The debate around a border wall and immigration has become so distorted by President Donald Trump’s superheated nonsense — we must build a wall to keep out all these rapists and murderers, and Mexico will pay for it — that we’ve forgotten what it would sound like if we actually had a president framing the real border issue in a really honest way to come up with a real solution — not just one to energize his base.
Unfortunately, we have a president who wants to spend $5.7 billion on a wall to fix his political problems with Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. When what we need is a president who wants to spend $5.7 billion on a multipronged strategy that will address the actual immigration challenge we face.
Here is how a real president would explain it:
My fellow Americans, we face a global crisis: More people are on the move today seeking jobs, asylum from murderous governments, safety from environmental disasters or just looking for order than at any time since World War II — some 70 million people.
Why now? Answer: During the late 19th and the 20th centuries the world shifted from being governed by large empires in many regions to being governed by independent nation-states. And the 50 years after World II were a great time to be a weak little nation-state — for several reasons.
First, because there were two superpowers competing for your affection by throwing foreign aid at you, building your army, buying your cheap goods and educating your kids at their universities. Second, climate change was moderate. Third, populations were still under control in the developing world. Fourth, no one had a cellphone to easily organize movements against your government or even see what Paris or Phoenix looked like. Fifth, China was not in the World Trade Organization, so every poor country could be in textiles and other low-wage industries.
All those advantages disappeared in the early 21st century. Climate-driven extreme weather — floods, droughts, record-setting heat and cold — on top of man-made deforestation began to hammer many countries, especially their small-scale farmers. Developing-world populations exploded thanks to improved health care. Africa went from 140 million people in 1900 to 1 billion in 2010 to a projected 2.5 billion by 2050. The same surge happened in Central America, in countries like Guatemala.
Meanwhile, the smartphone enabled citizens to easily compare their living standards with Paris or Phoenix — and find a human trafficker app to take them there. Also, China joined the WTO, gobbling up low-wage industries, and the end of the Cold War meant no superpower wanted to touch your country, because all it would win was a bill.
The result: It’s much harder to be a weak country today, and the weakest of them are starting to fail or fracture and hemorrhage their people. That’s Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela in our hemisphere and Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa across the Atlantic.
This is creating wide zones of “disorder” — and the biggest geopolitical trend in the world is all the people trying to get out of zones of disorder into the world of order. And that is what’s creating all the populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant backlashes in the world of order — particularly in America and Europe.
That is the real context for this immigration crisis. What’s the answer? Well, if you look at what slowed the flood of single Mexican men illegally and legally coming to America in the last decade, it was the combination of greater economic opportunity in Mexico, thanks in part to NAFTA, plus slower population growth in Mexico, plus improved governance in Mexico, plus better border security along the Mexico-U.S. border.
That same formula has to be applied now to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They have become the primary source of all those migrants and caravans coming to America today, including 187,000 minors without adult guardians, who were picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol between 2014 and 2018. Their parents sent them our way to connect with relatives already here or to be shielded from forced gang recruitment and violence.
A report last June by the Council on Foreign Relations noted, “In 2015, the latest year for which data is available, as many as 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were living in the United States, more than double the estimated 1.5 million people in 2000.” Because of rampant corruption and gang warfare, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans each year pay an estimated total of $651 million in extortion to organized crime groups. These gangs, like MS-13, exploded in Central America in the mid-1990s “following large-scale deportations from the United States of undocumented immigrants with criminal records.”
That’s why, among other things, a smart U.S. immigration policy would promote family planning in rural areas in Central America. Letting America’s religious right limit U.S. family planning assistance abroad is stupid.
The only thing more stupid is not working to mitigate climate change, which Trump refuses to do. Extreme weather has been disrupting small-scale farming in Central America. And when small-scale farming weakens or collapses, people leave the countryside and flock to the city. And if they find high unemployment and high crime rates there, they head to America.
At the same time, we need an investment shock by local and foreign companies and governments to build infrastructure, tourism and trade in Central America so more people can thrive there, especially when 61 percent of the population is under 29 years of age.
Alas, though, investment rates average just 12 percent of gross domestic product in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, while in Mexico it’s 26 percent.
Yes, both legal and illegal immigrants actually contribute, on balance, to American growth, but there is no question that border security, asylum courts, resettlement and absorption facilities put pressure on federal, state and local governments. But ...
The U.S. could spend millions of dollars to help stabilize Central American countries — so that more of their citizens could stay home, which most immigrants prefer — and we’d still save money and reduce illegal immigration. It costs us anywhere from $14,000 to $38,000 to detain and deport a single migrant.
Finally, we also need fences, drones and sensors to strengthen the border in places.
But rather than building a $5.7 billion wall against Mexico, what we need most is to help Mexico improve its capacity to intercept migrants at its southern border with Guatemala — where all Central American migrants headed north have to pass. It’s not that hard. There are only two main roads out of Guatemala to the north, with a mountain in the middle. It’s called Mexico’s “Tehuantepec isthmus bottleneck.”
If we worked with Mexico to create better entry-point infrastructure there with biometric controls and improved ability to inspect vehicles, people and merchandise to stop smugglers — and even interview potential asylum-seekers there — we would significantly reduce the numbers coming out of Central America, crossing Mexico and piling up at our border.
In sum, we need a plan that creates a wall, not a wall that substitutes for a plan. That’s what a real president would offer. If only we had one.
But have no illusions: More weak nation-states will be imploding under these pressures in the coming decade and no empire is going to impose order there; those days are long gone. But many of these states simply cannot effectively govern themselves any longer. (Heck, Britain can’t effectively govern itself any longer!)
So how the world of order collaborates to bring order to more and more of these places — Italy has basically created and funded the Libyan coast guard to protect itself from migrants crossing the Mediterranean — is going to become one of the biggest governing challenges of this century.