By Mike Matejka
Immigration is a hot and volatile topic: Do we “build the wall?” Open our borders? Get tough on immigrants? Separate children from parents?
We need to re-think our unsuccessful policies, and ask: “why are so many people fleeing?” Leaving your home is no easy choice. Many in Central America are facing economic dislocation, crime, violence and are thus refugees, fleeing danger or no jobs.
Perhaps you’ve heard that old folk story about the person seeing bodies floating down the river. The individual goes out to retrieve the bodies and give them a proper burial. But then someone else comes along and says, “Why are there bodies in the river? We need to go upstream and learn what is going on.”
We need to learn why so many people are fleeing and it won’t take long. Central American economies are deeply tied to the U.S. economy. There are few jobs, particularly after the dislocation of civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua 30 years ago. During the 1990s, there was employment, as U.S. companies shut plants to relocate to Mexican maquiladoras and for Honduran clothing sweatshops. That brought employment, but it was meager, paying substandard wages. Many of those factories are now closed, as businesses sought even cheaper labor in southeast Asia. When the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, our central Illinois corn flooded Mexican markets. That was great for Central Illinois farmers, not good for subsidized Mexican small farmers. They could not survive, so many fled northward.
Five countries to our south lead the world in homicides: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala. El Salvador is a sad example. During the 1980s Salvadoran civil war, we U.S. taxpayers spent more than $4 billion fighting leftist rebels. When that war ended in 1992, it left a population that had earned a living through violence, deaths squads and arms trafficking. Many of these folks then shifted to the drug trade. Dislocated Salvadoran youth in California formed gangs. As the U.S. deported these youth, they replicated their gangs within El Salvador, spurring even more violence. Put these puzzle pieces together and you can see why families are fleeing northward to save their lives.
With economic opportunity, stable government and a more peaceful society, many Central Americans would choose to stay close to their roots. No matter how tall the wall, people will continue to flee northward to save their own skins. The United Nations totals 68.5 million migrants in the world, including 25 million refugees.
In the U.S. and Europe, immigration is a hot political topic. We need to think through a system to help stabilize poorer nations. Perhaps, like the end of World War II, we need a “Marshall Plan” for economic development. Some creative, thoughtful plans could give people stability in their own home, without chaos pushing them northward. Unless we start to look upstream, those fleeing violence, political chaos and economic dislocation will seek family stability by risking that dangerous journey northward.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.
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