Southern Border Crisis Will End When Central America Prospers
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There is definitely a crisis at the U.S's southern border. In every month of the current fiscal year, apprehensions have been a lot higher than in 2014, a year when a border crisis also was declared:
Apprehensions are still lower than their all-time high in 2000, but at this rate, the current wave could set a record. The increase could be due to expanded enforcement efforts or different reporting standards by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, or to a greater percentage of border crossers turning themselves in. But much of the rise is due to a wave of asylum-seekers -- mostly families with children -- from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, or the so-called Northern Triangle.
The increase has overwhelmed the Border Patrol. Some progressives insist that all of the asylum seekers should be released into the U.S. to await the processing of their claims, but because only 60 to 75% of asylum seekers show up for their court hearings, the Border Patrol is reluctant to simply let them go. But the conditions under which the agency has been housing asylum seekers are often cramped and unsanitary, and have drawn widespread condemnation.
In the short term, solutions to the crisis mostly involve throwing more resources at the system. Detention conditions can and should be made much cleaner, safer and more comfortable. The capacity of the asylum system should be increased and streamlined, so that applications are processed in months instead of years. And the government can track asylum applicants to make sure that they show up for court after being released. Meanwhile, the U.S. can cooperate with Mexico to reduce the flow of Central Americans coming north -- though this cooperation would probably require President Donald Trump to abandon his aggressive, bullying approach.
In the long term, the key is to change the conditions that lead so many Central Americans to leave their countries and make the long trek north.
There is an important precedent for this solution: Mexico. During the 1990s and early 2000s, large numbers of Mexicans crossed the border illegally, looking for work. But since 2007, the flow of unauthorized immigrants has gone into reverse:
More than 100 percent of that decrease has been due to Mexico. Undocumented Mexicans are streaming back south in such large numbers that the increased inflow from Central America has barely managed to put a dent in the net outflow:
Although sources disagree on the total number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the U.S., all agree that the decline has been substantial. Indeed, even as the number of Central Americans being apprehended by the Border Patrol has risen, the number of Mexicans has fallen by more than 90 percent:
Why did Mexicans stop coming in large numbers? The answer isn’t a reduction in violence. Since 2006, the Mexican drug war has claimed tens of thousands of lives every year. Instead, it’s probably because of the economy. With a gross domestic product per capita at purchasing power parity of $20,602 in 2018, Mexico is now a comfortably upper-middle-class country, with standards of living approaching East European levels. With a robust manufacturing industry, including high-value products such as cars and airplanes, Mexico’s economy is on a stable long-term footing. For many Mexicans, it’s therefore simply not worth it to make the dangerous trek to the U.S. just to do low-wage manual labor.
The same solution can work for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These countries have very high levels of gang violence, but so does Mexico. The key difference is that the Central American countries, unlike Mexico, are still very poor:
Guatemala and El Salvador are right around the point where migration pressure tends to peak -- in other words, as these countries get richer, fewer people will want to leave. This means that boosting the economies of these countries should reduce the flows of migrants. (Honduras is a little trickier, since it’s still poorer than the peak migration level, so it will probably take longer before prosperity helps to reduce the outflow.)
To boost the economies of the Northern Triangle countries, the key is investment and trade. The U.S. should immediately give major tax credits for any U.S. company that invests in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. It should also eliminate tariffs on products from these countries. Additionally, the U.S. should work with the governments of Northern Triangle countries to improve infrastructure and education, and establish supply chains from those countries to the U.S.
This policy -- exactly the opposite of what the Trump administration has done -- would be a win-win for everyone involved. It would stanch the flow of desperate families accumulating at the U.S. border, and it would improve the lives of citizens of some of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. To fix the border crisis, fix Central America.
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Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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