Treat the Cause, Not Just the Symptom

We have a crisis at our southern border with Mexico. The United States is being inundated with an almost endless stream of families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that are risking their lives, traversing more than 1,500 miles through arduous terrain and treacherous conditions, to seek asylum in the United States.

When trying to overcome any crisis, including one like this, two approaches emerge. You can seek to ameliorate the symptoms of the malady, or you can address and hopefully eliminate the root cause.

Of course, sometimes the symptoms are so debilitating that you must act to alleviate them, but it is shortsighted to be so consumed with treating the symptoms that you neglect to attend to the underlying cause. But that, I fear, is what we are doing vis a vis the flood of asylum seekers. Indeed, it is worse than neglect. It appears that the administration is adopting a policy that will exacerbate the cause of the crisis.

The provenance of the crisis is largely self-evident. How bad must it be in the countries commonly referred to as the violent Northern Triangle for parents to decide that it is more attractive to risk their families’ lives by fleeing thousands of miles through unforgiving lands to enter a country with a foreign language than it is to remain in their country of origin? To justify such a risk means that for many of them, the existing situation must be almost unfathomable.

But if life in the Northern Triangle is that precarious, then it is foolhardy to believe that the solution is simply to somehow seal the border. Hordes of people will continue to come, overwhelming our capacity in the United States to handle the influx, as well as overwhelming Mexico, which has a fraction of our resources and cannot absorb such masses.

Think about it for a moment. Suppose that Canada continued to prosper but some cataclysmic event hurled the United States into an abyss, causing most of us to starve while being terrorized by marauding gangs that constantly threatened to kill our sons and rape our daughters. I love my children more than life itself. I know what I would do at some point. If anarchy were to reign in the United States, you can bet there would be a mass migration to Canada. There but for the grace of God go we.

Fortunately, history teaches that a solution exists. You act to stabilize the country or region and improve the conditions for the people in the afflicted area. Stable neighbors make good neighbors. There is a reason why our border with Canada is the longest demilitarized border in the world.

After World War I, Germany collapsed and it proved a breeding ground for fascism that led to World War II. Fortunately, we learned a valuable, albeit painful, lesson from the aftermath of the First World War.

After World War II, we adopted the Marshall Plan that stabilized Europe and allowed it to prosper, from which we have reaped substantial benefits. For decades we suffered the effects of an impoverished Mexico because its crushing poverty caused millions of Mexicans to illegally immigrate to the United States. We enacted NAFTA and promoted bilateral trade and investment that improved economic conditions in Mexico. The result? We stanched the mass Mexican exodus and now have a net zero or negative net flow of illegal Mexican immigrants. We must apply these lessons to the Northern Triangle.

I readily admit that the task of addressing the root cause of the current crisis will not be easy and that we must continue simultaneously to tend to the acute symptoms we are enduring. The conditions on the ground in the Northern Triangle are so dire, it will take considerable resources over a course of years to adequately address the conditions at the root of the problem, much less eliminate them.

And in treating the current symptoms that beset us at the border, we must resist adopting policies that jeopardize the stability of Mexico, because if Mexico were to collapse under the onslaught of refugees fleeing the Northern Triangle, the burden on us would rise exponentially.

I write this piece because I am alarmed that far from addressing the cause of the problem, the administration intends to exacerbate it. The administration is cutting aid to the Northern Triangle that Congress has already authorized, and has declared that if the exodus does not dwindle, all future aid to combat crime and improve economic conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador will be cut off.

It is being charitable to characterize such a strategy as contraindicated. Those countries are in such a state of disarray that they are incapable of fixing the problem on their own. That is why they have such a flood of people fleeing in the first place.

In the end, it will cost the United States far less to devote resources to stabilize the Northern Triangle than it will to only treat the symptoms on our southern border while the infection of instability and violence continues to fester and grow in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.