San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Fix the immigration crisis at its root

The plight of the terrified Central American children who have flooded across the U.S. border to escape violence and poverty in their homelands has launched a passionate and often bitter debate in Washington. However, most U.S. leaders are missing the real lesson of this crisis, at their own peril. The conservatives who oppose President Barack Obama’s request for emergency funds for the crisis criticize him for dealing only with the symptoms and not with the “root cause” of the problem. They are half right — but the half that’s wrong is very, very wrong. For them, the root cause is a lax immigration law, weak protections or insufficiently severe punishments. But no punishment, no wall and no army can solve this problem.

I often say that poverty needs no passport to travel. If these children — some of whom are supported in their quest by their families, some of whom make the trip of their own accord — are willing to risk their lives atop the infamous train through Mexico known as La Bestia (“the beast”), face the rape and abuse that many children experience during the journey, sell their possessions and their bodies, and give their life savings to unscrupulous smugglers, what else could possibly deter them? What can the United States do to these children that would be worse than what they are already suffering? And why is such a great country even asking that question?

The root cause of this crisis is not U.S. immigration law or the policies of one U.S. president. The root cause is the violence and poverty that make these children’s lives at home intolerable. The root cause dates to the parents and grandparents of the young people fleeing their countries today — our region’s “lost generation,” those who were children and teenagers in the 1980s. Back then, two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — chose our region as a place to work out their disputes. They were eager to help Central America transform students into soldiers. They were eager to provide the weapons while we provided the dead.

When Central America’s leaders found a way to end those conflicts, I thought that our achievement would be rewarded with aid and with support to help us make the transition from war to peace, to get our young people back in school, to retrain soldiers and to rebuild families. However, once the bullets stopped flying, the two superpowers lost interest.

All of us — the United States and its neighbors to the south — are paying the price for this lost opportunity. In Central America’s Northern Triangle, soldiers and guerrillas have been replaced by gang members. Civil wars have been replaced by street wars. Mothers no longer cry because their children are marching off to battle. They cry because their children are falling victim to another kind of violence or because they have to send them in search of a better life.

Central American immigrants board “La Bestia” (“The Beast”) cargo train, in an attempt to reach the Mexico-U.S. border, in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico on July 16, 2014.

Elizabeth Ruíz/AFP

This cycle of violence will not end until all those with an interest in, and responsibility for, the crisis demonstrate a new commitment to addressing these problems before they begin. For the nations of Central America, this means asking the wealthy to do their part. It is unforgivable that countries so poor, with income inequality so drastic, have some of the lowest tax burdens in the world. We must ask more of our richest citizens.

But the United States also has a role to play. If it continues to direct its minimal aid to Central America with the goal of merely putting out wildfires that spill into its own territory, the inferno of poverty and illiteracy will continue to burn across the border. The current discussion should make room for aid strategies that treat Central America as more than a pawn in the war on drugs and that seek to reduce poverty and improve education — the only real way to avoid another lost generation.

One highly cost-effective strategy would be for the United States to bolster the region’s cash-transfer programs, which help families keep their kids in school. For only $62 million, a monthly scholarship program similar to the one I implemented in Costa Rica could be offered for a full year to all 52,000 young people apprehended at the border so far this year. With Obama asking for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address a tiny fraction of the symptoms of the disease, it is crazy not to consider much smaller investments that could help cure it at the root.

This kind of sanity, however, is a tall order in a country where some voices are calling for all aid to Central America to be cut off. Such thinking is wrong on a moral, ethical and practical level. These children are Central Americans. They are also Americans, in the geographically accurate sense of that term: Their tragedies belong to all of us, including the paragon of wealth and opportunity to which they have turned in desperation.

Most of all, they are children, which means that none of us can turn a blind eye. The world must not fail them as we failed their parents and grandparents. If we do, their hell will increasingly become our own.

The writer was president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 and from 2006 to 2010. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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Isabella Rocha

With all due respect Mr. Jaf, I agree with many of the things Mr. Arias has mentioned including the true statement that “we were used as a place to work out two Super Powers dispute”, ( in reality the US and the Soviet Union should go halfs on the reconstruction of Central America), but your idea is very screwed up, for lack of a better term!. As someone from Costa Rica, I can also tell Mr. Arias that that he has bloody hands on this too. Part of the reason why we can’t use OUR RESOURCES Mr. Jaf, is because politicians like Arias in my country “bend over” for countries like the United States and China who come around with their power and money. Arias and his party were
the big political machine behind the approval of CAFTA, Central America Free Trade Agreement, ( SI SENOR ARIAS, EL TLC ); and you know what happens when these treaties get approved right? Big winners the big guys, Big losers the little farmer, the little guys. That contribute to the further decline and ongoing of the middle class in Costa Rica, and the rich like Arias, richer. That’s why I think he has bloody hands on this too.
Countries like Nicaragua, Guatemalla, Honduras and El Salvador also signed CAFTA agreements but it’s even worse in those countries because they’re run by unscrupulous politicians and military Goverments, so the poverty and complete lack of care from the leaders towards the people is appalling, their conomies are in big trouble.
I agree with Mr. Arias, the United States needs to deal with this in our backyard, directly, although with the Druglords, Arms Trade and the Gangs is more like a battlefield, like hell.
This problem is going to get worse if it’s not dealt with correctly.

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Whose druglords are those? Whose gangs? Certainly not the United States or her people, who live under a false republic and have no real choice in who is elected. Just as the Nazi regime needed to blame all of Europe’s problems on my people, the Jews, leaders in Central America like to use the phantom of the United States as the excuse for why everything is bad in Central America. The reality: Your ancestors did it to you. They set up the not-so-utopia future you are living in. If you want it to be different, change it yourselves. It’s like the African American population in the United States blaming all of their social problems on the slavery that existed over 250 years ago. Here’s a news flash. Their problems can be traced back to the most recent two or three generations. Almost no societal problem, anywhere in the world, can be blamed on the actions of more than two or three generations. A good example of this? How about Japan. The United States committed the largest act of terrorism in history by dropping nuclear bombs on the civilian population of two of Japan’s largest cities. What has Japan done? Do they cry, do they whine, do they blame the United States? NO. They rebuilt their society THAT GENERATION, and every generation that has followed has been prosperous and successful. So much so, that they produce a large amount of the electronics and consumer automobiles for the United States.

You can’t dare claim that the Soviet Union and United States involnvement was anywhere near as detrimental to Central America as the NUCLEAR GENOCIDE committed upon Japan. Yet Japan doesn’t blame the United States for anything. Their ancestors had CHARACTER, rebuilt their society, and now they are prosperous. Learn from them.

My wife and her family are Costa Rican and they wouldn’t dare blame the US or the Soviet Union for Central America’s problems. They have sense enough to realize the problems lay on the shoulders of politicians paying themselves eight times the working wage, and the people who allow them to run this country.

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Ken Morris

Tranquilo, cabellero. You’ve got a few facts distorted.

Slavery in the US did not end 250 years ago, but more like 150 years ago. Then it was followed various forms of peonage, Jim Crow, and so forth. This has consequences, chiefly in the lack of inherited wealth black vs. white families have to this day. I’m a former white Southerner, albeit adopted, and have a great white buddy who’s a millionaire, a product of generations of Harvard graduates, etc. But his money comes from generations back, and black Southerners don’t have that family money (or Harvard pedigree etc.). History matters.

Second, Japan was basically rebuilt with massive US aid–the Marshall Plan–far less than Arias is asking for. Did the Japanese then work hard and so forth? For sure! But they didn’t do it on their own. Neither did Western Europe for that matter.

Third, Central America’s problems do originate in the US. The gangs that essentially govern the countries were formed in the US, and their business is tied to catering to US demand. Plus, there is the fact that the US war on drugs is such an utter multi-decade failure that you have to conclude that battling drugs is not even why it exists. (It looks like it exists to give the US an excuse to position its military wherever it wants to.) The US is simply up to its gills in the Central American mess.

My only beef with Oscar’s article is that it is way too timid. He’s right as far as he goes, just doesn’t go far enough.

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Allan Breslin

Mr. JAF your remarks sound oh so typically small minded republican, how do you sleep at night? Jewish background? you should be on the Bush Supreme Court

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Isabella Rocha

Mr. Jaf, I’m not here to get into a historical, generational blah, blah, blah war of words. You should talk!!, you say you’re Jew, what happen to the Jewish people it was a horrible thing to mankind; what about THAT phantom (you said it first!) often used even by my own Jewish friends who laughs about it when I mention it to them, and the Israel Goverment?. People don’t blame the US, we tell the truth about the consequences of the policies of countries like the US and China in this region. Just like there are consequences of the NO PEACE TREATY between Israel and Palestine, do you really think they wants peace?, In the case of Israel, will they get as much money and support from the US if they don’t keep this perpetually going? If your family is from Costa Rica, they should remember the ammount of refugees we got during the conflict in Nicaragua, the US didn’t give the adequate help and Costa Rica is not a rich country, it was hard for a tiny country like ours. That had consequences.
You should know comparing Japan with Costa Rica or Central America is like comparing apples to oranges in many ways. Just go to the Center for Global Development site, you’ll know what I am talking about concerning Japan. Not the best overall example, especially in trade practices, environment.
I agree with you in some instances, but not in your anger coming through misplaced with the little guys again. And those Druglords would not exists if the US was not such a good “customer” for their goods (So the problem starts here), those gangs were in jail in the US and were just sent home because they were “bad guys”, did the authorities here thought that they were going to Central America to crochet, be good!? ( So they made a problem worse by shipping them back). Why the US don’t hold countries like El Salvador accountable for the millions of dollars they send every year?.
I am not saying we’re at no fault when it comes to solving our problems, but seriously?, we can’t do it alone, and the US is not helping fix the problem they have created and deal with it, as Mr. Arias says “At the Root”.
Ancestors?, I have proudly Costarican Indian blood, yeah, the white man really ruin it for us; brought us disease and took our treasures all up and down this continent, killed by greed, even in the US!!. Respectfully, you have good points, but read about what the white man did to the Indians in this Continent. It’s still happening!!. Look at both sides of the coin Mr. Jaf. With your response you sound a little like a bully. Pura Vida!!!.

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Like Ex Prez Oscar can speak about problems in the world. The only thing EX prez ever did was help himself when he was in Goverment. Many people in this country lost faith in PLN goverment because of Oscar. Some people say EX Prez of Costa Rica took money from the US goverment during the Somoza years. Meaning he might have been in bed with CIA.

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It amazes me that people as obviously mentally ill as you can function in society. Do you really believe all this crazy stuff?

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Danny Lee Gibson

The immigration ”crisis” can be fixed immediately — have each and every ”illegal” — ask where the nearest location is to register as a Republican !!!! All of them will be on the next bus back to where they came from — in five minutes!!!

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With all due respect to the former president who wrote this, why don’t these countries take care of their own people and poverty?

It’s not like you lack the resources. If your complaint is that the resources are not as diversified as a giant country such as the United States, then why not reinforce your trade alliances across Central and South America? Work towards a confederacy of small countries, a union like the EU?

I guess it’s just easier to take a handout than fix your own problems.

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Your going to school in Costa rica why don´t you back to the US and stay there.

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Porque mi familia es de aqui idiota. Mi esposa, mi hija, y todo sus familia.

Porque no vive usted en Cuba o Venezuela, donde se puede estar feliz?

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