The relentless surge of illegal aliens pouring across our southern border is leading to the inevitable calls for the United States to take a lead role in fixing the economic and social problems that provide the impetus for many people to leave their homes in Central America (“U.S. Must Help Attack the Root Causes of Border Crisis,” Roll Call, Aug. 20).
Such calls are well intentioned, but address only the “push” factors, not the “pull” factors that lie at the heart of our current border crisis. Author Peter Billerbeck correctly identifies Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as “failed states,” and urges the United States to take a lead role in changing the economic conditions and reining in the violence in Central America. In other words: nation building.
Sadly, nation building is not our forte. In fact, one of the many crises that have overshadowed the chaos at our border graphically illustrates our inability to fix broken societies. Iraq, our most recent attempt at nation building, faces even greater civil strife than before we “fixed” it, and is struggling to stave off subjugation by gangs of 7th century barbarians.
But even if we were to commit more money to nation building in Central America, attacking the push factors driving Central Americans northward requires a commitment by the governments in power to fundamental economic, political and social reforms. It also requires a commitment from the citizens of those nations to be active participants in demanding the sorts of reforms that will allow them to live productive and secure lives in their homelands.
Ironically, the pull factors of American immigration policies — lax or nonexistent enforcement of our immigration laws at the border and in the interior — have served as an impediment to meaningful reforms in the region. For too long, the ability of corrupt and repressive governments to point their dissatisfied population toward the United States, and our reluctances to enforce our immigration laws, has obviated an internal effort to make those societies more just and equitable and, ultimately, less violent.
The United States can and should commit to assisting a sincere effort to attack the corruption and the criminal elements that plague much of Central America. But such an effort must be led by citizens who are prepared to force the sorts of changes that are needed. Unless there is a local Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa who is prepared to challenge the status quo, and a population prepared to stand behind such a leader, outside efforts to affect change will be futile.
While our capacity to alter the push factors of mass migration is limited, we have enormous power to alter the pull factors. The defiant refusal of the Obama administration to enforce most immigration laws plays a far greater role in the current crisis than the poverty and violence in Central America.
Poverty and violence are not new phenomena in the region. While violence in those countries is still unacceptably high, the murder rates have actually declined in recent years. What has changed dramatically is the perception that illegal aliens who show up at our borders will be admitted and allowed to remain here indefinitely — especially if they are minors, or families with children in tow.
These perceptions are not fueled by misinformation, as President Barack Obama suggests. They are fueled by the reality that his administration is not enforcing immigration laws, except in very limited circumstances. It is fueled by the reality that the current administration has acted, without authorization from Congress, to grant amnesty to the last wave of illegal aliens who arrived here as minors and is hellbent on extending similar rewards to perhaps 5 million or 6 million more illegal aliens in the near future.
Helping Central Americans address the root causes of poverty and violence in their countries is in our enlightened self-interest, not to mention theirs. But we must be clear that our role in this monumental undertaking is to support and assist democratic and peaceful movements from within those societies.
In the meantime, we cannot wait for Central America to get its house in order before we enforce our own immigration laws. Preventing further waves of mass illegal immigration is an economic and national security priority for the American people. Securing our borders, and making it clear to Central Americans and others that illegal immigration will never be rewarded is an essential step to ending the immigration crisis, and one that is entirely within our ability to carry out.
Dan Stein is the president of FAIR and the former executive director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute.