Friends With Benefits

How a closer relationship with Mexico could help solve the child migrant crisis.

Obama Pena
President Obama shakes hands with his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto after a joint news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on May 2, 2013.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The United States and Mexico have an awkward relationship. For those of you who don’t know, the U.S. violently seized much of its territory from our neighbors to the south in the mid-19th century. That’s the kind of thing that leads to hard feelings. Mexico has, to be sure, shot itself in the foot in all kinds of ways. Yet it’s fair to say that Yankee imperialism has had a powerful influence on Mexico’s evolution, and not always for the better. It is doubly awkward, then, that the United States now needs Mexico to come to its rescue.

Specifically, the United States needs Mexico’s help to deal with the ongoing child migrant crisis at our mutual border. President Obama is insisting that something be done. Congressional Republicans are doing the same. I would be shocked if something weren’t done in the relatively near future. My concern is that the something in question will do nothing to address the reason we’re facing a child migrant crisis. And Mexico is the only country big enough, rich enough, and close enough to the heart of this humanitarian catastrophe to make a real difference.

Thus far, Mexico has barely entered the conversation. Rather, the debate has centered on whether Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have been led to believe that the Obama administration will welcome unaccompanied Central American minors, or whether the violence in those countries is so extreme that it would be irresponsible to send them home. For Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans to make it to the United States at all, though, they must first cross Mexican territory. In an ideal world, Central Americans fleeing chaos at home could find refuge in Mexico—one of the world’s more prosperous countries, and one of the richest in Latin America. Indeed, in 2011 Mexico enacted a refugee law that is in many respects more generous than the laws on the books in the United States, though it’s not at all clear that this law bears any resemblance to what’s happening on the ground.

Some Central Americans would, of course, still want to make the trek to the United States even if Mexico offered them refuge, either to reunite with loved ones or to find more lucrative work. But that’s not really the issue at hand. Mexico, thankfully, is far safer and more stable than the countries to its south. If it is incapable of providing refuge to those truly in need, it would nevertheless be much better for the United States for migrants to be vetted on Mexican soil than in a chaotic scrum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The trouble is that getting to this point will require a level of trust and cooperation that the United States and Mexico have rarely achieved.

In theory, the U.S. and Mexico should be as thick as thieves. There are approximately 11.7 million Mexican-born immigrants currently residing in the United States. In case you’re keeping score, that is 29 percent of America’s entire immigrant population and 4 percent of its population overall. Roughly twice as many native-born Americans identify as being of Mexican origin, which means that there are about as many Mexican-Americans in the United States as there are African-Americans. Of course, this Mexicanization of America hasn’t been embraced by everyone, for reasons good and bad. And Mexico’s government has, in defending the rights of its migrants—including its many unauthorized migrants—taken an at times adversarial stance toward the United States.

But the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is entering a new phase. Migration from Mexico to the U.S. has slowed sharply in recent years, and not primarily due to more aggressive border enforcement. Rather, it’s because Mexico’s GDP per capita has reached $15,600, which places it in roughly the same ballpark as moderately well-off countries like Russia, Malaysia, and Turkey. This is still substantially lower than America’s GDP per capita ($52,800), and this gap remains big enough to tempt Mexican workers northward. Yet as Mexico’s standard of living improves, its citizens are less eager to leave their families and neighborhoods behind. Slowly but surely, Mexico is transitioning from being a country that people are desperate to leave behind to a country that people are desperate to reach.

Mexicans and Americans, then, have a shared interest in tackling the child migrant crisis at its source. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been plagued for years by extreme poverty, gang violence, and general lawlessness. Economic development is the only reliable way to reduce migrant outflows. Once a country’s GDP per capita passes $8,000 or so, adjusted for purchasing power, its residents become far less inclined to leave the country. Before this threshold is reached, rising income can actually spur more migration, presumably because it gives truly impoverished people the means to pack up and leave. Right now, Guatemala ($5,300), Honduras ($4,800), and El Salvador ($7,500) are right in that zone. But they are close enough to the threshold that we can realistically imagine a world in which Central Americans see rising prosperity at home as a realistic possibility.

One widely held view is that the best thing we can do for Central America is allow its people to work in the U.S., so they can then send money back home. But is that really true? The best evidence we have suggests that remittances don’t do much to stimulate economic growth in source countries. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as rising remittances reflect the rising migration of able-bodied working adults, who are no longer available to boost economic output back home.

It turns out that raising living standards is not the quite same as raising living standards in a sustainable, durable way. Mailing checks to an economically unviable village can help prop things up for a while, but what happens when the checks stop coming—when your migrant relative forms a family in El Norte, or when the ties that bind are no longer so binding? Even if the checks keep coming, there is a danger that the money will drive up prices for scarce goods like productive agricultural land, as anthropologist David Stoll has observed. This puts families without migrant relatives at a distinct disadvantage compared with those that do. The result is that migration begets more migration until a region is drained of all its go-getters. Raising living standards by raising earnings in the region itself, in contrast, doesn’t depend on relatives or friends living far from home. It means acquiring skills and producing goods and services that are worth real money. The U.S. and Mexico can help this process along by making a sustained commitment to improving the quality of government and infrastructure in the region.

Migration can surely play a role in bettering the lives of Central Americans. It’s just not clear that it is the distant United States that should absorb the bulk of Central America’s migrants. Mexico has now become prosperous enough, and its population is aging quickly enough, that it needs to consider welcoming more immigrants itself. The beauty of Mexico as a destination for Central American workers is that its cultural familiarity and geographical proximity, coupled with the more modest gap in living standards between Mexico and its Central American neighbors, will help ensure that migrants retain strong ties to their native countries.

Mexico can’t be expected to carry the burden of welcoming large numbers of Central American migrants on its own. Though it has joined the ranks of affluent countries, and though it is reasonable to expect that Mexico and the U.S. will serve as partners in lifting up their neighbors, Mexico is still much poorer than the U.S. Right now, the U.S. devotes considerable resources to fighting organized crime in Mexico and Central America, most of which is connected to the trafficking of drugs and the smuggling of human beings. The U.S. should consider devoting more resources still to help Mexico process migrants and asylum seekers, and to help those who remain in Mexico build decent lives. That sort of investment makes sense for the United States, for Mexico, and for Central America. The sooner we all understand that, the better it will be for everyone.