Author Response: “Why the Debate on Immigration is All Wrong”

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

A few years ago, in a conversation with my husband’s oldest brother, I said that I thought the only solution to illegal immigration was to help create jobs in the handful of countries that send about four in every five undocumented immigrants to the U.S.

My husband’s brother, assuming I was talking about U.S. foreign aid, got very angry. He reached for his pant pocket and yanked out his wallet. He slapped it down on the picnic table. “This is my money!” he told me. No one, he said, was going to use his hard-earned cash to help a bunch of people in another country he didn’t even know.

In times of economic crisis, his is a sentiment that is certainly shared by some Americans. Many, as evidenced by the comments to my piece, at least wonder if assistance aimed at countries like Honduras or Mexico only lands in the fat wallets of corrupt officials.

Having lived as a teenager in a country rife with corruption (Argentina) I certainly share this concern.

Still, I argued to my husband’s brother, the cost of doing nothing is potentially greater if Americans keep their wallets closed.

It’s true that sometimes places like Honduras seem hopeless. Last year, Transparency International ranked 180 countries for corruption, beginning with the cleanest, No. 1 ranked New Zealand. Mexico was No. 89; Honduras fared even worse, at No. 130. (The U.S. was No. 19).

Corruption was often evident as I reported Enrique’s Journey. For example, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, I spent days trying to reach one city’s mayor. I was trying to get him to recount the heart-warming details of how he had helped save Enrique, the migrant boy I was writing about, when Enrique was nearly beaten to death in Mexico by bandits.

The mayor wouldn’t return my calls. Finally, I sat on the stoop to his office one morning until he arrived, and he reluctantly let me in. He explained that most reporters in Mexico only tried to reach him when they wanted a bribe—to withhold publication of something negative they had unearthed about the mayor.

Studies show that corruption slows economic growth, reduces domestic and foreign investments, and limits competition.  Indeed, studies have shown that foreign aid does not raise per capita income in poorly governed countries. Too often, aid ends up in dictators’ pockets (or in their Swiss bank accounts), money that helps tyrants stay in power.

That said, in recent years giving nations, recognizing this problem, have begun attaching anti-corruption conditions to foreign aid, measures that require goal-setting and vigilant monitoring. Also, donors are increasingly recognizing that corruption thrives in nations with weak institutions, and money is being targeted to bolster those institutions, such as the police and judicial systems.      

The Millennium Challenge Corp., begun by the U.S. government in 2004, only allocates aid if a country can meet certain criteria showing they are working toward promoting free markets and low corruption. In its first year, Honduras and El Salvador were among 17 countries that were eligible. By last October, a total of $109 million had been spent in Honduras to improve transport routes (by helping to build a highway and three secondary roads), and to give nearly 6,000 small farmers technical assistance in producing and marketing high-value crops. (Following the coup in Honduras last year, all funding ceased.)

In addition to these measures, the U.S. could work to circumvent corrupt governments and help create jobs and improve schools by directly funding non-governmental organizations in places like Honduras that have track records for getting things done.

In its trade policies, the U.S. could favor goods from countries that send the largest numbers of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.

If, for example, the U.S. imports medical scrubs from Honduras and also from Malaysia, why can’t our trade policies favor scrubs from Honduras if we know that will generate employment in a country that sends the second largest number of illegal immigrants to the U.S. each year (only second to Mexico)?

Why not use trade policies to help reduce migration?

Many microloan programs around the world have proven quite successful at helping women begin small businesses that provide employment. Why couldn’t the U.S. help provide loans to programs that have good track records in places like Honduras?

On my website, I also suggest many ways in which individuals can help create jobs south of our border. There are suggestions on how to buy fair trade coffee, clothing and gifts. These products ensure that the people producing them are paid a living wage. I list many other non-profit groups that are doing good work in Honduras, Mexico, and elsewhere to create jobs so fewer women feel forced to leave their children.

Some readers have gone through these groups to provide a microloan to an individual woman in Honduras. Others have demanded that their college cafeteria start serving fair trade coffee. A staff member at an Illinois university took what was perhaps the most deeply personal approach. She said Enrique’s Journey prompted her to quit her job and start a café in Honduras, where she now employs 10 people.

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