Other Voices

August 13, 2014

Help immigrants stay at home

A decade-long, $8-billion U.S. aid program changed Columbia.

For the citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the surge of children from Latin America coming across the U.S. border is not simply an immigration story.

It is about more than unemployment, poverty, gang violence and the other forces that split families and lead parents to make desperate decisions.

As people from these countries repeatedly tell me, the crisis comes down to this: What will it take for my homeland to become a place where I can safely live, work and raise my children?

Fifteen years ago, people in my native Colombia asked the same painful question.

A seemingly endless cycle of violence fueled by insurgent groups and drug cartels, combined with widespread poverty, had made it difficult to believe that Colombia could ever escape its downward spiral.

But we did. Thanks in large part to Plan Colombia — a decade-long, $8-billion U.S. aid program to help rebuild institutions, eradicate drug production and expand social protection — Colombia has undergone an extraordinary turnaround.

Although it still struggles with high levels of crime, violence has dropped to a fraction of what it was in the 1990s. Investment is pouring in, economic growth is strong and, most important, young people no longer see migration as the only route to a better life.

Now, the presidents of Central America’s Northern Triangle nations are calling for a comparably ambitious joint effort that would combine foreign aid and local resources to attack the root causes of the immigration crisis.

Could such a plan work? Skeptics point out that Plan Colombia, launched under President Clinton and continued by President George W. Bush, enjoyed sustained bipartisan support that would be hard to summon today.

Others question the viability of working with three governments, each much smaller and poorer than Colombia was in the 1990s.

These are serious obstacles, but from my conversations with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, it is clear that they are determined to work together to craft a credible, accountable and achievable plan to present to potential supporters in Congress.

This plan will be credible if Central Americans believe it reflects their priorities and not an agenda imposed from abroad. Simply put, they want jobs, better education and healthcare, and law enforcement capable of ending violence and impunity.

In its early stages, critics of Plan Colombia dismissed it as expensive and unrealistic. But they underestimated Colombians’ strong desire to build a fulfilling life in their own country.

Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

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