Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET on April 1, 2019.
Beto O’Rourke isn’t known for his wonkish heft. But in his formal announcement for president on Sunday, the former Texas congressman offered one of the most important policy proposals of the nascent presidential campaign: He argued that to solve America’s problems at the border, America’s leaders must “help people in Central America where they are.” In so doing, he began laying a foundation to effectively rebut Donald Trump on his signature issue: immigration.
Every major Democratic presidential candidate decries Trump’s actions at the border. In her announcement speech, Kamala Harris called his policy of putting “children in cages” a “human-rights abuse,” and his proposed border wall a “medieval vanity project.” In hers, Elizabeth Warren said that under Trump, America’s “immigration system … lacks a conscience.” Amy Klobuchar used her announcement to demand “comprehensive immigration reform.” In his, Bernie Sanders called for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States and “a humane border policy for those who seek asylum.”
O’Rourke’s competitors are right to demand a fairer and more humane system for evaluating asylum claims. But an improved asylum system won’t reduce the number of people fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” To the contrary, the better chance migrants have of gaining asylum, the more likely they are to seek it.
All of which plays into Trump’s hands. His core argument is that only by treating asylum seekers brutally—making it harder for them to apply, raising the standard of proof for their claims, and even separating them from their children—can the United States deter them from coming. By chastising Trump for his brutality without offering their own strategy for reducing migration, Democrats are walking into a trap. They’re allowing him to frame the immigration debate as a choice between harsh policies that stop Central American migration and humane policies that encourage it.
By addressing the roots of the migration problem, O’Rourke’s proposal evades Trump’s trap. The migrant “caravans” that Trump demonizes hail from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where a brutal fight between organized-crime cartels has driven violence to levels that, according to the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, are unprecedented outside a war zone. In 2015, when the organization asked Northern Triangle migrants in Mexico why they had left their countries, 39 percent cited threats of physical harm.
American aid can reduce this violence and the migration it creates. In 2014, the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University released a study of a U.S. Agency for International Development program aimed at improving public safety in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. USAID funded job training and community policing and paid to install streetlights and remove graffiti; according to the Vanderbilt researchers, “51 percent fewer surveyed residents reported being aware of murders in their neighborhoods” than “we would expect to see without USAID interventions.”
Michael Clemens, co-director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development, then analyzed U.S. government statistics on the 179,000 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle picked up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents over a six-year period. Comparing murder rates in a given Salvadoran, Honduran, or Guatemalan town with the rates of apprehended migrant children, he found that “a decline of 10 homicides in an average municipality of this region caused six fewer children from there to be apprehended at the U.S. border.” His ultimate conclusion: “Projects financed by U.S. aid have been shown to reduce violence in the region, and that violence is a major driver of illegal migration.”
Trump wants Americans to view Central American asylum seekers as marauding invaders, heading north to fleece America’s welfare system and rape and murder its people. By focusing on the actual conditions in Central America, O’Rourke can tell a different story: Central Americans aren’t migrating to commit violence but to flee it. Thus, Trump’s recent call to cut off American aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala as punishment for migration is epically stupid. It’s stupid because aid is America’s best tool for reducing the violence that leads Central Americans to migrate in the first place. By linking immigration to foreign policy, O’Rourke can do what his competitors can’t: credibly promise to treat asylum seekers more justly while also reducing their numbers.
Critics lampoon O’Rourke as light on government accomplishments and policy detail. But he is putting Latin America at the center of his foreign-policy agenda—which is where it belongs. Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Klobuchar didn’t mention Central America in their announcement speeches. The region was absent from Warren’s essay last year for Foreign Affairs. In a foreign-policy speech in 2017, Sanders decried America’s Cold War coup in Guatemala but said nothing about American policy toward the region today. In a foreign-policy address last year, he didn’t discuss Central America at all. The clearest exception is Joe Biden, who in 2018 wrote an op-ed titled “The Border Won’t Be Secure Until Central America Is.”
While of the major candidates only Beto O’Rourke supported aid to Central America in his announcement speech, other candidates have mentioned it in other forums. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, endorsed the idea when questioned at a CNN town hall in March and Julian Castro proposed a “Marshall Plan” for Central America in a March interview with the Guardian.*
As a resident of a border town, O’Rourke is fortunate in his life experience. The issue he understands best, immigration, is the one Trump has placed at the heart of American politics. Warren and Sanders, who have thus far driven the policy debate among the Democratic presidential field, are focused above all on the way the ultrarich corrupt America’s economic and political system. They could almost be running against Mitt Romney. By contrast, O’Rourke, of all the major Democratic hopefuls, is best positioned to challenge Trump on his signature theme: nationalism.
In his announcement speech, O’Rourke quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s line about individuals being bound together in a single “garment of destiny.” But he implied that this mutuality links Americans not only to one another but also to their southern neighbors. In so doing, he hinted at an internationalist narrative that might counter Trump’s nativist and nationalist one. In his bicultural and bilingual hometown of El Paso, while speaking in both English and Spanish, he imagined the United States helping itself by helping Central America. Thus, in a party still struggling to respond to Trump’s brutal and unconventional approach to immigration and foreign policy, O’Rourke suggested a way to counter them both.
* This article has been updated to clarify the candidates’ positions.
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