Migrant caravan

Maria Gomez, 22, carries her son David Moises, 1, as the thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans migrants hoping to reach the U.S. border moves onward from Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.

The immigration crisis on our southern border cannot be dismissed as politics, but politics, to be sure, is exacerbating the problem. And not just U.S. politics.

The same type of left-right division we see in this country is driving caravans of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala through Mexico until they slam to a halt at the U.S. border. The most notorious of the caravans, which left Honduras on Oct. 13 and many of whose travelers remain in limbo in Tijuana, Juarez and Matamoros, was started by activists who wanted to embarrass the Honduran government.

From this political strategy, we reaped family separations, troops deployed at the border, miles-long backups for trucks clearing Customs, threats to close the border, and the president’s intention to cut off aid to Central American countries.

That’s Honduran and U.S. politics. But Mexican politics also plays a role.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador initially sought to implement his pledge to be more compassionate toward migrants. In January, López Obrador’s administration issued 13,000 humanitarian visas, which allowed migrants to work and access services in Mexico for up to a year.

It is easy to guess how Mexicans reacted when they got wind of those migrants working in Mexico and getting government support while waiting for the United States to let them in. López Obrador stopped issuing the humanitarian visas in February.

A new caravan formed in Honduras in late March, crossed Guatemala and entered southern Mexico in mid-April. This time, Mexico impeded its progress, corralling the migrants in two towns just inside its border with Guatemala, exhausting the resources and the goodwill of the Mexicans. Thus, Mexico is hosting a migrant crisis at both its borders.

And it is a crisis. That much is beyond debate. It is a humanitarian crisis, and it is also an economic crisis.

Consider that the transfer of 750 Customs agents to border patrol duty five weeks ago has caused a backup of 15,000 trucks at the crossing at El Paso, Texas. That is delaying the import of approximately $1 billion of goods every day, much of it fragile produce. Manufacturing in the state of Chihuahua alone is losing an estimated $20 million a day because of the border crisis. How does a poorer Mexico help the United States? If jobs disappear in Mexico, more Mexicans will head north.

Politics is not serving us well when it comes to managing these crises. We cannot allow our leaders to make political points with the lives of our neighbors, closing our minds and our borders and dumping the problem on the next country to the south. We must address the reasons the migrants head north to begin with, and we must do it in their home countries.

Trump’s threat to cut off aid to Central American countries is a knee-jerk reaction, when what is needed is a plan to improve conditions in all the countries in the region. Aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador from the United States totals about $450 million to $480 million a year, a small fraction of what Trump wants for his border wall, not to mention the daily costs of apprehending, detaining, housing and deporting illegal immigrants.

Rather than cutting off aid, we should be spending more money in those countries, using it to create the conditions under which Central Americans will choose to remain at home. Mexico’s López Obrador is working on a program to create jobs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States should embrace this idea and expand it.

If we want Hondurans and Guatemalans and Salvadorans to stay home, we must invest in making those countries places where people want to be.