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Are there long-term solutions to illegal immigration?


Why do so many undocumented migrants on our Southern border risk danger and deportation to seek a better life in the United States? 

The answer is simple. For the most part they are fleeing extreme poverty and near epidemic levels of criminal violence. According to a recent survey, 42 of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Latin America. The largest cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are all high on the list, as are several major cities in Mexico.

{mosads}In addition, more than two-thirds of the population in Honduras lives in poverty and most in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $3.80 per day, according to the World Bank. In Guatemala and El Salvador, high percentages of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.


Moreover, in the Central American countries, which generate most of the illegal migrants, confidence in government is non-existent, corruption endemic and impunity the norm. Common people live in fear and misery.

Many of those who have been detained understood that, if caught, they might be turned away. Many may even have understood they might be separated from their children. They came anyway, confident that even life in the shadows would be better than what they left.

What that should tell us is that immigration enforcement alone will not halt the exodus of people fleeing their homelands. A wall may slow them down and so be justifiable for some, but it will not solve the problem. Desperate people will find a way to get over, under or around a wall.

Yet amnesty for those in immigration detention centers will make matters worse. If poverty and fear are all one needs to demonstrate to get into the U.S., millions more will soon be heading north.

As unwilling as some may be to recognize it, what is necessary is a long-term commitment to helping the countries generating these migrants so the people don’t feel the desperate need to leave. This means robust bilateral economic and technical assistance programs and sustained support to key international organizations like the World Food Program and the World Health Organization.

A substantially amplified program for temporary workers, perhaps like the Bracero program of the 1940s which brought significant numbers of Mexican agricultural workers into the U.S. for seasonal work during World War II, might relieve some of the pressure.

But that would not resolve the larger problem. Real economic and social progress is essential if we want to stem the flow of illegals across our borders.

At the heart of the current impasse is the reality that these detained families are economic migrants. They did not seek asylum and the vast majority would not have been granted asylum had they done so because they are not targets of political, ethnic or religious persecution.

The problem then is what to do with those now being detained while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated. They cannot be paroled into the U.S. just because they arrived with children.  They violated U.S. law by entering the country illegally.

On the other hand, having been taken into custody by U.S. law enforcement, they cannot be summarily deported.

Americans are understandably frustrated by our government’s inability to manage illegal immigration, which did not originate with President Trump but rather has been a problem for the past quarter century. The current crisis makes clear, though, that a better effort, one consistent with both our values and our national interest, is more urgently needed now than ever.

Patrick Duddy is the director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. He previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.

Tags Central America Donald Trump Honduras Immigration

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