Friday, July 18, 2014

Dennis Jett on "Why Washington won’t solve the migrant child crisis"

My colleague at the Penn State School of International Affairs, Dennis Jett, who in a former incarnation served as U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, has written a short essay on the current children's migration from out of Central America.  Dennis Jett, "Why Washington won’t solve the migrant child crisis", The Miami Herald, July 18, 2014.

The insights are well worth sharing and are set out below, along with some brief comments.

Why Washington won’t solve the migrant child crisis


Elizabeth Conley / AP
NO SHELTER: Protestors in Deford, Mich., oppose a proposal to house immigrant children from Central America in their area.
The thousands of undocumented children from Central America crossing the border into the United States have received no lack of media attention. But don’t count on the politicians responsible for the problem fixing it.

That won’t happen, not only because of the usual partisan politics, which is Washington’s favorite sport. It is because neither side of the argument sees any political advantage to being honest about the problem or about coming up with real ways to deal with it.

The administration for its part has asked Congress for an additional $3.7 billion to expedite processing these kids, supposedly so they can be shipped home quicker. Since there are an estimated 57,000 of them, that comes to nearly $65,000 per child. It would be cheaper to give them a scholarship for college.

Congress will no doubt find that too high a price to pay and will fail to act effectively. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, if they approve anything at all, will attach enough conditions on the legislation to make it unacceptable to the Democratic majority in the Senate. And the blame game will continue as both sides use the issue to motivate their base.

The inaction will be used by Democrats to paint the Republicans as xenophobic, if not downright racist. Mitt Romney got only 27 percent of the Latino vote in the last election, and it will take more than putting Sen. Marco Rubio on the ticket for the next Republican presidential candidate to do much better. Republicans will portray it as yet another danger to national security to which the White House is not responding adequately. Sen. John McCain is no doubt searching for a camera to stand in front of to denounce this latest existential threat to the country.

So the politics of hope and change will square off again against the politics of fear and hate. Those who support the former have delivered a lot more hope than change in large part because the supporters of the latter have been too busy using scare tactics to bother with practical solutions to anything.

If there were any political will to deal with the problem, the Washington politicians could start with the following steps.
• First, the Senate could begin by approving the more than 50 nominees to be ambassadors to countries around the world. On Tuesday, lawmakers finally approved career diplomat James Nealon as ambassador to Honduras, but the same post in Guatemala remains vacant for lack of Senate action. These are two of the countries most responsible for the influx of children. Some of those nominated have been waiting for over year for the Senate to act, and the vast majority of them are noncontroversial appointments of career officers. Having inadequate diplomatic representation in so many countries is a threat to national security.

• Second, it is time to have a serious conversation about legalizing drugs instead of just letting it happen state by state. The vast majority of the kids are coming here because they are fleeing gang violence in their own countries. That violence stems largely from the narcotics trafficking that is responding to American demand for drugs. There is no more chance of there being a final victory in the war on drugs than there will be in the war on terrorism. So why not admit that, like prohibition, criminalization doesn’t work and drug use should be made legal and taxed.

When demonstrators in California recently turned around busloads of the kids being brought to a processing center, one woman was holding a sign that said “Not Our Children, Not Our Problem.” These children are the collateral damage of the drug war and they are our problem.

• Third, instead of spending billions on returning them to the crime-ridden environment that prompted their journey in the first place, how about spending some money helping the countries in Central America improve their police forces and judicial systems. Just spending money to send them back faster gives them the option of either trying to enter illegally again or waiting around until they are victims of that violence. And they have already made clear which choice they would take.

But whether it is these steps or others, don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to solve the problem rather than taking political advantage of it.

Ambassador Jett is right on a number of points. First, the American political classes are neither capable nor are their political interests served by resolving this crisis.  Indeed, the crisis provides a rich bonanza of material for managing both expectations and the thinking of the masses, critical to the election strategies of each party.  One can thus expect lots of brilliant manipulation of the "crisis" but little effort to resolve it as both parties gear up for the Presidential election cycle of 2015. Beyond the likelihood that this is a crisis with lasting political value, the proposed solutions thus far served up to the public are, as Ambassador Jett suggests, little more than posturing.  At their most cynical they also evidence the way crisis can be used to further other agendas.

I am less inclined to see this as a titanic battle between the "politics of hope and change" against the "politics of fear and hate."  That characterization suggests more subtlety and instrumentalism in the use of large cultural forces than I think either party, or its leaders (including those experts paid to do the thinking for them)  are either capable of or willing to undertake.  It also vulgarizes a longstanding divide in this country between progressives and conservatives that has over the last two centuries produced both quite ugly and bloody contests and periods of constructive and pragmatic efforts to solve national programs.   Thus the ideas buried in those slogans are ancient and reflect a current and convenient consequence of efforts to manage perceptions of "reality" for electorates along traditional lines.  Devoid of the cross demonization implied by this current framework of description, one can at last come to the heart of the problem, one that requires the sort of adult conversation about national character, purpose and structures that we are unwilling to have yet.  That in turn requires us to confront our notions about race, class, historical guilt, national mythologies that is also unlikely to happen in the near term.  In the absence of consensus the crisis will continue to fester, as it has off and on for the last half century.     

Ambassador Jett is spot on, though, in the possibilities of interim measure.  The Americans continue to work against their own interests by permitting petty internal squabbles tied to the ambitions of political caudillos in Democratic and Republican Party ruling elites to distract the nation from its duty to its people by protecting American interests abroad. Even some developing states have paid more attention to their foreign service than we have--and that will continue to have consequences, who ever happens to sit in the elected branches of government.

Second, the drug debate has been a long time coming.  Yet it is unlikely to be resolved int he bear term--the drug industry, and the drug enforcement industry are far too lucrative to permit its dismantling in favor of open markets. None of these groups have any economic incentive to permit legalization.  Even members of the morality production markets have far too much invested in the current system to permit its obliteration.  Too much economic, political, police and moral power is at stake to permit this to move forward with any appreciable speed. Facts in this case, as in the immigration reform  case, will be bent to the service of abstractions created to support current power relationships. 

Third, producing a smarter approach to foreign aid is the most insightful of the suggestions and the one that one might have thought would be the least costly to implement.  Certainly here the Americans can learn a lot form the Europeans, who have been employing this strategy for some time (albeit with mixed results).  But it makes sense.  Yet this will not be done because of the same political drivers that make immigration reform impossible.  There is an alternative that the President might pursue--to press the IMF and World Bank to better condition their loans to these countries by conditioning loans on the attainment of judicial and related reforms. International Financial Organization might ultimately hold the best hope for doing what states, hobbled by the perversity of their political orders, find so hard to accomplish. 

In the end, though, I agree with Ambassador Jett: "But whether it is these steps or others, don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington to solve the problem rather than taking political advantage of it."

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