Politics of Poverty

Two opportunities on Central America the Obama administration shouldn’t miss this week

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U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hugs a child during his visit to downtown Villa Nueva, in the outskirts of Guatemala City, March 3, 2015 | Photo: Reuters

If the Obama administration truly wants to address Central American immigration, these are two opportunities they should seize.

Vicki Gass is the Central America Policy Advisor at Oxfam America.

1,695. That is the number by which violent deaths in Central America rose – from 15,727 in 2014 to 17,422 in 2015.  Wow.

Citizen insecurity coupled with food insecurity and economic insecurity are the driving forces behind the surge of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the US-Mexican border.

This week, the Obama Administration has two opportunities to address the humanitarian crisis that Central Americans are living today: President Obama’s State of the Union Address and Vice-President Biden’s trip to Guatemala to attend the inauguration of President-elect Jimmy Morales.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama should pledge to immediately end the deportation of Central American children and families. They pose no threat to national security.  Instead, the President should acknowledge the driving factors forcing people to flee their homes, and reconfirm the US. government’s commitment to address the root causes of violence, hunger and unemployment in Central America.

This will send an important message to policy makers here and in Central America’s Northern Triangle: fundamental structural change – economically, socially and politically – is needed to enable people to stay in their homes. If the White House were to ask me, I would suggest the President invite a Central American immigrant to sit next to the empty chair in the First Lady’s box representing a US victim of gun violence to represent the millions who are forced to flee because of violence in their communities. That would send a powerful message.

The second opportunity is on Thursday, January 14, when Vice-President Joe Biden will attend the inauguration of Guatemala’s president-elect Jimmy Morales.  In Guatemala, Mr. Biden should urge the new president – a first-time politician and well-known comedian – to move quickly on much needed reforms to promote transparency and put in place anti-corruption measures. A good place to start would be requiring all high-level public officials to declare their income and assets, and reestablishing the position of Vice-Minister of Transparency in the Ministry of Public Finances.

I hope Vice President Biden effectively communicates to the new president that it is in the interest of both our countries to put combating poverty and inequality at the center of all public policies to improve the livelihoods of all citizens. Guatemala should also prioritize reforming its the tax system so they have more resources to invest in education, healthcare, equitable access to land and other productive resources.  Without a fairer and more progressive tax system, reducing poverty will be a growing challenge for the incoming Morales government.

The US President and Vice President taking these actions in the same week would send an important message to Mr. Morales as well as to the region’s other presidents present at the inauguration that the US government is serious about tackling the root causes forcing their citizens to flee.

After all, the US Congress has conditioned aid to the three countries on making progress in doing so.

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