The swarm of immigrants who came across the border this year, including more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors, could wind up paling in comparison to an immigration crisis looming on the horizon. Famine is a growing concern across Central America because of persistent drought.
The driving force behind the recent influx was a mix of economic distress, lousy living conditions and gangs terrorizing the migrants’ neighborhoods. In many cases, migrants were in contact with family members already in the United States and saw this country as the quickest and easiest way to escape a life of misery.
The next wave, however, could be driven by a much more formidable force: abject hunger. Central America is in the middle of a serious two-year drought. USAID’s Famine Early Warning System stated in early August that Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua are on the verge of a food crisis because of growing, widespread crop failures from scant rainfall. In some areas, rainfall is 50 percent to 75 percent below average.
The drought also is affecting Costa Rica and Panama. Panama Canal operations are on the verge of being curtailed because of declining levels on the freshwater lake that comprises the bulk of the canal route.
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Elsewhere, farm output is expected to drop as much as 70 percent. Prices for staple foods like maize and beans are escalating. A coffee bean blight is adding to economic woes. Thousands of Central Americans who rely on subsistence farming no longer know where their meals will come from. The famine report warns that the need for food could cause residents to pack up and leave.
“This situation is particularly critical in northern Nicaragua, where the drought has had the greatest impact,” the famine report says. “These factors will force households in the areas of concern to implement atypical response strategies including atypical migration and sale of household assets.”
In July, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona proposed using the threat of an aid cutoff to pressure Central American governments into cooperating to stem the flow of migrants northward. This newspaper agreed with the idea of making the threat – just to get those nations’ attention. The strategy worked.
Foreign aid is most effective, however, when used not as a hammer but as an incentive for desperate people to stay put. Bumping up aid levels would help get food to those who need it now – before their hunger-driven desperation again sends them swarming to our border.
After Hurricane Mitch devastated El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998, an estimated 150,000 Central Americans sought temporary protected status in the United States. That provides just a taste of the crisis that could lie ahead if Washington fails to take preventive action now.