central america

Family Reunification and Other Explanations for the Border Surge of Unaccompanied Children

There are two main issues surrounding the increase in the migration of unaccompanied children (UAC) and asylum seekers in recent years that have recently reached crisis proportions.  The first is the treatment of those children who are apprehended by Border Patrol and how American policy is reacting to the surge. 

The second is explaining why UACs are coming.  Below I will lay out three different theories that attempt to explain the surge in UACs.  Each theory has some merit and I present evidence in support and opposition to each one.  

First Explanation: Family Reunification

Immigration by stages and family reunification could explain part of the UAC border surge.  Stage migration works like this:  First, the single breadwinner of the family immigrates to find work in the United States.  After getting established, finding employment, and figuring out how to function in his new country, the initial immigrant then sends for the rest of his family.  Sometimes the initial immigrant’s spouse will come alone while leaving the children in the care of extended family.  Often times, after the second parent is working, they will then have the funds to send for the children to join them in the United States. 

This pattern of family separation through stage immigration and eventual reunification is a desperate strategy undertaken by poor people who don’t have any other options.  Regardless, it explains part of the surge in unaccompanied children who are joining their unlawful immigrant parents and families who previously arrived in the United States.

Smuggling prices for unauthorized immigrants from Central America are higher than for unauthorized Mexican immigrants.  Mexicans pay about $4000 to be smuggled to the United States by land and $9000 to be smuggled in by sea.  Guatemalans pay about $7000.  But since Guatemalans are so much poorer than Mexicans, on average, it can take many more years for them to save for the trip, often meaning that both parents are more likely to come to the United States first to work and send money back to Guatemala to finance the sending of their children.  As a result, many of the children would come alone. 

The price of human smuggling has risen substantially due to increased U.S. border enforcement.  The higher price of migrating and the relative poverty of Central American migrants mean that families are more likely to be separated during the migration process, explaining part of the surge in UACs from Central America.  Ironically, increased border enforcement and crackdowns on human smugglers have probably caused more family separation and eventual reunification – partly explaining the scale of the current UAC migration.

A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Freedom for Thee, But Not for We

I expected and got some pushback about my post comparing the Berlin Wall to the wall along our southern border. Happily, it was more civil than the reactions I often get when I talk about immigration and free movement of people.

One fair comment focused on the key distinction between the Berlin Wall and our border wall: the direction the guards were facing.

Worrying Delevopments in Guatemala

In the last week there’ve been deeply worrying developments in Guatemala. Rodrigo Rosenberg, a highly respected Guatemalan lawyer, was killed Sunday outside of his house by unknown gunmen. On Monday, a posthumous video recorded by Rosenberg was released where he blames the country’s president, Alvaro Colom, for his assassination.

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