First of all, is it a crisis? The New Yorker Magazine, on April 5, put it this way: “The word ‘crisis’ is both an overstatement and an understatement of the situation. There were more families and children seeking asylum at the border under President Trump in 2019 than there are now but the pandemic has led to renewed desperation in Central America, as have two hurricanes that devastated the region last fall, displacing tens of thousands of people.”
President Biden has left in place the Trump policy called Title 42, which essentially restricts most asylum-seeking families and single adults, but this time the policy holes enable these families to send their children over in hopes of safety and a better life, overwhelming facilities capable of handling children.
Award winning novelist Jeanine Cummins wrote a must-read novel about a Honduran family’s devastating losses to drug gangs, the escape and harrowing migration of a mother and son over hundreds of miles to the border. Having been to Honduras recently, I can attest to the poverty, the desperation, and fears. Over the past 10 years, Barak Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden have all faced humanitarian crises at the southern border. Of course, it’s a crisis. Can you imagine the level of desperation to pay “coyotes” thousands of dollars to drop your 3- and 5-year-old children over a fence to get them into the United States?
For all intent and purposes, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are failed states. Like situations in Syria, Libya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, people are leaving these failed states for their lives, and to escape from violence, hunger, and religious and political abuse.
Some have said that the problems must be resolved at the source, in the countries where the refugees originate. The thinking here is to give financial aid to these failing states to improve the living conditions and forestall migrations. But experience teaches us that when you pour money into failed states, corruption blooms, politicians get richer, the poor poorer and problems persist.
Despite the fact that the capacity of facilities at Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and FEMA are being dramatically increased, the problems are likely to continue. Even by closing border crossings tight, refugees with their coyote enablers will inevitably find holes in the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Desperate, surging migrants will find holes to seep through, over ground, underground, over fences, under fences, along a border two-thirds the width of the entire United States.
So, is the crisis intractable, unresolvable? Maybe. But there are ways to incentivize private-sector investment in these failing nations, keeping such investments out of the reach of corrupt politicians and allowing the benefits of such investments to trickle down to employees. Another practical solution that has had some success in the past is to process refugees, especially children, in their home countries, forestalling the formation of migrating caravans, creating regional offices to handle their legal claims before they ever reach the southern border.
United States political leaders need to begin to see that investing in the health and welfare of the Americas through win-win trade agreements, banking and finance agreements, interactions through foreign direct investments, and military and security agreements, without encroaching on the sovereignty of these nations, is the way to still the migrations of these people and strengthen the Americas as a whole.
These remedies are, of course, complicated, and President Biden has said that long-term solutions will take not months but years. Zero-sum politics will almost certainly further complicate the realization of these matters.
If nothing is done, the incidence of migrating refuges is likely to become an increasingly chronic worldwide problem as severe weather, pandemics and failing states persist. The United States is in the unique position between two vast bodies of water, much larger of course than the Mediterranean Sea to cross. If we were able to envision the Americas (North, Central and South) as a commonwealth of American nations, we could make great progress in putting a stop to these caravans of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” continental Americans in search of safety, opportunity and freedom from fear.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.