There’s a swirl of foreign policy issues coming to a head in Washington right now, all of which have serious domestic implications as well.
First and foremost is the ongoing question of how best to secure our borders against the tide of illegal immigration stressing both our social safety net and law enforcement. Another is the matter of securing our economy at home against the onslaught of unfair foreign competition that has eviscerated U.S. manufacturing jobs over the past several decades.
Let’s start with immigration. We have learned recently that the floodgates of illegal immigration to the U.S. may again be opening up. A “caravan” of immigrants is currently making its way through Mexico toward the American border, following a dangerous route, sometimes piled precariously atop freight trains and sometimes on foot. According to a New York Times report, “They travel in large groups — the current [one] is one of the largest, at about 1,200 participants — in part for protection against the kidnappers, muggers and rapists that stalk the migrant trail.” Their goal is to make it to the U.S. border, where, even if they are detained, they will likely be freed under the American immigration policy of “catch and release.” Many will melt away and head deeper into the U.S., where they will live in the shadows.
This sad procession of humanity is truly painful to read about. It represents all of the accumulated failures of the desperate countries from which its travelers come — Honduras, El Salvador and others — and the faltering country of Mexico through which it passes. No one can fault these weary souls for wanting a better life for themselves and their families. To them, America is like a lifeboat to shores of peace and prosperity. Trouble is, this lifeboat has been overloaded for years with the survivors of oppression and poverty, who threaten to capsize it. Every group of illegals that make it here severely stress our schools, our health care system and, in too many cases, our criminal justice system, especially when those “kidnappers, muggers and rapists” the Times alluded to join the trek northward.
That’s why President Trump’s call for a secure border — including a stronger border wall where necessary and the deployment of U.S. military forces to patrol it — is actually the most humane way to deal with this modern-day exodus. We must continue to press Central American countries to clean up their corruption and lawlessness, and we must keep the pressure on Mexico to secure its own southern border and help stem the flow of illegal immigrants through its territory.
It also makes sense to tie the immigration issue to the ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trade and immigration between the U.S. and its southern neighbors are inextricably intertwined. Over the years, NAFTA has sucked too many good-paying jobs out of the U.S., at the same time that America has been overrun by desperate illegal immigrants who depress wages here. This vicious cycle must be corrected as part of a rebalancing of north-south trade and immigration policy.
There is a way out of the current impasse on these issues. The best way Mexico can avoid paying for the wall between our two countries is to help itself and the U.S. grow the economies on both sides of the border. And for the U.S., that means working out a viable immigration system that will allow a flow of legal immigrants into the U.S.
Right now there are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs going unfilled across our country as the economy approaches full employment. Agriculture-related businesses are especially short of workers, as are tech companies lacking more-skilled workers. Immigration reform here, balancing the need for border security with an orderly process to bring in a judicious mix of labor, is in our own interests. Importing workers we need here in America is preferable to exporting work we want to keep here to Mexico. So along with an immigration truce, Mexico should also work with the U.S. to recalibrate NAFTA to more fairly balance trade between our two countries.
As if these challenges weren’t enough, the U.S. remains embroiled in a regional conflict in Syria, a dangerous nuclear confrontation with North Korea and a simmering dispute with Russia on several fronts. But by securing friendships with our neighbors at home, we can move to securing peace with our foes abroad.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.