Reihan Salam: Beto O’Rourke was right, and Democrats might not forgive him
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.”
Read: The Beto odyssey
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.