Here’s how we need to think differently about migration

Here’s how we need to think differently about migration
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As Democrats and Republicans scramble to find a new solution to the immigration impasse before the government shuts down again, maybe both sides can agree to change the debate. Instead of focusing solely on the wall or on sanctuaries, can the administration and Congress move toward working with the Mexican, Central American and Caribbean governments and civil societies to help these countries build up retention strategies and become better partners to the United States? This would seem to be in everyone’s interest.

The raw numbers are staggering. As of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, there are 36 million people of Mexican descent living in the United States, a huge loss to a country with a population of 132 million, according to the United Nations. There are over 2 million people here of Salvadoran descent (home country population just 6.3 million). There are 1.8 million Dominicans, 1.3 million Guatemalans, and 850,000 Hondurans in the United States.

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Imagine how devastating it would be, economically and socially, for the United States if one-fifth of our population migrated elsewhere. If 60 million of us were to pick up and leave, the holes in the American social fabric would be enormous. Yet this is what has happened to Mexico and, increasingly, this is what is happening to Guatemala, Honduras and other countries. We focus so much on our situation, we don’t see how the social fabric is tearing apart for our neighbors.

To say that the United States has had the better end of the migration bargain economically would be an understatement. If Hispanic America were a country, it would be 55 million strong, have a GDP of $2 trillion, and boast a per-capita income of over $38,000. If non-Hispanic Caribbean America were a country, its 4 million members would have a GDP of over $100 billion, also making it the wealthiest Caribbean nation by far.

When you compare the average per-capita income of these migrants to their peers in their natal countries, it’s hard not to conclude that the United States is attracting the most entrepreneurial, adventurous and desperate for change-oriented elements of these populations. No matter how bad things get, it takes a certain personality type to leave your roots, your family, your food, your culture and, in many cases, your language, in search of a better life.

The social disruption that is taking place is almost incomprehensible. People are abandoning their traditional ways of life and familial lands for more urban experiences and the hope of better incomes and social dignity. My organization works with HELPS International in Guatemala. A few years back, one of their surgical teams helped eight women from a remote 40-family village with hernias and other untreated problems. After their successful operations, they said they hadn’t felt so good in 15 years and that this would enable them to keep their families together.  They explained that their village had decided to send their children to the United States, because they felt the village had no future, but now they could keep their children and rebuild their village.

Many people have a healthy distrust of government-centered foreign aid, but civil society organizations such as HELPS and decentralized, market- and civic-oriented policies can provide hope and opportunity outside of capital cities.  

Most immigrants would rather stay home if they could. Though the idea of the United States keeps drawing people like a magnet, it is the lack of opportunity and the violence and discontent locally that reinforces the desire for change and self-imposed exile. As a result, as much as 40 percent of economic growth for some of these natal countries may have been lost and the costs to the social fabric have been enormous.

Meanwhile, immigration also has led to a different kind of development crisis here in the United States. While migrants have contributed 10 percent of U.S. GDP in recent years, they also may have depressed local community wage growth and earning power, particularly for lower- and middle-income households in many parts of the United States. The status quo does not help any of our respective countries, from a social equity perspective.

In a way, the border wall versus sanctuary arguments may be too self-centered. If we consider that these countries, or at least the people in these countries, must have huge demand for job creation and retention policies, then perhaps we can craft solutions that reduce the immigration pressures on the United States and enhance the retention and economic opportunity of these natal countries.

If the United States were losing 60 million of its people, at we would do whatever we could to change this state of affairs, so why should our neighbors be any different? Helping them retain their people will help us, too, and it just might be the kind of thinking that helps change the conversation underpinning the current government impasse.

Stephen Jordan is CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Development. He works on community development and disaster recovery challenges in the United States and overseas. Follow him on Twitter @scjordan.