On January 14, 2019, another migrant caravan of about 1,800 Central American refugees—mostly from Honduras—began its treacherous journey marching across Mexico with hopes of reaching the U.S. border. Unsurprisingly, U.S. President Trump responded to last year’s caravan by demanding neighboring governments stop the caravan, sending 5,000 more troops to the border, and threatening to close the U.S. southern border.
This new caravan offers an opportunity to highlight how the Trump Administration’s continued anti-immigrant rhetoric carries with it a dangerously mistaken premise that immigrants in the United States, at best, steal jobs from U.S. citizens, and, at worst, are dangerous criminals.
But do a couple of thousand impoverished Central Americans really represent a threat to the United States? Recent research on immigration suggests otherwise and provides insights into immigration that can help to better address the problem.
First, migrating families are not a threat to the United States. Researchers at the American Immigration Council, National Bureau of Economic Research and Department of Justice found U.S.-born citizens are far more likely to end up committing a crime and/or in prison than either legal or undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, the conservative Cato Institute documented in 2017how undocumented immigrants—including the young, the less-educated, and men—are, in fact, less likely to commit violent crimes than U.S.-born individuals. Finally, even newer research has proven states with higher percentages of undocumented immigrants have lower violent crime rates.
Second, Central American immigrants are not stealing jobs from U.S. citizens. Studies have long illustrated how Latino and other immigrant entrepreneurs complement, not hurt, the U.S economy, stating that “between 1990 and 2001, the U.S. regions with the most entrepreneurial activity experienced, on average, 125 percent higher employment growth, 109 percent higher productivity growth, and 58 percent higher wage growth than regions with the least entrepreneurial activity.”
Moreover, the United States is need of young, low-skilled workers, as it is facing an aging population, lower birth rates, and higher education levels. Thus, to remain competitive and sustain economic growth, the United States needs more, not less, foreign workers with little or no education.
Third, the United States exported violence and lawlessness to Central America. In 1954, the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, installed a military dictatorship, and denied Guatemalans their popular sovereignty—all in assistance to the United Fruit Company the CIA director was invested in. Decades of civil war followed.
The United States also exported its most violent offenders and gangs to Central America. In the 1980s and 1990s, Central American gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 began on California’s streets. L.A. introduced its gang culture to Salvadoran immigrant youth and turned them towards violent crime. Then, the U.S. mass deported back to Central America these L.A. gang members and other undocumented immigrants, who had grown up in the United States, barely spoke Spanish, and were unfamiliar with their countries of origin. In the Northern Triangle, they had few opportunities and sought out other gang members to survive.
So, if the United States wants to successfully reduce the number of migrants, it must continue to work collaboratively with Central America and Mexico to give people another way out of violence. Instead of building more walls and threatening Mexico, the United States should focus more attention on exporting its lessons learned in places like Los Angeles by funding more USAID programs in the most marginalized communities in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
In the 1980s and 1990s, L.A. faced the same challenges Central America does today—high homicide rates, police corruption, gang violence, and lawlessness. By shifting to a more balanced, community-based, public health strategy focused on why people joined gangs and what ultimately disengaged them, L.A. cut its gang-related violence in half. Youth joined gangs for protection, money, respect, and community, and creating social programs increased people’s access to education, training, counseling, income, and civic participation, enabling the poor and most vulnerable to gain greater access to and control over resources.
These lessons are an opportunity that cannot be wasted.
To reduce the number of migrant caravans in the long run, instead of focusing on higher security, the United States should focus more on the many things it can do to stop gangs, violence, and poverty. For example, increasing aid for more social programs is significantly more effective than policing at decreasing the incentives for youth to join gangs and ties individuals to their local communities making them less likely to migrate to the United States.
But to do this, the United States must first reframe its immigration narrative. It must rebuff the Trump Administration’s tall-tales about immigrants, stop viewing its southern neighbors as a threat, and embrace the reality—that people like members of this new caravan have not brought violent crime, gangs, or lawlessness to the U.S. Just the opposite. The U.S. exported those conditions to Central America.
The United States must also renew its partnership with Central America and Mexico not in terms of border security and enforcement but through a humanistic, public health lens.
Ultimately, the United States has to think beyond its own borders. What happens in Central America can reduce the number of border crossers into the United States and, thus, is good for the United States as well.