Enough Republicans have said publicly that they will vote against President Donald Trump's use of his emergency powers to build a wall along the southern border. That will hand the president the biggest defeat of his presidency — albeit a symbolic one, as the president has already promised to veto the resolution and there are not enough Republican votes to override that veto, so the president will go ahead and pilfer funds from military projects and others to begin work on the wall. Meanwhile, the real crisis at the border will go unanswered by anyone in the White House or the Congress.
Figures released this week by the Department of Homeland Security show that there has indeed been a surge in people trying to gain admission into the United States without proper visas. In January, more than 76,000 unauthorized migrants were taken into custody at the border with Mexico. But unlike earlier waves of migrants, most of these consisted of families from Central America trying to claim asylum. That is twice the number that came during the same period last year and marks the highest number of unauthorized migrants in the past 11 years. But it is unlikely that Trump's future wall, even if it were in place now, would deter these people.
As someone who favors increased legal immigration to the United States, I worry about this surge. I believe that it plays into the president's xenophobic rhetoric about an invasion, giving those who want to not just eliminate illegal immigration but also drastically reduce legal immigration fodder for their ugly campaigns against immigrants. But I also worry that it lets members of Congress and the administration off the hook with respect to fixing the problems that drive this mass migration.
The women and children who walk hundreds of miles to take their chances at ports of entry on the border — or, failing that, resort to dangerous treks into the Rio Grande and across deserts and mountains — do so out of sheer desperation. They leave behind homes in their native lands because those places are so dangerous they believe that their chances are better evading rattlesnakes and coyotes — both animal and human — than staying in communities where gangs and drugs imperil their livelihoods and lives. They need help. They are our neighbors. And we are not blameless in their predicament. It is our insatiable appetite for illegal drugs that has helped ruin their countries. We owe it to them to help fix it.
The 2019 federal budget allots $118 million in aid to Central American countries to help fight poverty, drugs and crime, as well as support some infrastructure improvements. This is a pittance compared with what is needed. Imagine what even half of the $5.7 billion the president wants for his border wall could do if spent on fighting drugs and crime in those countries. If we want Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans to stay at home, why not invest more money in making those places livable? These are small countries with relatively small populations. El Salvador has about 6.4 million people. Honduras has 9.5 million. And Guatemala has about 17.5 million. A Marshall Plan for Central America to help rebuild societies that have been torn apart by drug wars, civil war and natural disasters would do far more than building barriers along our southern border. Admittedly, there isn't a huge appetite among taxpayers for foreign aid, and the president finds it useful only as a cudgel when it suits him. He threatened to cut off the meager money appropriated for Central America during the 2018 campaign if the countries wouldn't do something to disband the caravans headed north for asylum.
But the president isn't alone in bearing blame. Congress has shirked its responsibilities to rethink our current asylum system and do what it can in our own hemisphere to make it less likely people will flee their home countries. We should not turn a blind eye to what is happening along our border. We shouldn't ignore that thousands of parents are braving unbelievable odds, right in our backyard, to seek protection for their children. Congress should explore beefing up aid to Central America in ways that would make it less likely that parents will show up on our doorstep with their children. Our government leaders must recognize that making America safe requires making the neighborhoods to our south safer, too.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.