By Daniel Twining
The massive human caravan currently making its way from Honduras to the U.S. border and President Trump’s announcement that he intends to end birthright citizenship have once again exposed the fault lines in America’s handling of uncontrolled migration emanating from the Western Hemisphere. Yet for all the intensity conjured by our domestic debate over illegal immigration, there is surprisingly little discussion of what is driving so many people to attempt to enter our country at any cost— and what could be done to prevent this crisis from continuing.
Migration is not an inevitability. Millions of people from all over the world seek to make their homes in the United States because we remain a beacon of prosperity and opportunity. Yet many more would prefer to make a good life for themselves and their families in their country of origin. It is not a natural human instinct to abandon hearth and home to ﬂee to an alien land.
Throughout Central America, poor economic conditions, rampant corruption and hair-raising levels of crime are driving people to risk illegal immigration rather than staying put. These problems are the poisoned fruit of the same tree: weak or absent democratic governance.
According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Central and South America accounts for 9 percent of the global population yet is home to nearly one-third of the world’s homicide victims. More than 90 percent of all murders that take place in this region go unresolved.
The perception that insecurity will worsen is one of the top reasons people choose to emigrate, both legally and illegally. As is the related problem of corruption. The absence of robust governing institutions capable of enforcing the rule of law nurtures violent and often transnational criminality—including drug cartels and human traﬃckers. Endemic corruption leaves citizens disaﬀected at best and utterly hopeless at worst.
Poor governance also undercuts economic opportunity. The failure to deliver basic security and accountability makes doing business a riskier proposition—presenting yet another incentive to emigrate at any cost. Who can invest in job-creating industries in societies overrun by gang violence and plagued by rampant government corruption? Crime and violence in Latin America cost the region an estimated 3.55 percent of GDP, with an inordinate eﬀect being felt by the poorest population.
All of which means that any long-term solution to America’s migration challenge should be centered on prevention. Vice President Mike Pence recognized this when he promised our Latin American partners that “the United States is renewing our commitment to address the root causes behind the crisis that we face,” and called out “weak economies, corruption, drugs and violence” as key drivers of uncontrolled migration.
America needs a strategy aimed at preventing the causes of mass migration by helping willing neighbors strengthen their democratic institutions and become more stable, prosperous and responsive to their citizens.
Bridging gaps between politicians and citizens represents a crucial step toward giving citizens a stake in their societies and setting these countries on the path to self-reliance. Often this is most eﬀective at the local level, where responsibility for day-to-day functions such as policing resides. Likewise, training citizens to advocate for themselves in a peaceful, eﬀective manner and use all available levers of inﬂuence is an important way of creating pressure from below in countries suﬀering from weakened democratic institutions.
The beneﬁts of this approach to the United States should be obvious. Numerous government-funded NGOs are already on the ground implementing programs with local partners who are eager to learn about best practices in governance. In so many of these countries, the will is there, but help is required to empower citizen advocates of reform and politicians who genuinely want to craft a better future for their people.
Modest investments in governance can have outsized eﬀects in the region’s most dangerous countries. Simple measures such as creating an online portal for citizens to report crimes and local concerns, logistical and training support for government transparency initiatives, and harnessing the power of social networking to enhance citizen security are just a few ways of addressing the core quality-of-life concerns that drive desperate citizens from their homes.
Anti-corruption assistance is another important way of countering uncontrolled migration. Training for local and national anti- corruption bodies such as Guatemala’s Access to Public Information Unit is helping to foster a culture of accountability.
Development assistance can also have a signiﬁcant impact in stimulating economies on the local level not just through direct aid, but also through initiatives that provide skills-based training and drive job creation.
Finding the right balance between protecting American sovereignty and interests and remaining a beacon for hardworking immigrants who wish to make their lives in America will always be a challenge. Coping with a high volume of migrants seeking to enter the country illegally has proven to be an even more vexing problem.
The source of our attraction to immigrants—the democratic, free-market system that has made America a land of opportunity—is not the exclusive possession of the United States. By assisting our neighbors in building up democratic governance, we can help stem the tide of uncontrolled migration, strengthen regional stability, and help people to build better lives for themselves and brighter futures for their countries.Top