Hispanic and Latino Americans accounted for more than half of U.S. population growth over the last decade. By mid-century, the U.S. Census Bureau expects Hispanics to exceed 50% of the entire American population. This shift has presented a host of new issues for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Ten years ago, political debates centered around efforts to forcibly end illegal immigration altogether. It seemed only sensible that strong border security would slow immigration and effectively combat the War on Drugs. Today, shifting voter demographics and the financial logistics of implementing effective physical barriers have rendered this debate obsolete.
Lawmakers have reached the conclusion that balancing immigration incentives, rather than armed force, must be at the center of border control. An incentive-based approach should be welcomed, but current methods are still misguided. Discussions over the DREAM Act have revealed a willingness to integrate undocumented immigrants into the American citizenry. However, such policies must be part of a more comprehensive approach that includes efforts to bolster Central American economic development.
Economic and political volatility have plagued Latin America for most of modern history. Challenges to consolidation are driven by weak social capital and a general lack of confidence in public governance. Political corruption, distrust of police, and strong attitudes of individualism prevail throughout Mexico, in particular. These systemic factors provide the foundation for unusually high emigration rates and an expansive narco-economy.
Mexico’s labor force is regularly ranked as the hardest working in the world, both by hours worked and profitability per man-hour. Despite this, obstacles to social mobility are immense, reflected by Mexico’s towering 25% underemployment rate. Low wages, abysmal labor conditions and weak government regulations are endemic to the Mexican economy. As a result, poverty is widespread — and growing. In 2012, 44.2% lived below the poverty line. Few promising job opportunities exist, even for college graduates.
So, what do we get from this fusion of low social capital, hard work and limited economic opportunity? First, an estimated 14 million people engaged in the underground economy, and second, one of the highest emigration rates in the world. Mexico is one of five Central American countries whose annual net migration occupies the world’s bottom quartile. In order to solve these two problems, Latin American economic development must become a priority.
Strengthening Mexico’s economic infrastructure is surely a decades-long process. But the United States has already spent $1 trillion on the drug war since the mid-1970’s, and achieved little progress. Mexico and Colombia — the world’s largest cocaine exporter — receive more U.S. military aid than any country outside of the Middle East. Of course, this does not include the billions of American taxpayer dollars that have been spent on domestic border security. More telling though, is the fact that military aid to Mexico was nearly 30% greater than economic aid in 2011. Economic aid packages to African countries dwarfed those of Latin America. Mexico received half the economic aid of Ethiopia despite hosting a GDP thirty times greater.
The real issue with allocating our precious financial resources to regional economic development is that it will not yield immediate results. Is it clear, however, that fighting the drug war and illegal immigration with police forces is beyond our means. The Mexican-American border spans nearly 2,000 miles and strong border fencing costs nearly $16 million per mile. Even so, these physical barriers "are regularly overcome with ladders rented out for $35 a climb," as Damien Cave noted in the New York Times earlier this week. Undoubtedly, drug legalization and citizenship measures should be on the table. Economic development, however, is the only fiscally and politically reasonable method to ensure progress in the War on Drugs and minimize future immigration volume.