DoL Plan for Labor Market Work in the Northern Triangle Misses Mark

By David North on August 6, 2021

The Department of Labor (DoL), my old stomping grounds, has just released a grant opportunity notice (worth $7 million) regarding labor market assistance in the Northern Triangle that manages to avoid the main problem for the U.S. — the huge numbers of people from those nations crossing our southern borders — completely.

In soccer terms (a game played widely in that part of the world) it is an own goal.

The Biden administration has taken some steps to address the underlying conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that are causing (along with a wimpy enforcement policy) the surge at the southern border that my colleagues Art Arthur and Todd Bensmen write about frequently.

But DoL's recent announcement suggests that it did not hear about the president’s concern (and that of the vice president), or their pledges to do some nation-building to encourage people in the three Northern Triangle countries to stay at home, and not risk the expensive and dangerous trip through Mexico to Texas.

Let’s start with a single negative: There is not a single mention in the notice of international migration, much less the illegal migration that the administration says it wants to discourage.

While I am a man of the left, have been working with these issues for 60 years, and am worried about the Garifuna, the indigenous population of these nations (formerly called Indians), and of course, child labor — all the foci of the announcement — it would seem that forces creating today’s crisis at the Rio Grande should be the main subject of any such technical assistance.

Of course we should encourage better treatment for the Garifuna (a population of mixed African and indigenous Caribbean descent who were 17th century refugees settled along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, initially), a people who have been discriminated against by the Hispanics who run these countries, and numbering some 65,000 in 1981 according to Wikipedia.

And, of course, we should worry about the much more numerous indigenous tribe members, many of whom do not speak Spanish and who are routinely mistreated by the Hispanics and mestizos who run these nations.

And, yes, while child labor is to be discouraged, vigorously, and some uses of child labor may have forced unemployment on some adults in the Northern Triangle, it probably has little to do with the emigrant tides on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In fact, the emphasis on Garifuna, the indigenous people, and child labor seems like old times, the kinds of things that Madame Perkins, FDR’s secretary of Labor, might have — appropriately — worried about in the 1930s. (I met her after she retired.)

If DoL is going to spend $7 million on technical assistance in the Northern Triangle to help create an environment from which people do not flee, it should:

  • Find out through a modest (say $200,000) study of the people crossing the border exactly where they come from, what conditions they are escaping, and what their demographics are. I have been reading about the current border-crossers (and did a lot of DoL-funded research at the border a generation ago) and never heard of the Garifuna in either connection.
  • Determine from that research the geographical and demographic composition of the migrants and identify the specific areas of concentration.
  • And then set in motion the community-organization activities that would tend to encourage people to stay at home in the places of emigrant concentration. We suggested some ideas in an earlier series of posts.

If we are going to spend $7 million or more on nation-building in this unhappy area of the world, we should focus on issues that will help both the working people of the Northern Triangle and our own migration situation.