Just over twenty years ago, I was a newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras just months after Hurricane Mitch hit. I was shocked by the damage I saw. Massive mudslides had wiped homes off the sides of mountains and buried farms in debris; roads and bridges had been washed out, cutting off all public transportation. Even areas spared from immediate damage experienced the lingering effects of the hurricanes, including shortages of food and medicine, long lines for basic supplies, and entire crops that spoiled when they could not be transported to market. Schools were closed and classes disrupted for countless children, especially in rural areas.
At that time, a Republican Congress worked with a Democratic president to pass bipartisan legislation to provide emergency funding for long-term recovery and assistance. Over the next two years, I saw the tangible benefits of this aid, including the repair of school buildings, bridges, and roads, and witnessed how U.S. government assistance provided a lifeline for those who wanted to remain in their communities and rebuild their lives, to provide food for their families, and to go back to continue with their education. I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand how direct aid can dramatically impact people’s ability to stay in the land they love.
In November, I experienced déjà vu as I watched Hurricanes Eta and Iota unleash similar destruction across Central America. Early on, the U.S. State Department said that the damage caused by Eta and Iota is on the scale of Mitch, “if not bigger.” But so far, we haven’t seen the U.S. government commit to recovery on the same scale. Today, as an advocate for Kids in Need of Defense, I am no longer working in a community with local people struggling to rebuild their lives after a devastating disaster. I am, however, at work here to urge Congress to support President Biden’s plan to provide $4 billion in aid for Central America over the next four years, funds that would help the region rebuild, address the root causes of migration, and serve as a vital part of immigration reform.
When Hurricane Eta hit Central America, it caused massive flooding across the region. A week later, Hurricane Iota reached category 5 levels before making landfall near the same location. Iota compounded the destruction of Eta, bringing heavy rainfalls resulting in landslides, flash flooding, and power outages. More than five million people were impacted by the storms, including hundreds of thousands of families that have been displaced. Families made homeless by the hurricanes have been forced to stay in crowded shelters, placing them at even greater risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19. The conditions are worst for women and children, who are more vulnerable to abuse and violence during disasters and humanitarian responses.
Eta and Iota are the most recent in a trend of increasingly destructive storms to hit the region. The storms also arrived on top of multiple ongoing crises that have stacked up over the past two decades. Violence, particularly violence against women and children, has steadily increased over time and remained stubbornly pervasive, notably resulting in a sharp rise in the number of children and families risking their lives to seek safety in the United States. Over the past several years, poverty and hunger have been on the rise; the UN has warned of impending famine in the region. When the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the world last year, the World Health Organization warned that Latin America was amongst the regions hit the hardest.
And yet, despite these cascading crises, the United States has taken a step back on foreign assistance to the region. Under the Trump Administration, budget requests for Central America were unconscionably low, culminating in the Administration’s decision in 2019 to freeze all aid to the region for over a year—a punitive, counter-productive measure that cut off lifesaving assistance, and diminished the programs designed to reduce forced migration. People and their communities are still hurting from the sudden termination of these programs and the irreparable damage it caused. When it comes to foreign assistance, we have a lot of catching up to do.
In providing vital and bipartisan support to Central America in the past, Congress has recognized that stable neighbors that can provide protection and opportunity for their citizens are in the interests of the United States, as well as the region. The assistance that President Biden has requested is another opportunity to do just that and it comes as communities across the region face dire conditions.
By passing the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and funding President Biden’s request for assistance to the region, Congress would help ensure stability and opportunity in the region that would help countless families and children now and into the future. I know from my own experience that this assistance could help families avoid the heartbreaking decision to leave their homes, their communities, and their countries to seek safety and opportunity elsewhere.
In discussing the dire conditions on the ground with a close friend from Honduras, he told me, “Hondureños tienen su tierra en sus corazones y quieren quedarse en su pais.” Hondurans hold their homeland in their hearts and want to stay in their country. He wanted to know if the United States was willing to help them rebuild their country so they could stay in the land they love.