WASHINGTON – The humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border is only getting worse in the heat of summer, with 100,000 migrants illegally crossing monthly and more than 300,000 asylum cases pending. It is a reaction to extreme violence, poverty and agricultural failures in Central America, notably in the “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, from where the vast majority of the migrants begin the long, dangerous journey to the Rio Grande River. How can we solve this problem?
I was born in south Florida, where we had our own refugee crises of the Mariel boatlift from Cuba and the Haitian refugee flows of the early 1980s. When I headed the United States Southern Command, in charge of all military activity in the Western Hemisphere south of the U.S., I visited the border shared with Mexico, and spent significant time in all of the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. A big part of my job was dealing with the flow of migrants, as well as narcotics, around the region.
I’ve seen the wrenching poverty and violence from which these people are fleeing. I speak Spanish, so I’ve heard firsthand the painful stories of their lives. Those who choose to attempt the crossing to the U.S. flee in fear, knowing full well that the road ahead is dangerous. Although the Spanish expression for those departing on a journey is “vaya con Dios” (go with God), it is seldom a protective deity they encounter on their hazardous road. The photo of a father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande last month draws a poignant line under the dangers, and will continue to resonate in the highly charged national debate.
But there is a problem with that debate: It seems that too many Americans want a “single point” solution to the crisis, such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s idea of building a Big, Beautiful Wall. But there is no silver bullet for the border problem. Instead, it requires a mix of tactical, operational and strategic policies and actions that can reduce the immediate flow of migrants and provide long-term solutions.
Let’s think of this geographically, moving north along the tortuous path the migrants take.
In the largely failed states of Central America, the U.S. needs to help with a concerted effort to address the root causes of the migration. These include not only counternarcotics cooperation, but also reducing the grip violent gangs (whose roots, by the way, can be traced to Los Angeles in the 1980s) have on the populace.
This means increasing foreign aid broadly (sadly, the Trump administration has announced cuts instead); ensuring that these small, poor countries can have reasonable levels of free trade access via the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement; and providing intelligence and advice on dealing with entrenched gangs.
Moving north, we come to Mexico. All solutions to the humanitarian crisis must involve the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The U.S. government and military need to assist the Mexicans in their efforts on their southern border, with technology and advice and humanitarian aid; continue a high level of counternarcotics cooperation via our Drug Enforcement Agency and the Merida Initiative, which provides training and equipment; and create asylum-processing centers on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, but manned in part by U.S. case workers.
As for border itself, we need a “smart wall.” This does not mean a 9-meter physical barrier across nearly 3,200 km. Although we could certainly build such a wall, at exorbitant cost, people would find other ways to get to the U.S. — including sailing the oceans on either end. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Haitians managed to arrive on U.S. shores in the 1980s, despite having a much more dangerous and difficult barrier — the unpredictable waters of the Caribbean. Some activists and officials are calling for what amounts to open borders, but this isn’t wise or politically achievable.
What is needed is a combination of physical barriers; unmanned sensors in the air, on the surface and underground; quick-response Border Patrol teams with air mobility (light helicopters); intelligence-gathering that begins in Central America and tracks large groups in cooperation with Mexico; and clean, safe holding facilities for those who cross the border and are apprehended by U.S. authorities.
There is a limited role for the American military in logistics and intelligence, but ultimately it’s the job of the Department of Homeland Security, which will require far more funding.
Finally, inside the U.S. itself, the market side of the magnet that draws people here must be fixed. The vast majority of those willing to risk their lives in the journey north are seeking safety and economic improvement. They are willing to work extremely hard at low-paying jobs that few American citizens want. What’s needed is comprehensive labor and immigration reform that provides a legal path for a reasonable number of migrants without high-tech skills to come on work visas, probably on a seasonable basis.
And, of course, lawmakers need to address the knotty challenge of the 10 million illegal migrants living in the U.S. today. This will ultimately require a limited path to a legal work visa, with the potential for citizenship after fulfilling a series of requirements.
Such a sweeping deal would require bipartisan support, which seems distant today given the polarization in Washington, but a long-term solution to the humanitarian problems on the southern border demands it.
The U.S. needs to control the border, of course. But the humanitarian crisis shows that it has to do so in a way that makes the most of cooperation with friends and partners in the world to the south.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist James Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group.