OPINION

Stop relying on China. Move the supply chain to Central America.

January 9, 2022

This piece was originally published on the Dallas Morning News

In July, 200,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern U.S. border, a 21-year high, according to an analysis by Pew Research. It’s no surprise that this unprecedented, post-COVID-19 surge in migration has stretched our immigration, asylum and border systems to the breaking point.

This surge is a full-fledged humanitarian disaster, but like so many other governance challenges, our immigration crisis is a symptom of a much broader set of risks and dangers facing the U.S. and its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Chief among them is widespread, endemic corruption in many countries where the use of bribes, threats and deadly force on the average citizen has forced many to seek refuge elsewhere. Migrants are, quite literally, running for their lives.

Countries in the Northern Triangle region of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) have long struggled to contain the corrosive and dangerous effects of corruption. Combined with devastating civil wars, frequent climate disasters and chronic economic fragility, endemic corruption has made an outsize contribution to a crumbling social order in which the rule of law is weak and local governance has become synonymous with the rise, and even legitimization, of corrupt, criminal networks.

If we want to respond effectively to the increasingly large and increasingly desperate migration from Central America, then we must help make Central America a place that people don’t need to flee simply to survive.

President Joe Biden has made anti-corruption efforts a central piece of his administration’s proposed U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America, and on Nov. 4, USAID announced a new $300 million initiative to work with local leaders to improve governance and fight corruption. These are critical steps and investments. However, governance norms are unlikely to change permanently unless the underlying economic and political incentives dramatically shift, along with the behaviors of those in power.

We can change the dynamic for good by changing our approach. We can start thinking of our neighbors to the south as partners in our joint economic security. A framework of “ally-shoring,” that is, sourcing essential materials and goods from trusted partners rather than increasing our dependencies on global competitors, can reframe and revitalize markets, jobs and innovation. This approach can also help invest in the infrastructure that is so badly needed in the Western Hemisphere. We can help cut out illicit markets by bringing more people into legitimate ones.

Mexico, the Northern Triangle and other neighbors to the south are ripe for the kind of economic integration and growth that can come from stable international relationships with the U.S. In return, we can keep our supply chains closer to home rather than relying on strategic competitors such as China.

What would an ally-shoring agenda encompass? Smart, secure borders that provide strong security and ensure the legal, orderly movement of goods and people. Resilient supply chains that keep essential materials, products and innovations closer to home. New investments in infrastructure, manufacturing and innovation in partner countries that support more and better-paying jobs at home. And finally, more support for strengthening the democratic institutions that reinforce open, transparent, accountable governance and the leaders willing to commit to upholding it.

We can co-create this reality, starting in our own region, but it requires a reframing of the problem and a much broader and integrated set of policies and investments.

Elaine Dezenski is a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration and previously served as the deputy and acting assistant secretary for policy development at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.