By Sam Garcia, Special to MyRGV.com
In late 2018, I had the opportunity to interview migrants at a Catholic Charities center in McAllen. Nearly every person I spoke with was from Honduras, Venezuela or El Salvador, the three nations that make the Northern Triangle, the region that is the source of our current immigrant surge.
We have seen these Central American surges before, and we have applied different responses to stem the flow of migration. Donald Trump thought a wall and increased border security would solve the problem and Barack Obama thought increased security on Mexico’s southern border with Central America would help, but both failed to address the root of the problem, which has to do with why these migrants left in the first place.
So why did they leave? Many of the people cited violence, and most mentioned the severe lack of economic opportunity as part of the reason they made the trek to the United States. They wanted a better life for themselves and their families and they felt there was no opportunity for that in Central America.
However, there is a surprising quirk about Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador: their unemployment rates are incredibly low. Their unemployment rates are as follows: Guatemala is at 2.7%, Honduras is at 5.23% and El Salvador is at 4.2%.
Countries with these rates of unemployment should not have extreme violence, poverty or lack of opportunity. In fact, these unemployment rates are not far from the United States’ 2019 unemployment rate of 3.5%. So what is going on?
Because there is a serious lack of formal employment in these countries, most people have stopped looking for jobs, which means they are no longer factored into the unemployment rate. There are estimates that up to 70% of employed Guatemalans survive by doing jobs in the informal economy. These jobs do not offer the financial security needed to support a family, and there is a significant risk of non-payment.
I believe that if formal employment were more available to those in Northern Triangle countries, immigration from those countries would drop as average wages increase and opportunity becomes ubiquitous.
This is where the U.S. can both lessen its dependence on China while stabilizing Central America.
Companies have been offshoring labor to countries like China for decades.
There are a number of factories in China, like those within the textile industry, that easily could be moved anywhere with low labor costs. These jobs will not be coming back to the U.S. due to our higher labor costs, yet these offshore operations are being run by American companies, so we should at least nudge these American companies to move their factories to countries where they can serve U.S.
interests by just operating there. The plan here is to provide companies an incentive to move their operations from China to Northern Triangle countries.
Companies could also save on logistical costs because of the geographical positioning of the Northern Triangle, since countries in those areas are closer to the U.S. than China and they can easily utilize the Panama Canal.
This move could provide thousands of formal jobs to countries in the Northern Triangle and it allows us to enlist our own U.S. companies into the effort rather than directly providing the money to foreign governments. Doing so could decrease our dependence on Chinese manufacturing and the incentive for potential migrants to leave Central America.
We can’t forget that the core reason that people left Central America was because they wanted better lives for themselves and their families, and this policy could take a crucial step toward helping them have that in Central America.
Sam Garcia is a Rio Grande Valley native and senior associate at Amplo, an Austin-based venture capital fund.