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Originally published May 7, 2013 at 4:23 PM | Page modified May 7, 2013 at 7:16 PM

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Guest: Immigration reform opens new opportunity in Central America

The national immigration debate offers an opportunity for the U.S. to reposition its policies on Central America, writes guest columnist Mauricio Vivero.

Special to The Times

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FOR far too long, the federal government’s narrow focus on drug trafficking and border security has monopolized the conversation about neighboring Central America.

Creating more economic opportunities in Central America was one item on the agenda during President Obama’s visit to the region in March 2011. However, the issue was overshadowed by concerns about how to combat street gangs, transnational drug cartels and other criminal groups that threaten citizen security in both the U.S. and the region.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has spent more than $20 billion to combat the flow of narcotics that come from the Andes, through Central America and then head north.

Last year, $165 million was spent on the Central America Regional Security Initiative alone. It is the biggest investment the U.S. has made in Latin America since the Cold War. Drugs continue to flow, young people continue to join gangs and the region’s law-enforcement institutions continue to be weak, inefficient and subject to corruption

In Costa Rica on last week, Obama spoke not only about crime and violence, but also about the lack of opportunities millions of Central Americans face at home — a region that has the world’s highest homicide rates.

What has changed in two years?

Two words: immigration reform.

President Obama wants to build support for his bipartisan immigration-reform proposal. He wants to remind U.S. constituencies that he’s working on creating renewed economic partnerships in Central America.

He hopes Central American presidents will lead efforts to educate their people about immigration legislation in the U.S. and will also bolster initiatives which go hand-in-hand with the bill’s specifics, such as, low-skilled worker programs that could award up to 200,000 visas a year.

He said so himself in a recent interview with Spanish-language network Telemundo, “I’m looking forward to having a couple of days of important consultations and emphasizing, underscoring, how important it is for us within this Western Hemisphere to be able to strengthen our economic ties.” The president says this is key to “seeing fewer problems with respect to undocumented immigration.”

Obama needs to support a comprehensive approach to the problems that plague Central America. Lack of economic opportunity, crime and violence all contribute to migratory flows and the situation seems to be getting worse. For example, Mexican authorities estimate 400,000 Central Americans a year pass through Mexico on their way to the United States.

As this flow increases, there are related social costs: Human trafficking of young women and children from Central America has risen dramatically and U.S.-Mexico border violence has increased.

A comprehensive approach has to help tackle the economic drivers. Central America is battling endemic poverty, lack of access to education and health care, high levels of impunity for lawbreakers, and problems of hunger. These are the real reasons its citizens head to the United States illegally.

Along with the economic issues, Central America needs a comprehensive approach to the problems of crime and violence. It has to see the problem as a complex one — it includes youth violence as well as drugs, street crime as well as organized crime and it can’t be solved by focusing only on one piece of the problem and ignoring the others.

Central America has to respond to crime and insecurity with smarter law-enforcement strategies that strengthen the capacity of the police across the board, joined with a real effort to reform its justice systems, and with investment in community-based violence-prevention programs that target youth.

The U.S. could use immigration reform as an opportunity to reposition its agenda in Central America. Obama has an unprecedented opportunity to push for policies that put sustainable economic development, smart law enforcement, institutional reform and strengthening, and investment in prevention above a frontal war on drugs. It is also the moment to demand greater accountability of the region’s leaders.

Millions of Central Americans have been waiting for a bigger commitment. If played right, this could be it.

Mauricio Vivero is the founding executive director of the Seattle International Foundation, which supports poverty-alleviation efforts globally, with a strategic focus on Central America.

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