rains didn’t come when they were supposed to come. And increasingly, it became impossible for people to grow their staple crops – to grow potatoes, to grow maize. And as a result, they had not only nothing to eat but also nothing to survive on to sell. And so as a result, increasingly, people were abandoning their land and heading north.”

Mark L. Schneider of the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report entitled, Where Are the Northern Triangle Countries Headed? And What is U.S. Policy? The Northern Triangle has experienced “a dramatic impact on weather patterns, on rainfall, on soil quality, on crops’ susceptibility to disease, and thus on farmers and local economies. Meanwhile, incidences of storms, floods and droughts on are the rise in the region. In coming years, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, countries in the northern triangle will see decreased rainfall and prolonged drought, writ large. In Honduras, rainfall will be sparse in areas where it is needed, yet in other areas, floods will increase by 60%. In Guatemala, the arid regions will creep further and further into current agricultural areas, leaving farmers out to dry. And El Salvador is projected to lose 10-28% of its coastline before the end of the century. How will all those people survive, and where will they go? 

Regional violence and environmental degradation are inextricably linked. Mayorkas noting President Biden’s Executive Order, said ‘securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them.’ We are both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That is one of our proudest traditions.” As Mark Schneider concluded: “An unstable planet and ecosystem lends itself to an unstable society, to divisions, to economic insecurity, to human brutality. When someone’s home becomes less and less livable, they move elsewhere. Wouldn’t each-and-every one of us do the same?”

One Comment

  • Michael says:

    In a world where immigrants are too often vilified, what a humanizing way to relate the story of your grandmother to today’s immigrants. I never understood how descendants of immigrants could slam the border gates on those seeking entry into this country

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