Illegal immigration from Central America remains a big U.S. concern - enough so that a conference begins in Miami Thursday at which Central American leaders and U.S. cabinet members will try to hash out how to pull the region out of its violent and impoverished tail spin.
"If the U.S. is genuinely concerned about its hemispheric security and irregular immigration, the most effective way to address it is to invest in us," Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández told WLRN in an interview shortly after arriving in Miami for the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America.
"I hope this conference is a chance for each of us to review our responsibilities," he said, adding that the U.S.'s voracious appetite for illegal drugs is a big cause of Central America's narco-trafficking mayhem.
Drug gang violence has in fact made Central America’s northern triangle of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala the world’s deadliest zone outside Syria. A few years ago, unaccompanied Honduran children pouring over the U.S. border were a wake-up call to the region’s crisis.
At the time, Hernández urged the U.S. to create what he called a “Marshall Plan” of social aid for the northern triangle. Then U.S. President Barack Obama responded with a billion-dollar proposal, including police and judicial reform, called the Alliance for Prosperity.
Hernández said he believes that approach can work - and to a certain extent has begun to work.
“We’ve lowered Honduras’ murder rate by 35 percent in the past few years," he said. "We saw almost 5 percent economic growth in our last quarter – meaning more job opportunities for young people who are recruitment targets for the gangs...And so I think we’re seeing fewer Hondurans wanting to leave the country for the U.S.”
The Presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador are also in Miami for the conference, a two-day event hosted by the U.S. and Mexico that will be held at Florida International University and the U.S. military’s Southern Command.
It will also feature U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence. But a big question hanging over the event is whether President Trump will continue – or cancel – support for efforts like the Alliance for Prosperity that aim to address illegal immigration at its source instead of at the border.
“The proposed U.S. budget cuts for Central America are highly significant, and I hope we can review that at this conference," said Hernández. "On trade, drug trafficking, immigration, this hemisphere is like an ecosystem and I think the U.S. agrees there should be a special, shared strategy for Central America...I believe President Trump will keep on that path.”
Hernández, who took office in 2014, added he's concerned about the treatment of Honduran immigrants in the U.S., warning that their mass deportation back to Honduras could be counter-productive to improving conditions there.
He also said his government is tackling Honduras’ notorious corruption (his 2013 campaign was involved in a massive government financial scandal, but he insists he had no knowledge of it) and its human rights problems - both of which also drive illegal immigration.