Marshall Plan for Central America would restore hope, end migrant border crisis

William Lambers
From the moment they are detained, migrants receive insufficient medical treatment. We worry the word 'migrant' will become synonymous with 'inhuman.'

If we truly want to end the migrant crisis at our border, there must be a Marshall Plan for Central America. We've heard many calls for such a plan, most recently from 2020 presidential candidate Julian Castro in the first Democratic debate.

A Marshall Plan today would provide the most important thing the people of Central America need: Hope. For that is exactly what the original Marshall Plan did for Europe after World War II.

What we saw last week of Vice President Mike Pence visiting overcrowded facilities at the U.S-Mexican border looked hopeless. Migrants were in sweltering hot, filthy rooms with only concrete to sleep on. We must take action to improve the care for migrant adults and children, but we must also realize that's just the tip of the iceberg. 

Charities like Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, and the World Food Programme see the horrible, impoverished conditions where the migrants come from in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). They know that aid is crucial because you have to address the root causes behind migration. No one would make the dangerous journey from these nations through Mexico to America unless they were desperate.

'Food is the basis of reconstruction'

The original Marshall Plan was forged when Europe was desperate. Secretary of State George Marshall, when proposing the European recovery plan, said U.S policy should be "against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos." That is a sound foreign policy for America to follow always.

Marshall said the goal of such a plan should be "the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist."

But the Marshall Plan would never have succeeded in Europe without first tackling the hunger crisis there. No program for economic recovery can succeed without food as the foundation. As Marshall himself said,  "Food is the very basis of all reconstruction." 

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Congress passed a pre-Marshall Plan of food and agricultural assistance in 1947. This interim aid program helped stabilize the hunger crisis in Europe so a recovery program could succeed. As President Harry Truman said, "The gift of these supplies by the people of the United States meant something more — this aid represented also a symbol of hope for their future."

Scale up food aid to Central America

The American people also did their own little "Marshall Plans" with fundraisers to feed the hungry in the war-torn nations. Catholic Relief Services provided school meals to children in Austria after the war. Hungry bodies were filled with nutrition and minds and hearts were filled with hope.

Today, food is essential for solving the migrant crisis in Central America. Hunger is a major source of instability in the Northern Triangle. Lack of food is one of the push factors causing families to make the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States.

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By providing more support to farmers in Central America, we could help them get through frequent drought conditions there. Providing food at school helps impoverished families by ensuring their children are fed.

All these types of assistance were hallmarks of the spirit of the Marshall Plan in those war recovery years. But you have to provide enough funding and support to make it work.

Generosity is still the road to peace

What's particularly tragic about the U.S. debate over immigration is that so much attention and potentially resources have been put into plans that won't solve the crisis. A border wall, for example, does not get at any of the root causes behind migration to America. 

Food aid programs struggle to get funding, with budget cuts often proposed. This hurts our efforts at helping Central America and the many other regions in distress around the world. 

The Marshall Plan brought stability after the world's most horrific war. It should remind us that generosity and giving people hope is still the road to peace in our world. A Marshall Plan for Central America will end the crisis we face today.

William Lambers partnered with the United Nations World Food Program on the book "Ending World Hunger." He is also the author of "The Spirit of the Marshall Plan."  Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamLambers

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: End migrant border crisis with new Marshall Plan for Central America