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Unaccompanied Child Immigrants

How Population Growth, “Free Trade,” and Inequality Produced a Calamity on the Border

by CHRISTOPHER C. SCHONS

“When the luncheon is over, could I get a ride with you back to the capital?” That was my question to the Guatemalan businessman seated next to me at a 2004 event designed to showcase the proposed Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) to Congressional aides. He graciously agreed, and, to my surprise, we made the thirty-mile trip from Antigua to Guatemala City not in an automobile, but in a brand new helicopter imported from France. I was delighted. The ensuing views of surrounding volcanoes and lush, sub-tropical vegetation below were gorgeous, and we made great time.

Indeed, Guatemala City is home to more privately-owned helicopters per capita than any other city in the world. So my experience really was not uncommon. At the same time, Guatemala is a country where half of all children are malnourished. We should not be shocked that this nation of grotesque socioeconomic contrasts is on the sending end of the crisis-provoking torrent of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the USA. According to Customs and Border Protection, 52,193 such children have arrived so far in the current fiscal year (October 1, 2013 to June 15, 2014), double the number of the previous year. For the full fiscal year, the federal government expects 90,000 kids.

While the Obama administration responds in knee-jerk fashion to this “urgent humanitarian situation” by proposing an extra $4 billion to beef up border security, and its foes try to make political hay out of it through xenophobic posturing, what should we make of its substantive causes?

The first thing to note is that in Central America, the population grows too damn fast. When I first visited Guatemala (half the size of Minnesota) in 1989, the population there was under 9 million; now it is almost 16 million. Likewise, the population of Honduras in a quarter century has grown from 4.7 million to over 8 million. El Salvador has grown less rapidly – from 5.2 million inhabitants to about 6.4 million – but it remains one of the most densely populated countries in the hemisphere. This tremendous demographic growth puts awful pressure on economies, environments and societies, bringing them all to the point of collapse, and causing even kids to flee for their lives.

A second important observation is that the crisis of unaccompanied immigrant minors comes right in the wake of the implementation of DR-CAFTA, which passed Congress by a mere two votes. Governments on all sides of such an agreement typically sell it to skeptical electorates with the promise of a surge in job creation, but somehow this never materializes. Just as the passage of NAFTA saw an unprecedented explosion of illegal immigration from Mexico, now DR-CAFTA is witness to a massive and previously unimaginable wave of child immigration.

Indeed, it is time that the American public re-examine the ongoing and bipartisan pursuit of these “free trade agreements” by the federal government. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA; George W. Bush signed DR-CAFTA, as well as agreements with Chile and Peru; and Barack Obama signed the trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea that had been negotiated by Bush. It is time to ask whether any of these agreements have made the signatory countries better places for their broad societies.

A third major issue involves Central America’s private helicopter set. What are these countries’ economic elites doing to foment sustainable domestic economies that generate opportunities — not at this point to thrive, but just to survive? Guatemala, for instance, typically collects taxes at one of the lowest rates as a percentage of GDP in the hemisphere. There simply is not ever enough public money invested in health, housing, infrastructure and schools, a paucity that persists generation after generation. The current calamity is what results.

In summary, while Americans are momentarily stupefied by the spectacle of thousands upon thousands of mere kids desperately trying to cross our southern border, what needs to be done in the longer term is clear. Sending countries need to get their populations under control through widely available birth control and education about its benefits; these countries need to take stock of their current parlous demographic trends and take concerted action to change course. Rather than opening up new opportunities for corporations to profit via vehicles like DR-CAFTA, local countries need to figure out how to foment massive, labor-intensive economic activities that can keep the population employed and fed. Consumer imports should have huge tariffs levied on them, and local industry and production should be nourished. And local elites need to take more responsibility for constructing countries that are decent places for all their compatriots to live in. Hiring ever-more body guards is not a coherent. long-range economic policy. Increased numbers of security firms is not the wave of the economic future.

Finally, President Obama, instead of seeking to spend $4 billion on additional border security measures, should figure out how that same money can be used to develop and bolster the economies where the migrant kids actually are born. In Central America, a few billion dollars is real money and wisely spend it could actually transform these nations in tangibly beneficial ways. Flourishing economies and reliable sources of employment would reduce local rates of crime and despair and keep families rooted and together. Rather than gawk and squawk over a border crisis, we should all be working to ensure that every child in the hemisphere has a place right at home.

Christopher C. Schons lives in Arlington, Va.