By Karl Reiner
The U.S. government’s effort to improve security along the Mexican border is delivering results. The combination of towers, physical barriers, better intelligence and an increase in the number of agents has made the crossing more difficult. As a consequence, the number of arrests made by the Border Patrol is down approximately 12%.
According to the Border Patrol, 202,563 arrests were made in the Tucson Sector between October 1, 2007 and April 30, 2008. Of the apprehensions, approximately 96% were Mexican nationals and about 3% came from Central America. While improved enforcement is slowing the rate of illegal migration, the underlying causes remain to be addressed by our reluctant national policymakers.
While focusing attention exclusively on border control may generate a feeling of real accomplishment in some political circles, it is akin to trying to walk in the desert with only one boot on. Because border defense and economic issues are intertwined, we cannot continue to ignore the other half of the problem.
The overall standard of living in Mexico is about a quarter of the living standard in the United States. The growing imbalance and the resulting lack of opportunity fuels the need migrate in search of work. Addressing the economic problem has to be part of our overall strategy if we want to achieve long-term success.
Infrastructure- poor southern Mexico is stagnating. While the northern part of the country has mostly benefited from the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the southern part of the country has not. Nearly 50% of the population of Mexico’s southern states - Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas - lives in extreme poverty. In the adjacent Central American countries things are no better; 30% to 50% of the population is below the poverty line.
The United States has long avoided pressuring the Mexican and Central American governments into confronting the problems fostering migration. Unless we decide to act, southern Mexico and Central America will remain ensnared in a poverty trap that cripples regional development and continues to force people to head north to find work.
Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture estimates that only 6% of the nation’s farms are highly efficient and profitable. When NAFTA began, a program to help small Mexican farmers switch from growing corn and coffee to more profitable and labor intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables was supposed to have been implemented. Nothing much in the way of support actually materialized; the funds apparently went to other purposes.
The governments of Mexico and the Central American countries rely on a defacto policy of exporting labor as an economic safety valve and as a major source of national income. A review of CIA and World Bank data reveals that the remittances workers send back to Mexico are the country’s second largest source (after oil) of foreign income.
In El Salvador, the remittance inflow nearly equals the income generated by the nation’s exports. In Guatemala and Honduras, remittance income equals two-thirds and three-fourths of the value of those nations’ exports.
By uncoupling the need for economic progress from the issue of border security, we are setting the stage for failure. If migrant workers can’t go north while development at home remains stifled, instability and political chaos will eventually result. We face a stark choice. We can start to push economic development and reform now, or plan to deal with the more menacing problems that will develop in the future.
In 1950, with America’s blessing, war-devastated Western Europe began to rebuild its economy when France, West Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands agreed to form the European Coal and Steel Community. From those humble beginnings emerged what today has become the European Union (EU).
Over time, the EU has developed into an economic powerhouse with 27 member states. With a population of nearly a half billion, it accounts for almost a third of the world’s gross national product despite the fact that more than 20 languages are spoken within its geographical boundaries.
Strangely, the EU the current administration once considered irrelevant and out of touch with modern military reality, also believes prosperous countries have an obligation to help poorer and less developed nations if peace and stability are to be maintained. We need to relearn that lesson, the same one we taught to Europe at after World War II, and apply it to our foreign policy south of the border.
Polls reveal that over 75 % of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. The president’s approval rating is in the 20% range. Not to be outdone, Congress has managed to do worse, with a dismal approval rating of 14%.
The consequences of a terribly flawed war strategy, the lack of an energy policy and the mediocre results delivered by world’s most expensive health care system have made Americans apprehensive.
The situation is made worse by the self-inflicted economic damage of the ongoing mortgage debacle and the festering problems stemming from countries below our southern border. The governments of Mexico and Central America have ignored the need for economic development for years. The impact of their failure to act has been compounded by a United States that remains oblivious to the result.
The next president will have the unenviable job of trying to rejuvenate a malfunctioning government while trying to salvage something from a host of failed international policies. Let’s hope he also gets a Congress more inclined to face reality rather then wallowing in political platitudes.