Why are so many kids crossing the US-Mexico border and what should Obama do?

 

It is hard not to be haunted by the riveting images of children from Central America and Mexico as they huddle under Red Cross blankets after being apprehended crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. President Obama has responded quickly — by asking Congress for another $3.7 billion in border security on top of the billions already spent.

Alas, that is the wrong solution to a growing problem. Wrong because it doesn't address why millions are coming north.

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To deal effectively with this human crisis, we need to dig deeper to the root causes of why so many people are willing to take such risks for themselves and/or their children in attempting to cross our southern border. Many are fleeing domestic violence and trafficking, which in part are legacies of a half century of U.S. intervention in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

However, an important root cause — that has not been sufficiently acknowledged — lies in flawed trade and investment agreements that the United States negotiated, first with Mexico and others (the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA) two decades ago and then with Central America (CAFTA-DR) one decade ago. Those agreements reduced barriers to trade and investment while giving corporations more power to bargain down wages and environmental standards among our countries. In so doing, these agreements have disrupted economies and lives to such an extent that millions of people see no other option but to migrate to the United States.

Perhaps most disruptive is the result of the agreements greatly reducing, if not eliminating, tariffs on agricultural products among the countries. While this may work out well in economic textbooks, the reality has been a spiral of human dislocation: Heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other farm products flooded Mexican and Central American markets, undermining the livelihoods of millions of small farmers there. These farmers then migrated north to the factories on the U.S.-Mexico border.

When China subsequently offered even lower-wage labor in factories there, those jobs moved to China. And the farmers-turned-factory-workers continued their migration north into the United States. The Institute for Policy Studies, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute and others have documented the costs of this failed trade model.

Understandably, the drug trade has flourished in these impoverished conditions, adding violence to the NAFTA- and CAFTA-exacerbated poverty and inequality as another push factor. As North America expert Jeff Faux points out, children and their parents are desperate to flee both the poverty and the violence. But, rather than focus on sustainable livelihoods, U.S. aid to these countries has concentrated on increased police and "security."

Until policymakers address these root causes and until people to our south can earn sustainable livelihoods — be it in agriculture, manufacturing or services — migration by the millions will continue no matter how many border guards the U.S. government funds.

Running for president in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to learn the lessons of a failed NAFTA and renegotiate the deal to address its disruptive impacts. He should still do this. So, too, should he stop negotiating new agreements that build on the failed NAFTA model. But now, Obama has placed a high priority on a new agreement with a dozen nations bordering the Pacific and another with the European Union. Both wrongly prioritize the interests of footloose large corporations rather than those of communities, farmers, factory workers and the environment.

If the executive branch is not going to take the lead here, then Congress should make it clear that such flawed agreements will not get through the legislative branch.

When allowed a decent livelihood in a peaceful community, most people would prefer to live in the countries where they were born. Most would certainly prefer not to send their young ones off on such an exceedingly treacherous journey. But choosing the option to stay home can happen only when the people and the environments of such countries prosper.

The United States needs to stop negotiating agreements that put corporate profits before ordinary people on both sides of the border.

This piece has been updated to note that President Obama has most recently asked for $3.7 billion in border security funds; the president had previously asked for $2 billion, the number formerly used in this piece.

Broad is a professor at the School of International Service at American University. Prior to that, she worked as an international economist at the U.S. Treasury Department, in the office of then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.