Better border strategy
With the midterm elections decided, maybe President Donald Trump will finally stop whipping up xenophobic crowds by calling a U.S.-bound caravan of Central American refugees an “invasion.” Many of the migrants are trying to escape gang violence in El Salvador. If Trump wants to avoid more caravans, he should adjust U.S. foreign policy to give desperate families less reason to leave their homelands.
About 5,000 immigrants reached Mexico City last weekend, putting them about 600 miles from Brownsville. Trump, in a blatant political move just before the midterms, said he was ordering U.S. troops to the southwest border to protect America. The Defense Department said it would deploy as many as 7,000 troops but that none would be “involved in the actual mission of denying people entry to the United States.”
Nor should they be. There are better ways than sending soldiers trained for war to the Mexican border to handle what in truth is a humanitarian crisis. The George W. Bush Institute in Dallas says a key step is to create a stronger economic foundation to help remove the stranglehold of criminal gangs in El Salvador. The country doesn’t have to be a basket case. With U.S. assistance, El Salvador could encourage business, reform banking and improve trade links with other nations.
The United States should want to help El Salvador. After all, the rival MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs that Trump is raising hell about entering this country were started in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s by refugees of El Salvador’s 12-year-old civil war. Thousands of these gang members incarcerated in U.S. prisons were deported when the war ended in 1992. They subsequently returned to El Salvador and set up business.
Over the years the Salvadoran gangs merged operations with drug lords, paid off politicians and police, and made extortion and kidnapping the nexus of their criminal enterprise. U.S. drug enforcement officials told the Wall Street Journal that El Salvador’s gangs earn about $20 million a year from extortion, including as much as $600,000 a month in payments from bus companies. You either pay up or you risk losing your business, maybe your life.
A nation of only 6.6 million people, El Salvador had a homicide rate of 60 murders per 100,000 residents last year — 12 times the U.S. murder rate. No wonder Salvadoran mothers with infants and toddlers are marching through Mexico seeking a better life in “the land of the free.”
Trump likes to point out the strapping young men among the refugees, but many who are trying to avoid being pressed into gang membership see the caravan as their only way out.
Bush Institute fellows Matthew Rooney and Laura Collins, in an article for the journal Foreign Policy, called Trump’s border defense strategy counterproductive. “Agents cannot focus on counterterrorism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling if they are continually intercepting children seeking a glass of water and a safe place to sleep,” they said.
The Trump administration announced Thursday that it would implement new rules to deny asylum to migrants who enter the country illegally, meaning outside official ports of entry. The president needs only to look at Mexico to find a better way to handle this situation.
Between 2005 and 2010, about 20,000 more immigrants went back to Mexico than arrived in the United States, according to the analysis by Rooney and Collins. More than 140,000 Mexicans returned to their homeland than migrated to the United States between 2009 and 2014. Much of the credit for that development should go to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Despite Trump’s criticism of NAFTA, which he has upgraded and renamed, the treaty’s rules forced Mexico to deregulate and open its financial, telecommunications and broadcasting markets. That led to greater foreign investment, which created jobs and spurred development of a vibrant middle class. Consequently, fewer Mexicans feel the need to flee Mexico for the United States.
That needs to happen in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to remove the influence of criminal enterprises on their economies. “Broader opportunity will coax people back into the legitimate workforce,” Collins and Rooney said. “Starved of cannon fodder and squeezed by improved law enforcement, the gangs will shrink.”
The Central American Free Trade Agreement, which began in 2005 as an expansion of NAFTA, could help propel change, but not without the leadership in those countries and the United States to steer the best course. To help in that effort, the Bush Institute is working with government, business and other Central American leaders to form a network to stop their countries from being manhandled by criminals.
President Trump needs to understand that walls and troop deployments only medicate the symptoms of the illness that causes thousands of Central Americans to risk their lives walking through treacherous terrain in Mexico without proper food, clothing and shelter.
The illness that prompted the refugees’ flight is a lack of economic opportunity. Curing that ailment will take more time and patience. With the right leadership from both sides of the border it can be done — if we don’t let politics get in the way.