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There’s an Alternative to Border Walls: Let People Get on Airplanes (Mother Jones)

December 20, 2019

From the article:

"At 20 years old, Ricardo Caló left rural Guatemala for the United States, worked for three years, and came home. Two decades later, we met at his metal workshop in Cubulco, a small city five hours north of Guatemala City. Thanks to his time in Tennessee, he owned a home, kept his kids in school, and ran a welding business, a skill he learned by building Sonic Drive-Ins throughout the American South. It was the type of success story the United States has spent billions of dollars to prevent. 

Under Democratic and Republican presidents, the US government has tried to deter unauthorized migration from Central American out of existence. At the same time, it’s made it impossible for nearly everyone in the region to come legally. More humanely, bipartisan coalitions have approved foreign aid designed to encourage Central Americans to remain at home. What unites both approaches is a vision of a world in which Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans quickly stop coming to the United States. 

There’s an alternative that’s rarely discussed: seeing Central Americans’ desire to work in the United States as a chance to help both sides’ economies. Rather than force people to spend billions of dollars on smuggling fees, the United States could offer visas that let them get on airplanes to and work here legally. As I reported in a story about how President Donald Trump’s border policies have trapped people in places like Cubulco, many of them simply want to do what Caló did: earn some money and then return home to a more comfortable life. And it’s a solution that’s made more politically palatable, in the face of concerns about long-term competition for US workers, by the fact that demographic shifts are already well underway that will see far fewer Central Americans seeking to leave home for the United States.

One of the most empirically rigorous proponents of this approach is Michael Clemens, an economist and the director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development. Clemens came of age as unauthorized border crossings climbed to record highs in the 1980s. Every year, he recalls, the reaction in the United States was just, 'How are we going to stop it?' 

His research shows that much of that boom could have been predicted by one fact: The number of young people entering Mexico’s workforce peaked. There weren’t enough jobs, so they headed north. Washington’s response was to militarize the border, which led migrants to use deadly routes through the desert to avoid deportation. Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey has estimated that the increase in border enforcement caused more than 5,100 deaths between 1986 and 2010.

Then, around the time of the Great Recession, there was another largely predictable shift: The era of mass migration from Mexico ended as the number of Mexicans joining the labor market declined. For the past decade, more Mexicans have been leaving the United States than coming to it. For Clemens, the US government’s decision to push an entire generation of Mexicans migrants into the hands of smugglers was a 'vast historic opportunity, terribly bungled.' But Mexican migration 'was still massively, massively beneficial for the US,” Clemens says. 'There’s a whole generation of children who were taken care of, grandparents who were taken care of, buildings that were built, factories that were guarded at night, farms that could continue to exist only because of that Mexican migration...'"

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Photo of Michael Clemens
Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Fellow