It’s Too Late to Start Yesterday

By Mike Koetting April 4, 2021

The media is awash with stories about the border crisis, specifically the surge of migrants seeking to enter the United States at its southern border. For the most part they have been fairly good in reporting the humanitarian toll of the crisis and also putting it in the context of larger immigrations trends, in this case the acceleration of a surge that actually started a year ago, while Trump was still president.

However, the media has been slower to point out that most of the political responses, on all sides, are a form of Kabuki theatre. In truth, there really aren’t any good solutions in the short term. Things that might have been “solutions” are 25 years in the rear-view mirror. Which is the point of this post: big problems require solutions that are big—not simply in terms of dollars but in terms of time. Some things simply require elapsed time to get accomplished. You can’t change the amount of time required for a pregnancy by adding more resources.

The current border situation is a technicolor reminder that things can get very ugly if society tries to ignore its way out of problems, particularly those that take time to solve.

Time Has Limited Today’s Options

The main limitation in addressing the trouble at the border is that the causes of the current surge have very little to do with current American policy. They are the consequence of policies pursued by internal and external actors over many years. The result are conditions, particularly in three Central American countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, that people find intolerable. Extreme poverty, blocked mobility, endemic violence and the gangs that produces, failed governments, persecution, sexual exploitation, climate change, hunger and, now, the economic fallout of the pandemic. The stories that a great many of these migrants tell are heart-breaking stories of people running for their lives. As León Krauze says:

People from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador don’t migrate in search of a better life. They are looking for a shot at survival. If the alternative was famine, gang violence, kidnapping, rape or sexual slavery, wouldn’t you bet it all on the journey north?

The main question left to the US is how to address the people showing up. While this is a serious problem deserving of public consideration, for reasons given above, it doesn’t address the underlying issue. And the underlying issue limits even the options available to handle people showing up at the border. If the US were to simply accept all people seeking asylum, it would result in an even larger flow of people seeking asylum and, in short order, the total collapse of border security, not to mention engendering terrific political backlash.

At the other extreme, there is no reason to believe that a return to a scorched-earth, Trumpesque policy would resolve the problem. It would probably have some effect on the flow, but, as Mexican-American journalist Alfredo Corchado points out, even when Trump was president there was still flow because migrating is seen as a matter of survival. In his estimate, the primary effect of harsher policies at the border is simply to drive up the price of trying to migrate. He observes that the traffickers look for the “unintended consequences” and will find a way to bend whatever we throw at them to increase their profit because the demand is not a function of price.

Whatever the administration, the reality is they will be trying to administer an overrun, nonfunctional system. With investment—and time–we can develop more humane conditions for holding and sorting people, something we do not currently have. For a while people were simply being returned to Mexico where they faced situations as deplorable was what they left. More recently, Mexico has stopped allowing the return of these migrants into Mexico and the system is so overrun that many of these people are simply being released in this country with instructions to present themselves to an Immigration Center. It is not clear what the long-run impact of that will be, but it is hardly an orderly process.

Would-have Been Solutions

There will always be difficult decisions to make because of the economy disparities among these countries. But those decisions could be made in a deliberate way with relatively clear conscience if they are not being precipitated by people whose very survival is at stake. In the converse, as we are now experiencing, is difficult to view what is happening with equanimity. Not only does it provoke guilty consciences among individuals, it is dangerous when a country becomes so calloused that the stories of the current asylum seekers do not move them. It promotes a disregard for equality of human opportunity that can rot the entire society.

Decisions should have been made years ago that would have promoted development in these countries very different from what actually happened.

This is not to say that would have been easy. Over and over, we have proved that nation building is not a simple undertaking. But it would be a serious paucity of imagination to not believe we could have done a better job in these countries, countries where we have been more than willing to intervene when it suited other interests.

What would it have taken? Some substantial material investment. But that would have been affordable, particularly if spread over time. Far more important, and more difficult, was how that investment would have to be made. It would have required approaching investments with a commitment to human rights not necessarily embraced by the ruling elites of those countries and even at odds with the business interest of American companies. It would have also required recognizing evolving environmental factors and focusing on strategies that were long-term sustainable

Crucially, it would have required a consistency of effort over a protracted period of time. Democratic institutions, necessary for democratic societies, can not be mandated into existence. The forms can be mandated. But absent an underlying democratic spirit, it tends toward play-acting.

What is necessary for a democratic spirit? Broadly, a commitment to the rule of law less as a specific set of rules to be gamed to your advantage and more as a set of guidelines by which a society achieves the necessary balance between individual rights and common good. It also requires some trust that social institutions will work more or less as designed to produce a degree of social equality.

Of course, you don’t need a Ph.D. in Political Science to realize that not only would it be brutally hard to get American political support for a sustained effort to assist these countries in developing new political cultures, but also that these very underlying values are proving difficult enough in the US at the moment.  Fair as is the latter, it is also fair to recognize our relatively good history at getting this right and that we are hopefully we on a road to revitalizing some of those virtues. Moreover, the other option—the one we willy-nilly chose—yields lousy results.

Back to the Obvious

The border crisis is just one of the issues confronting America, not even one of the biggest. Addressing income inequality, providing for an environmentally sustainable economy, and creating social arrangements that integrate rather than divide the society are the foremost American challenges. My lesson from the crisis at the border is that these issues must be addressed now—but with a long term perspective. All of these issues will take time to resolve, possibly generations.

The future is in trouble if we either fail to act now or fail to sustain effort. It is disheartening, for instance, to realize how much time we have lost in addressing environmental issues. Each year of flabby efforts makes the needed lift that much larger for future years.

Twenty years ago, there were plenty of people pointing out that if we let Central America slide into chaos, we would face the problems we face today. But the problem seemed minor and far away. So we ignored it. But, as we have seen, faced with existential threats, people will bring those problems to our font door. Wherever we live, if we don’t start making material progress on the big issues facing our society, the fall out will wind up on our doorsteps.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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