The Underlying Significance of Central American Immigration

The large flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America across the southern border of the United States vividly demonstrates three realities that have long been ignored: first, that conditions in the northern tier countries of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — are desperate and getting worse; second, that the borders between the United States and its closest neighbors in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are porous, despite new technological barriers and expanded numbers of Border Patrol agents; and third, that there is an overwhelming difference between U.S. relations with these countries in our “near abroad” and our relations with the rest of the world.

During recent decades, the economy, society, politics and culture of the United States have become ever more intertwined with those of Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean. People, goods, money, crime and criminals, contagious diseases, ideas, music and cuisine flow very easily back and forth across the formal boundaries.

More than 60 percent of Mexicans have relatives in the United States. Some 15 percent of those alive today who were born in the Caribbean or Central America now reside in this country. Remittances from migrants abroad are crucial for the economies of a number of Caribbean and Central American countries, and important for Mexico. Juvenile gangs and leaders, socialized on U.S. streets and in U.S. jails, wreak havoc in their countries, often after being deported from the United States, while youth gangs from Central America operate not only in their own countries but also in Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere.

Historic notions of sovereignty have less real meaning in such circumstances, even if they are often vociferously articulated on both sides of the border. There is a stunning disconnect between quotidian reality and our concepts, policies and rhetoric. We cannot stop immigration by fiat nor can we easily avoid the impacts our society has on our closest neighbors, and that they have on us.

The issues that flow directly from the growing mutual interpenetration between the United States and its closest neighbors — human, drug and arms trafficking, immigration, environmental protection, public health, law enforcement, border management, medical tourism, portable health and pension benefits, drivers’ licenses and auto insurance — are all difficult to handle. This is largely because the democratic political process pushes policies, both in the United States and in the neighboring countries, in counterproductive directions. The pressure in many states to deny drivers’ licenses and access to public education and social services to undocumented immigrants who are here to stay illustrates this tendency. On the other side, it is difficult for countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to manage these issues because of the power of criminal syndicates, deep socioeconomic inequities and very weak state capacity.

There will be no effective and sustainable solutions for the border security of the United States without our paying much more serious attention to the economic, social and political realities in the countries of the “near abroad,” and to the ways in which the United States, often inadvertently, contributes to their deterioration. Deporting criminals back to the region without providing information to local authorities, for example, is a recipe for expanding crime, both in the region and transnationally. Demand for narcotics in the United States fuels this destructive trade. The weapons that are being used to bring horrific violence to Central America and the Caribbean generally come from this country.

We need to devise more creative policy and institutional responses to the underlying fact of deep and pervasive interconnections with, and the seriously deteriorating conditions in, many countries of our near abroad. Civic security, public health, environmental protection, the regulation of weapons and many other issues need to be addressed in integrated and cooperative ways on both sides of the borders.

We in the United States need to recognize the partial but significant responsibility our country has for many of this region’s challenges, and need to understand the strong self-interest we have in helping these nations achieve greater prosperity, effective democratic governance, citizen security and social justice. This is not simply a matter of humanitarian policy but rather of assuring a healthier neighborhood.

Last week’s summit in Washington of Central American presidents with President Obama was a symbolic step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done, and with some urgency. Attention and resources devoted by the United States to understanding and helping to meet these tough challenges so close to home would cost much less and likely bring greater benefits than trying to remake Afghanistan.

This opinion piece originally appeared on
U-T San Diego