Opinion

America First: immigration in Central America and why Trump’s policy isn’t working

“…And the migrant situation has got so out of control over the last few years that they really should build a wall along the southern border.”

It’s a soundbite familiar to many, and with the American presidential election drawing close, one that will almost certainly be heard countless times again.

What might come as a surprise, however, is that this particular quotation comes not from a right-leaning, disgruntled American voter, but a Mexican one. The ‘migrant situation’ mentioned is not the same one troubling cities like Tijuana and El Paso. The proposed ‘wall’ refers to a construction entirely different to that promised in Trump’s election campaign. And the ‘southern border’, instead of the expanse of land America shares with Mexico, denotes the thousand kilometres or so that Mexico shares with Guatemala.

Of the many memories I have of my time living in Santiago de Querétaro, a medium-sized city located about two hours north of the capital, hearing the same sort of discourse now synonymous with the ‘America First’ outlook is a memory I will never forget. I think I originally took these remarks as an ironic joke, worthy of the quintessentially British awkward half-smile.

The trends that underpin the emergence of this opinion in the Mexican mainstream are far from a laughing matter.

Recent figures from the Mexican government put the level of immigration up by over 200% compared to 2018, with some 360,000 undocumented migrants passing into the country in the space of twelve months. And that excludes the 70,000 or so migrants who have been deported back to their country of origin by the authorities. To put that into perspective, that’s a figure 3 times higher than the UK’s, even during the days of the Conservative “hostile environment” policy towards irregular migration.

The storm clouds have been forming for some time. Many of the so-called ‘sin papeles’, those entering Mexico without documentation, do so by land. A large fraction come from Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador and will often walk hundreds of miles on foot in dangerous conditions as part of caravanas de inmigrantes, crossing multiple borders in search of a better life. Their end destination? If not Mexico, the USA.

A precarious situation was made even more unstable earlier last year, when the US delivered an ultimatum to the Mexican government: contain Central American migratory flows, or face import tariffs on Mexican goods. Since June 2019, thousands of Mexican soldiers have been deployed to the southern border in an attempt to meet this requirement. Months later, and the police still regularly shut the land border with Guatemala as some migrants clash with border force agents attempting to enter the country. And all this without mentioning the worsening humanitarian situation in which those migrants seeking a better life are trapped.

Images of armed Mexican service personnel in close quarters with migrants do not make for good media coverage. On the other hand, a cynic would argue that as an emerging economy, the Mexican administration is doing the best it can with the limited political and financial options at its disposal. The government could point to its job creation programmes for Central American migrants willing to settle in the southern parts of the country instead of continuing on to the US border.

But such discussions miss the root cause of the problem: ‘America First’ policies, drawing on centuries-old rhetoric of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

In the first instance, the Trump administration’s offloading of a concern, whose cause is in no small part of its own creation, to a country with a GDP per capita some six times lower than America’s own is irresponsible at best, and negligent at worst. Perhaps it is the Mexican tricolour, and not the star-spangled banner, that now appears in photos at border checkpoints, but sweeping a problem under the carpet does not actually resolve it. A radical rethink is required to prevent unnecessary suffering.

Those supporting a tough stance on immigration would say strong-willed policies will prevent migrants from leaving their homes in the first place. I would reply that the kind of causes that drive people to trek thousands of miles through desolate and unforgiving territory, uncertain as to what their future might hold, must be equally desolate and unforgiving. An average minimum wage of £1.27 per hour in Honduras, 34% of households living in poverty in El Salvador, and rising violence in many Central American cities – all reasons to drive humans to extreme solutions, and all a stark contrast to American wealth.

When inequality is as painfully obvious as it is in the case of the USA and Central America, immigration will be an eventuality whether the host nation likes it or not. Any policy must correspondingly evolve in its function. I am not suggesting open borders, but rather that on the recipient side of the debate, there should be a more widespread effort to inform the general public of the reality surrounding immigration and its causes – a reality beyond the realm of statistics and technical jargon, which do so much to dehumanise the individual lives behind the trends and so little to foster real understanding. Moving forwards, in an ideal world, the American government would take a leaf out of the European Union’s book when addressing their own migrant crisis and make a coherent, multilateral effort to work with the less economically developed states of origin – instead of issuing threats.

Admittedly, politics is far from ideal. Yet the paradox of the America First principle is that compromise is omitted from any discussion, in some cases leading to the US administration being unable to help itself reach its own objectives. If Trump’s real goal were to reduce migratory flows, instead of spending an estimated $20 million per mile of wall, surely increasing the measly $13mn and $18mn El Salvador and Honduras respectively received in basic education funding from US Aid last year would go far further, also improving countless lives. The America First stance, directed by the principle of “foreign assistance realignment”, would not even contemplate such subversive proposals.

Globalisation and social mobility have changed the inflexible boundaries of geography and class politics for good. Policies that seek to reverse this reality simply cannot and will not work.