Fearing the prospect of large Democratic gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections, Donald Trump has been serving a steaming buffet of hate with something to please everyone in his xenophobic base. Some 3,500 Central American migrants—most of them women and children—trudging through Mexico hundreds of miles from the U.S. have been transformed by the president into “an invasion of our country.” In response, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their right-wing echo chamber have regurgitated bogus talking points about an influx of criminals, Middle Eastern terrorists, and baby-depositing women poised to overwhelm our southern border. Always sensitive to the delicate feelings of the white supremacists and anti-Semites among the ranks of his supporters, Trump and Republicans leaders like Sen. Chuck Grassley pointed to the supposedly sinister role of George Soros, the man labeled by the federally-funded Radio and Television Marti as a “multi-millionaire Jew.”
In a transparent stunt designed to get his faithful foaming at the mouth, Trump has resurrected his unconstitutional scheme to ban the 14th Amendment’s promise of birthright citizenship, this time by executive order. The president has warned he may “declare certain migrants ineligible for asylum because it ‘would be contrary to the national interest’ and ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States.” Not content to stop there, the Administration has ordered 5,200 active-duty U.S. troops to the border, with Trump suggesting he may double or triple the number. (Such a force, likely five times the size of the migrant group, would be larger than the total American force currently deployed to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.) And as always, Trump has continued to demand funding for his much-hyped yet undelivered border wall, a project the Government Accountability Office warned was certain to exceed price tags ranging from $18 billion to $70 billion.
But as Donald Trump throws the reddest of the red meat to his Republican base, many Americans seem not to realize that he is preparing the United States to once again fight the last war. While families and children fleeing the gang violence, corruption, and economic troubles in Central America are seeking asylum in the U.S. in greater numbers, the early 2000s wave of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has slowed to a comparative trickle. For a fraction of the cost of building Trump’s “big, beautiful wall,” the American people could provide economic assistance, supply military aid and training, fund anti-corruption projects, and deploy U.S.-led multinational forces to raise living standards, crackdown on international gangs, and ensure safety for nations across Central America. Call it the United States Refugee Assistance Program (USRAP).
As I first documented five years ago, undocumented immigration from Mexico has plummeted. As the Pew Research Center reported in March 2017, “In fiscal 2016, 192,969 Mexicans were apprehended, a sharp drop from a peak of 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000.”
During roughly the same time frame, the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States dropped from an estimated 6.9 million to 5.8 million. Most are long-term residents here. By 2014, Pew found that “78% had lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more, while only 7% had been in the country for less than five years.”
The reasons for the sharp decline in new arrivals from Mexico—legal and undocumented—are quite clear. The steep United States recession was a key factor, as job opportunities from 2008 through 2010 largely dried up. At the same time, under Presidents Bush and Obama funding for the border patrol and the number of border agents more than doubled. Deportations accelerated rapidly under Barack Obama.
Also a factor in the drop-off in undocumented Mexican immigration is the nation’s changing demographics. Mexico’s population growth is slowing dramatically, a trend which will continue. The number of children per Mexican woman ages 18 to 49 dropped from five in 1976 to 2.2 by 2013. With stronger economic growth and an aging population at home, Mexico will have a much smaller—and less motivated—pool of potential emigrants to the United States.
Combined with the changing face of the global economy, America’s immigrants look much different than only a few years ago. By 2010, new arrivals from Asia exceed those of Hispanic origin. “In 2016,” Pew explained in September, “the top country of origin for new immigrants coming into the U.S. was India, with 126,000 people, followed by Mexico (124,000), China (121,000) and Cuba (41,000).” The dynamic driving undocumented immigration has changed as well. While “immigrant apprehensions on the border last year were as low as they’ve been in nearly 50 years,” in August the Department of Homeland Security reported that “more than 600,000 foreigners overstayed U.S. visas in 2017.” A 2017 study by the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, showed:
That report estimated visa overstays in 2014 accounted for 42 percent of the total undocumented population, or about 4.5 million people. It also projected that overstays made up about two-thirds of the total number of people who became unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. that year.
But if the early 2000s flood of undocumented immigrants has mostly dried up, its composition has changed dramatically. As the Pew Research chart above reveals, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and other non-Mexicans from Central American countries have now surpassed Mexicans among apprehended while heading north. Unaccompanied children and families seeking asylum now make up a record-high share of the newcomers:
Border Patrol agents arrested 16,658 family members in September, the highest one-month total on record and an 80 percent increase from July, according to unpublished Department of Homeland Security statistics obtained by The Washington Post.
Large groups of 100 or more Central American parents and children have been crossing the Rio Grande and the deserts of Arizona to turn themselves in, and after citing a fear of return, the families are typically assigned a court date and released from custody.
(Recent research suggests the deportation of criminals from the United States back to their countries of origin actually fuels future undocumented immigration. By 2012, Honduras received 162 deportees per 100,000 residents. In 2015, “the cumulative number of U.S.-deported convicts in El Salvador reached 95,000, or roughly 1.5 percent of the country’s population.” Many are linked to U.S.-based gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street gang. This vicious cycle has helped contribute to “homicide rates approaching that of the world’s most deadly war zones,” which inevitably leads to more desperate families fleeing Central America’s “Northern Triangle” in search of safety for their children.)
The pressures fueling these departures from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will not be eased overnight. As Meteor Blades noted recently, it’s not just that “endemic corruption, and organized crime made worse by the spread of street gangs have replaced internecine wars as the cause of thousands of civilians winding up dead” in Central America. Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, warned that “we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.” All of which means that the “migrant caravan” now in Mexico will be followed by many others.
All of this suggests that the answer to the challenge of Central American migration will not be found at the U.S.-Mexico border, but in the home nations themselves. And that means that President Trump’s threats to slash American foreign aid to those countries is precisely the wrong response from Washington. It is in America’s self-interest to see that our Central American friends get billions of dollars in expanded aid to bolster their security forces, establish safe zones for their people, fight the necessary battles against domestic gangs and trans-national cartels, and create new economic opportunity.
Consider the meager foreign aid the United States provides to the region now. Mexico, which must play a vital role in any solution to the problem, received only $87 million from the United States in 2016. El Salvador, with around 6.2 million people, received only $75 million. (Note that the Salvadoran diaspora in the United States is estimated at 1.2 million, or almost one-fifth of the entire country.) That same year, Guatemala was the recipient of $297 million for a nation of 15.5 million. Nine million Hondurans saw their nation get $127 million in American assistance in 2016. With Honduras’ GDP of $46 billion, the CIA World Factbook point out:
The economy registered modest economic growth of 3.1%-4.0% from 2010 to 2017, insufficient to improve living standards for the nearly 65% of the population in poverty.
What’s needed now from the United States isn’t tough talk or security theater, but a massive program of foreign assistance. Luckily for the people of the United States and Central America, our nation knows how to do this. The post-World War II Marshall Plan pumped $13 billion ($100 billion in 2016 dollars) into the devastated countries of Europe to enable refugee assistance, economic recovery, political stability, and freedom from Soviet expansion. A United States Refugee Assistance Program would cost a fraction of either the Marshall Plan or Donald Trump’s foolhardy border wall.
Deploying money and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) throughout Central America will not be sufficient to allow the people of the region to live safely in their home countries. That will require military assistance, training, equipment and likely U.S. troops on the ground to help El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other nations fight the cartels and roll back the criminal gangs. Given America’s checkered past of interventions covert (Guatemala 1954) and overt (El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the 1980s), U.S. forces would almost certainly have to operate in a multi-national framework under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) or the United Nations. Alternately, the United States could look to its experience in Colombia:
Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America, with roughly 49 million inhabitants. A key U.S. ally in the region, Colombia endured an internal armed conflict for half a century. Drug trafficking has fueled the violence by funding both left-wing and right-wing armed groups. In the late 1990s, some analysts feared Colombia—threatened by a multisided, violent conflict—would become a failed state. The Colombian government defied those predictions, however, through an evolving security strategy known as Plan Colombia. Originally designed as a six-year program, Plan Colombia ultimately became a 17-year U.S.-Colombian bilateral effort.
To be sure, the U.S. commitment to the effort in Central America will take years. The poverty, violence, and corruption driving Central Americans from their home countries will take time to ameliorate. But as with Mexico, changing demographics will help. As Douglas Massey, who spent three decades with the Mexico Migration Project, explained:
“There’s just not much demographic potential for mass migration from Central America. It is heading in the same direction as Mexico — toward an aging population with limited growth, only the base population is much smaller.”
Which means that the United States doesn’t face the threat of invasion from south of the border, but that of a really futile, stupid gesture on its president’s part. Spending $25, $50 or $100 billion to build a wall won’t solve anything for the United States or the Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans seeking refuge from the chaos and carnage in their respective countries. By investing much less in the United States Refugee Assistance Program (USRAP), we can help them build a better future at home.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.