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Central America and the U.S. Immigration Mess

For the last two weeks the nation has been fixated on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the separation of children from their families as they are intercepted trying to illegally enter the country. Worldwide condemnation of this child abuse policy forced Trump to end the practice of dividing families, but the central focus on a policy of strong border deterrence as a means of stabilizing our Southern border has not changed. There must be a better way.

The place to begin is to seek some understanding of the dimensions of the so-called “immigration crisis.” In point of fact, there is no crisis. Trump administration rhetoric has greatly exaggerated the problem in order to excite his base in preparation for the 2018 Congressional elections. The number of illegal immigrants in the United States peeked in 2007 at 12.2 million. In 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available, that number declined to 11 million. Since the Great Recession (2008) more undocumented immigrants have left the United States than have entered. In 2017, illegal border crossings hit a 46 year low. Statistics also show that crime rates among undocumented immigrants are about half the rates of U.S. citizens despite Trump’s claims to the contrary.

Yes, there is a problem with Central America. Border Patrol apprehensions of families fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have amounted to 252,187 since the beginning of the current fiscal year. These people are fleeing persistent poverty, and widespread violence perpetrated by gangs and drug cartels.

When looking for solutions to the problem, the example of Mexico is helpful. Over the last ten years, illegal immigration from Mexico has dried up. In fact, more Mexicans are returning to their homeland than are crossing the border illegally. What is behind this hopeful trend? Increased border security has nothing to do with it. The key has been an improving Mexican economy.

In recent years, the Mexican economy has stabilized with record low inflation and interest rates, an unemployment rate of 3.2%, and annual GDP growth averaging a little less than 3%. The economy has produced good jobs with impressive growth in the industrial and service sectors. An important reason for this success is NAFTA, a policy consequence the Trump administration has not been able to understand because of its vision of the world defined by an American first ideology and a long list of resentments. NAFTA has provided investment dollars and a market for Mexican exports which have enabled the nascent industrial and service sectors to flourish.

The core problem in Central America is weak and unstable governments. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras do not have governments with the ability to successfully challenge drug cartel and gang induced violence. Political stability is also an important prerequisite for sustained economic growth.

It embarrasses me to point out that U.S. government policy over the last two hundred years has played an important role in creating this problem of weak political institutions. We have treated Central America as if it was our own backyard. We have intervened countless times in these countries to protect our economic interests, to maintain law and order, to prevent a government we did not like from assuming power, and to place someone in power who would do our bidding. I cannot think of one intervention that was made to support a government championing economic and political reform.

With regard to Guatemala, Col. Arbenz Guzman won a fair election in 1950 as a social reformer. When he initiated land reforms that threatened the assets of the United Fruit Company, the CIA organized an invasion to overthrow him. This led to a thirty-five year civil war between U.S. backed governments and leftwing guerillas.

The same pattern applies to Honduras. In the late 19th century, the Honduran government granted land and substantial economic incentives to American agricultural and infrastructure companies. American troops were sent to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925 to protect those interests. Those American companies did a good job sending home profits to American investors, but did little to help Honduran political leaders create a diversified economy.

In the case of El Salvador, political and economic instability ruled from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century. Coups, revolts, and authoritarian governments backed by the United States dominated this period. These opposing groups fought a devastating civil war which dominated Salvadoran society from 1979 to 1992. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward the three countries can best be characterized as benign neglect.

As the Mexican example suggests, the only lasting solution to the current immigration problem is to attack root causes. With regard to the three Central American governments discussed above, this will require economic aid to develop infrastructure, investment dollars to diversify the three economies, and tariff concessions to enable early stage companies to export. It will also require aid to help train the military, police, and political elite to undertake their responsibilities with increased effectiveness. The choice is to spend billions of dollars constructing a border wall or to help finance an aid program along the lines described above. The example of Mexico tells us the latter approach would produce much greater results.

Such an approach to economic and political development is based on a vision of neighbor need rather than short-term political advantage. It’s a win/win policy that both benefits the recipient country and the United States by reducing the forces pushing endangered citizens to immigrate. Many Christians like to think of themselves as political realists, people who separate their religious beliefs from their political positions. Religion is about salvation. Politics is about attaining economic and ideological gains.

The example of Central America and the immigration mess shows quite clearly that a policy based on short-term national interest is responsible for creating the problem. Maybe it’s time to trust our best instincts and enact policies that help people in need to develop their economies and to create stable political institutions.

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