Lofgren Introduces Bill to Address Root Causes of Migration From Central America

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Central American migrants cross the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on June 12, 2019, before turning themselves into U.S. Border Patrol agents to claim asylum. (Herika Martinez/Getty Images)

San Jose congresswoman Zoe Lofgren introduced legislation Thursday to address crippling violence, government dysfunction and poverty in Central America, which has led scores of people to flee the region and seek asylum in the U.S.

"The worst place to deal with a regional humanitarian crisis is at our own border. And we know that people are leaving for a reason," said Lofgren, a Democrat and former immigration lawyer, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.

The announcement comes just days after a drowned Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter were discovered and photographed face-down on the banks of the Rio Grande. Oscar Alberto Martinez and his toddler, Angie Valeria, had reportedly been waiting for months in Mexico to request asylum at an official port of entry before they attempted to cross the river.

Lofgren’s Northern Triangle and Border Stabilization Act would require the State Department to submit a five-year strategy to Congress geared at combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The bill, which calls for the U.S. to consult with nonprofits, regional governments and the Inter-American Development Bank, offers a remarkably different approach from the hard-line immigration enforcement priorities pushed by President Trump.

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At the president’s behest, officials with the State Department announced this month they are cutting $370 million in aid to Central America.

Trump has berated so-called Northern Triangle countries for not doing more to prevent thousands of their citizens from coming to the U.S. He has also threatened to impose steep tariffs on Mexico, and even close the border altogether.

In the last eight months, U.S. border officials arrested significantly more parents with children than at any time since 2013, when the agency began tracking family units. Asylum applications increased by nearly 70% between 2017 and 2018, according to government figures.

"What he’s doing is clearly not working," Lofgren told KQED on Wednesday. "In fact, what he’s doing is making things much worse. We cannot continue on the path the president is leading us on."

Lofgren’s bill would provide resources to hire additional U.S. immigration judges to tackle a backlog of more than 908,000 pending cases nationwide. It would also fund improvements at border detention facilities to improve care for women and children and allow more Central Americans to apply for asylum protection from their home countries.

“The Lofgren bill is, I think, a really constructive start to getting it right,” said Dan Restrepo, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, who served as an adviser on Latin America to President Barack Obama.

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Restrepo said that the Trump administration has already canceled a range of effective U.S. aid programs in Central America — from violence prevention to climate mitigation for farmers.

“A lot of times people in this argument say that we don't know what to do. And that's just not true,” said Restrepo. “We have programs that have worked in the real world in these countries that, for whatever reason, this president decided to stop doing. And predictably, migration has gotten worse in terms of the larger number of people fleeing these countries.”

Lofgren said her proposal would reward Central American governments and organizations that fight corruption and tie funds to measurable improvements in reducing gang violence and strengthening regional legal and educational systems. The bill, however, does not yet outline a specific budget to pay for the proposed plans.

“But I’ll tell you what — we are spending an enormous amount of money at our southern border with very little results,” she added.

Earlier this week, the House and Senate separately approved roughly $4.5 billion in emergency funding to handle the surge of migrants at the border. The bills, however, contain strikingly different proposals for how the funding should be allocated. The two chambers must now reconcile differences in the competing pieces of legislation before sending a final bill to Trump, who has suggested he would veto anything resembling the House's version.

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