October 17, 2018

Forget ‘Border Security’—migration is an economic development issue

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Gary Goodenough

Border fence between the United States and Mexico. Flickr/cc

For years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have made “border security” as a top campaign issue. The bipartisan obsession with “securing the border” is baffling to those of us who live in border communities. Border cities such as Las Cruces, El Paso, Brownsville, McAllen, and San Diego are already among the safest in the United States. Current rates of migration are well within the historical range over the past 50 years, and far below rates seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Border communities are well equipped to accommodate this migration, and, in many cases, eager to welcome asylum seekers to their communities.

Nor is this rhetoric harmless. The “border security” framework implies that migration must be dealt with under the rubric of national security and criminal enforcement. That premise makes it easier to justify barbaric policies like separating family units, imprisoning children by the thousands, and deporting law-abiding mothers and fathers who have lived in the United States for decades.

In many cases, a narrow focus on securing the border is also counterproductive. For example, few would argue in the abstract against deporting violent offenders. But deporting these individuals to countries that lack the infrastructure to reintegrate them into society results in destabilization of these countries, which in turn leads to even greater migration to the United States.

So what is the alternative? The recent shift in the debate about illegal drug use provides a helpful example of how reframing a policy debate can lead to more productive, and more humane, policy solutions. For decades, the bipartisan consensus held that illegal drug use was a criminal issue. From that premise, it was easy to justify horrendous policies, such as the incarceration of millions of Americans (mostly people of color) for non-violent offenses. Only recently have we started to understand that illegal drug use is more properly viewed as a public health issue. Reframing the issue in this way has allowed us to imagine a universe of policy solutions that were unthinkable under the old framework.

Just as we have begun to move beyond the idea that illegal drug use is a criminal issue, it is time to move beyond the idea that migration is a security issue. No one wants to see tens of thousands of individuals uprooted from their lives, forced to make a dangerous trek from Central America to the United States. But treating these individuals as if they pose a threat to our country is nonsensical.

A better approach would be to work with our southern neighbors to help them become safer and more prosperous, so people don’t have to leave home in the first place. That means partnering with Central American countries to address the economic issues that lead to high crime levels. It means ending the war on drugs—which, like Prohibition before it, has fostered the growth of organized crime and lead to tremendous bloodshed without meaningfully reducing substance abuse. It means revisiting trade agreements, to ensure that trade across the Americas is robust and focused on improving the lives of the poor on both sides of the border. It might even mean developing a new Marshall Plan, using money that might otherwise go to the construction of an ugly and ineffective border wall to help improve quality of life in Central America. Ultimately, an economic development approach will improve quality of life on both sides of the border while helping address the root causes of mass migration—something that the current approach has demonstrably failed to do.

When politicians talk about the supposed need to secure the border, it is not empty rhetoric. It is an endorsement of the current approach to migration, which has led to abominable policies like family separation, while utterly failing to address the root causes of migration. It’s time for new rhetoric—and new policies.

David Baake is an attorney in southern New Mexico.

Gabe Vasquez is a City Councilor in Las Cruces, New Mexico.