Honduran migrants, part of the caravan trying to reach the U.S., wait to open the gate on the bridge that connects Mexico and Guatemala on October 20, 2018Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

There is something poignant about the fact that the migrant caravan that has so transfixed President Trump, and that has dramatized America’s stark immigration divide, has its origins in Honduras. It wasn’t so long ago that it seemed faintly possible this impoverished republic would itself become a beacon of hope to migrants from throughout Central America, and perhaps even the world. It’s a reminder that there was nothing inevitable about the recent Central American migrant wave. There was an alternative available to us, if only we had been willing to seize it.

The present caravan began when Bartolo Fuentes, an activist who has devoted much of his life to helping would-be émigrés seeking a better life abroad, decided to do what he could to help a few hundred migrants make their way to the United States, a journey he knew to be perilous. As The Daily Beast recounts, as word of the caravan spread, other Hondurans who had contemplated making the same journey saw it as a rare opportunity. Rather than pay coyotes to secure their passage at a going rate of $7,000, a staggering sum for all but the wealthiest Hondurans, they would find strength in numbers, and guidance from volunteers who knew the route well.

Given Honduras’s extreme poverty, the fact that coyotes demand so much for their illicit services has served as a kind of “invisible wall.” Not all Hondurans who longed to emigrate were willing to risk enduring years of debt peonage, and of course not all had relatives who had managed to find work in the United States and who could therefore afford to send remittances that, over time, could help defray the cost. The prospect of making the trek for less has, as you might expect, elicited an enthusiastic response.

There is a parallel to other recent migrant waves, such as the large influx of migrants that Europe experienced in 2015. Though some of the migrants who came to Europe in that tumultuous year were fleeing violence in Syria or Iraq, others came from North Africa or from as far afield as South Asia. Hundreds of thousands surmised, correctly, that in the wake of the Syrian crisis, Europe’s frontiers had become somewhat more permeable, if only for a moment. Violence and poverty gives people in source countries a reason to become knowledgeable about the prospects for migration to more opportunity-rich locales, as the political scientists Alisha Holland and Margaret Peters observe in a forthcoming paper. Because the stakes are so high for potential migrants, they have every reason to be attuned to subtle shifts in policy, and this knowledge can quickly spread through their social networks. When policies become more permissive, even slightly, a migrant trickle can quickly become a migrant wave.

In the case of the migrant caravan, the new development is the caravan itself—a social technology that has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of unauthorized migration by cutting out the coyote middlemen. If a sufficiently large number of those who’ve joined the caravan succeed in securing admission to the U.S., the concept will have been proven sound and, provided there was no subsequent policy shift, more caravans would likely follow. (The Wall Street Journal reports that Honduran migrants are gathering in a second caravan in a Guatemalan city close to the Honduran border.)      

Much has been said about how the United States ought to respond to the caravan. I find wisdom in the words of my colleague David Frum, who warns that it augurs a mass migration that could further destabilize our politics. But less has been written about what might be done in Honduras, to address the challenge at its roots.

At the start of this decade, the Honduran government briefly pursued an experiment so bold as to be almost baffling. With the help of a cadre of international experts, led by Paul Romer, the celebrated economist who was recently awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for his contributions to the study of economic growth, it promised to create a new kind of city that would foster opportunity in a stretch of the country where there was precious little of it.

Romer had dreamed up this idea of a “charter city” some years before, inspired by the case of Hong Kong, which became a magnet for impoverished Chinese migrants while still under British rule, and China’s “special economic zones,” the most notable of which, Shenzhen, grew from a tiny community with a population of 30,000 in 1980, when the Shenzhen SEZ was first established, to the sprawling city of 13 million that inspires awe in visitors today. Romer’s charter-cities campaign gained considerable attention, including an admiring profile in the pages of The Atlantic, but the nagging question was whether there was a government daring enough, or desperate enough, to fully embrace the concept.

For a brief moment, it seemed as though Honduras might fit the bill. Its government sought Romer out to help them establish a “Region Especial de Desarrollo,” or RED. Unlike a conventional free-trade zone, this RED would enjoy a great deal of autonomy and, ideally, a partnership with a consortium of governments with a strong reputation for probity and transparency. Early on, Romer was especially keen to secure the cooperation of the Canadian government, to whom he and his frequent collaborator Brandon Fuller addressed an engrossing 2012 report, and he managed to convince the Mauritian Supreme Court to serve a similar function in the RED. In the end, the Honduran initiative fizzled, not least because its president at the time, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, was a polarizing figure many deemed illegitimate. Once it became clear to Romer that the Honduran government was an unreliable partner, he abandoned the relationship, perhaps out of a recognition that his continued participation would lend legitimacy to an enterprise he now considered badly compromised.

Honduras has continued to explore the idea of “employment and economic development zones,” albeit on a far less ambitious scale. As The Economist reported last August, the goal of these ZEDEs is to attract international investment capital (picture multinational firms seeking a site for labor-intensive garment manufacturing within easy reach of lucrative North American markets) that would generate remunerative employment opportunities. “Rather than fleeing to the United States, Hondurans threatened by the country’s ubiquitous gangs could find security and livelihoods in ZEDEs.” So far, however, these ambitions haven’t come close to being realized. Simply put, Honduran politics are so byzantine and corrupt that foreign investors have been reluctant to wade in too deeply. These are the problems Romer hoped to solve with a powerful and independent Transparency Commission, which never really got off the ground.

It is tempting to wonder what might have happened if Romer’s vision had come to pass. Imagine if Honduras had been willing to partner with a consortium of governments that are known for their responsiveness to their citizens and the quality of their public administration (Canada and Mauritius would be among them, but so too might Chile, Estonia, and Botswana, all of which have overcome serious governance challenges) and to welcome migrants not just from elsewhere in Honduras but from throughout the region. Romer and Fuller concluded their 2012 entreaty to the Canadian government on a stirring note: “Our urbanizing world does not need more aid; it needs … more of the rules, norms, and know-how that lead to good governance, economic vibrancy, and the rule of law. Canada now has an opportunity to partner with Honduras to tackle directly the biggest obstacle to growth and development all over the world: the dysfunctional systems of rules and enforcement that keep people from reaching their true potential.” How long will it take for us to heed their clarion call?

As it stands, the migration debate in the market democracies goes something like this: Either we open ourselves to any and all would-be migrants seeking a better life, which would mean overriding the broad and deep political consensus against drastic increases in immigrant inflows, or we resign ourselves to the fact that billions of people around the world live under the dysfunctional governments that squelch opportunity. Charter cities offer a third way—one we badly need.  

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