Real ‘America First’ policy includes a Marshall Plan for our neighbors

In 1940, while Great Britain was fighting alone against the Nazis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a simple home-spun example to explain to his fellow Americans why it was in our county’s own interest to help our friends defend themselves in Europe: 

If your neighbor’s house is burning down, FDR argued that you lend him a garden hose and worry about getting it back later, after the fire is put out. Not doing so risks not only his house being burned down, but possibly yours too, as the fire spreads to the whole neighborhood.

{mosads}Fast forward 78 years, and we see the Trump administration taking a very different approach to the fires burning out of control in the home countries of our Central American neighbors.


Instead of lending them a garden hose, we are treating them like criminals, locking them up with or without their children and destroying our own country’s values, honor, reputation and self-respect in the process.

Indeed, many Americans have wallowed in shame and despair at the spectacle of our elected government treating our fellow Americans — albeit from south of our border — as if they were sub-human (“animals” trying to “infest” our country, in Trump’s words). 

But a real “America First” policy, one that sought to advance the genuine interests of our country, is totally feasible, if we had a government willing to implement it. It would focus on helping neighboring countries provide their citizens with economic opportunity as well as physical security.

The U.S. could work with local governments to train and bolster their law enforcement and judicial systems, as well as provide educational assistance and job training. Some commentators have suggested that drug decriminalization would have to be part of the discussion as well.

These actions could be combined with a public/private “Marshall Plan” to encourage investment in Central American businesses and infrastructure, especially in businesses that had economic synergies with the United States, to encourage trade — and economic growth — in both directions.

The plan could even include local training and apprenticeship programs that tied into a “merit-based” immigration or guest-worker program, so prospective immigrants can gain the skills in their local economies that they would need to meet the entrance requirements for temporary or permanent migration to the U.S.

Obviously none of this can be done overnight. But by announcing it as our goal and setting up a task force to implement it, we would send an immediate message that we see this as a human challenge rather than an “us against them” issue where the “other” is demeaned and dehumanized.

Of course, we would still need to address the immediate refugee and humanitarian issues on our border with compassion and generosity, not with the mean-spirited, “punish the victim” approach that has characterized recent efforts.

A “Neighbor to Neighbor” program that integrated immigration reform with helping to end the need for Central Americans to flee their home countries would ultimately pay for itself in increased economic activity and tax revenues, as well as reduced costs of processing and imprisoning refugee families.

It would surely be far less expensive than our decades-long investment of billions of dollars and thousands of human casualties — military and civilian — in the Middle East, with a potential outcome far more tangibly beneficial to America’s national interests.

President Trump’s treatment of refugee families has created another shameful episode in our country’s “pantheon of dehumanization,” which includes Japanese internment during World War II, the My Lai Massacre, racial segregation and the institution of slavery. 

It has been painful for millions of Americans, so many of whose ancestors came here as economic and/or political refugees themselves, to watch our president not only mistreat immigrant families but display such a real enthusiasm for doing so.

Steven Bavaria is a former executive with the Bank of Boston and Standard & Poor’s. He is the author of, “Too Greedy for Adam Smith: CEO Pay and the Demise of Capitalism” (CreateSpace Publishing). He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. 

Tags Adam Smith Border Central America Donald Trump Donald Trump economic crises family separations Immigration Jeff Sessions Marshall Plan Mexico refugees

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