Our Broken Immigration Program Stems From a Broken Trade Policy

The flood of refugees into the United States is not only a sign of a failed immigration policy, but of a trade policy that ignores the underlying reason for this humanitarian crisis.

Robert Zoellick, who served as president of the World Bank, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state, recently wrote an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he maintained that if President Obama had been paying closer attention to Central America, he could have stemmed the tide of immigrants seeking the security of the United States.

Zoellick reminded readers that when President Clinton and the Republican Congress launched Plan Colombia in the late 1990s, it helped set that country on the road to stability by stamping out the violence that was tearing the country apart due to terrorism and narcotics trafficking. Today, Colombia is a democracy and has become a favored trade partner with our recently signed Free Trade Agreement with Colombia.

What turned Colombia around? The United States working closely with the Colombian government in the 1990s caused more than 1,300 of Colombia’s top crime bosses and most dangerous henchmen to be sent north to face trafficking charges in the United States.

The Medellin and Cali cartels’ ability to block extradition was undermined by an expanded trade policy. The drug lords, no longer incarcerated in Colombia, lost access to their comfortable cells and many amenities that still allowed them to control their cartels from prison. Once extradited to the United States, these prisoners lost their influence back home.

You would think Obama would have learned something from this stunning success and emulate it in other Central American countries.

For instance, take Guatemala, whose police (and military) are so thoroughly infiltrated by organized crime that in 2006 the United Nations had to set up a special agency, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to help fight the pervasive abuses committed by “clandestine groups.” CICIG has enjoyed some recent successes, but nearly three in four killings committed in Guatemala still go unpunished.

Today, Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America, reporting an average of 101 murders per week in 2013. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that overall gang membership in Guatemala at 22,000.

Is it any wonder that families are literally fleeing for their lives to get to the United States? But what is largely overlooked is that we’ve seen this horror show before in Colombia, but with far different results.

The strength of Free Trade Agreements is that they give our foreign trade partners a glimpse of American prosperity and they want in. Who could blame them?

Free Trade Agreements are a two-way street. America benefits from the added revenue from exports, but we also have a responsibility — which is the title of my book, Conscious Equity — to help those countries overcome poverty, corruption and ignorance.

We have failed miserably in this area in the countries that are included in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which includes five Central American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) and the Dominican Republic.

Guatemala is currently our 49th largest goods trading partner, with $9.7 billion in total (two-way) goods traded during 2013. The U.S. goods trade surplus with Guatemala was $1.4 billion in 2013. Guatemala was the United States’ 41st largest goods export market in 2013.

How have we held up our side of the agreement? We’ve ignored Guatemala and allowed them to implode. We’ve spent so much time grappling with unescorted kids coming to America instead of getting to the root cause of why they entered unlawfully into the United States in the first place.

While the United States should not interfere with Central American governments, we can help stabilize their security and economy with expanded trade so their citizens can stay home and live a fulfilled life.

Guatemala and Central America’s biggest export shouldn’t be their own citizens.

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