Monday, July 7, 2014

Protecting Borders, Loving Neighbors, And The Economics Of Child Migration

Time Magazine reported last week that President Obama is seeking 2 billion dollars to reduce the flow of young illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Too often our approach to this problem is, like many U.S. political questions, polarized into mutually repellent views about how we should view our laws.  Should we reform them or enforce them?  Let me suggest another angle from which to consider the problem.

Eight years ago, Reynold Nesiba (an economist who is my friend and colleague) and I co-taught a course for American students in Nicaragua. The purpose of the course was to spend time thinking and talking about the effects of globalization on a small developing nation.

We both prefer to teach contextually, so that the assertions of our readings and lectures can be supported and challenged by what the students see and experience in the places we visit.
Coffee beans grown in Nicaragua.

We spent time with collective coffee growers, and with big coffee processors; with small, independent textile workers and in an international textile plant built in a tax-free zone in Managua.  We did homestays and met with development workers, a health clinic and a local church. We met with and listened to as many people, from as many points of view, as we could.

Workers sort coffee beans.
The downside to teaching this way is that both students and professors become much more aware of the complexity of the problems of globalization, and facile, armchair solutions to those problems tend to fall quickly to pieces.  That is to say, the downside to teaching this way is that it makes it harder to maintain simplistic and dogmatic views.  Which is to say, it's a good way to educate people.

Although the course made many things unclear, it made a few things clearer.  Among them are these:
  • The economy of Nicaragua is closely tied to the economy of the United States;
  • Many Nicaraguans have had to leave their family farms because cheap exports from the United States make it impossible to sell their produce and grain at competitive prices;
  • Those who leave the family farm often fail to find work in the cities;
  • One cause of this is that the work conditions in the cities are largely established and controlled by the international firms that can easily relocate to other poor countries if their requirements are not met.  This keeps wages low, and makes it difficult for the country to receive any tax benefit from international industry;
  • So capital freely flows out of the country and across borders;
  • People follow the capital as it flows.
I'm not an economist, and it should be kept in mind that I'm reporting anecdotally on what I learned almost a decade ago.  I teach in Central America regularly, and what I see continues to support the points I've just made, above, but I may be missing something important.

If I'm right, though, then it gives some context to the persistent problem of illegal migration across our southern border, and it suggests a remedy.

The problem is plain: poor people are following the money trail, and fleeing the harsh economic conditions that prevail in poor countries.

The remedy is also plain, even if it is not easy: we need to figure out a way to increase the flow of capital into places like Nicaragua, and to do it in such a way that it increases jobs (not merely increasing the income of the top earners) and increases the tax base.  One such possibility - especially if my second bullet point, above, is correct - would be to examine the way farm subsidies might actually be decreasing our ability to secure our borders.  Our nation reaps profit from Nicaragua.  Is it possible to do so in a way that also benefits Nicaragua?

I don't mean to pretend to be an expert here.  I do have some relevant experience in Central America (from teaching regularly in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize) but it's far from being hard data.  But surely what we need is not fewer anecdotes but more stories from and about people who are most affected by the economies of our several American nations.  If we are to love our neighbors, we need to learn who they are and what drives them.  A mother who would send her young child, alone, across Mexico in search of a new life is either wicked or desperate, and the latter seems the likelier story.  the roots of the word "desperate" mean "without hope."  Loving our neighbors surely must include trying to give hope to the hopeless, and not merely building a wall across the only path towards hope that they can imagine.


The old cathedral of Managua. Unused since it was damaged by an earthquake 40 years ago.
Here are a couple more photos from our course.  I've only included photos from cooperatives because the international firms we visited prohibited photography, claiming they were protecting "trade secrets."  As near as I could tell, there wasn't much to protect in those places, since the machinery was all very simple: sewing machines, bean sorting machines and baggers.  More likely, they were concerned about bad publicity arising from documentation of their working conditions.  The photo of the cathedral in Managua is a reminder of how poor the capital city is: such a beautiful building has languished for four decades because there are no funds to restore it.

A coffee cooperative in the mountains of Nicaragua.

A sewing cooperative.