As Congress engages in negotiations about funding the United States government, President Trump has decided to bring back into the debate one of his signature campaign promises: a massive, 2000-mile long wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. “If we don’t get the wall,” Trump said last Friday, “then I got a lot of very unhappy people, starting with me.” Whether legislators will allow the president to conflate budget negotiations with the border wall remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that Trump will continue to push for it in 2018. Which is why it’s so important to remember why the wall, and the exclusionary immigration policy that underlies it, is such a noxious, immoral idea.
In its first year, the Trump administration has been true to its promise of working to curb illegal immigration into the U.S., particularly from Mexico and Central America. Arrests and deportations are up compared to the most recent years, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). This, in turn, has caused attempted border crossings, though ICE has noted that the number of unaccompanied minors attempting to sneak into the U.S. is once again on the rise. However, plenty of Americans agree with Trump’s position on this matter. They invoke the need for law and order, and (falsely) claim that illegal immigration brings crime and unemployment to the U.S.
But if we’re going to talk about the border wall, it is imperative that we consider the other side of the question. Allowing immigrants from Mexico and Central America to come to the U.S. is not a purely legal issue, but also an ethical issue. A blanket ban on “unauthorized” migrants is quite simply immoral. This is because millions of people in Mexico and the three Central American nations that produce most unauthorized migrants – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – live in miserable and extremely dangerous conditions. Many come to the U.S. quite literally fleeing for their lives, while others see no other option to feed and clothe their families. Waiting to receive legal permission to work in the U.S. is not an option for most of them, and the process is lengthy and cumbersome for those who can apply.
It is well known that these four countries have been mired in violence for years now, a result of the drug wars between competing drug cartels as well as between criminals and national governments. The violence in Mexico since 2006 has left tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people dead, though it’s really impossible to pinpoint an exact figure. Many areas of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are veritable war zones, often controlled by the criminal gangs known as maras (the most notorious of which is MS-13). These three unfortunate nations have boasted some of the world’s highest murder rates for the last decade. It is the moral responsibility of the U.S. government to welcome and protect refugees of the drug violence that plagues its neighbors, not least because America is the destination for most of the illegal drugs that fuel this violence.
But the drug wars are only part of the problem. The recent electoral chaos in Honduras, with sitting president Juan Orlando Hernández, declared the winner of a very tight contest amid allegations of corruption, has aroused the concerns of experts on Latin American politics. Over the next eighteen months, most of the countries south of the U.S. will have national elections. They will present a crucial test for democracy in the region. Moreover, corruption is rife in Latin America and appears to be growing over time.
Not surprisingly, the combination of insecurity, corruption, and weakening democratic institutions has a negative effect on the economy. Recent studies show that unemployment, for example, is growing in Latin America (although Mexico is an exception). Add to that the destructive effects of climate change on Central America, which disproportionally affects the most vulnerable populations, and it’s not hard to see why a receptive and welcoming U.S. immigration policy is necessary to avert humanitarian crises in the region, now and in the future.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its intent to end the 30-year American policy to help Latin American countries improve their economies, solidify their democratic politics, and defeat the criminal elements that have taken them hostage. Instead, Trump and his advisors have determined that the best path is to stop helping some of the neediest people in the world.