(RNN) – Following the attacks of 9/11, America dedicated enormous resources for more than a decade to the war on terror and the Middle East at the expense of its own backyard, says Birmingham-Southern College professor of political science Vince Gawronski.
That neglect of our own hemisphere, as Gawronski sees it, is just one reason thousands of immigrants are making headlines by streaming across the southern border from Central America.
“Latin America – Mexico and Central America in particular – is the most important region to the United States in terms of three broad, intertwined areas - trade and economic issues, security and culture,” he said. “Immigration, terrorism and international crime cut across all of these big areas, and dealing with them is in the national interest of the United States.”
Don’t blame the USA for the problem, says Latin America expert and William & Mary professor George Grayson. He agrees with Gawronski on the importance of the region but doesn’t share Gawronski's belief that it’s America’s responsibility to lift up Central America, or take in migrants as refugees.
“There is a great deal of violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico,” he admits. “There’s also a great deal of poverty and violence all over the world.”
He says America needs to learn a lesson from Iraq, where ISIS terrorists are now on the rampage, that the USA can’t solve the world’s problems.
Gawronski says another reason for the massive migrant influx is that violent societies have been created in Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia following civil wars that spanned decades. Fighting is all some people have ever known, Gawronski says. He is a visiting scholar this summer at La Universidad de La Salle in Bogota, Colombia, and Central America is a particular focus of his studies and work.
“It’s a cultural legacy of violence. Adults have spent most of their lives in conflict,” he said, citing Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, Columbia’s five-decade conflict and a war in El Salvador that ended in a draw after 12 years.
As a result, gangs are embedded into parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and neighboring Honduras. They prey on society by extorting money from businesses in a fashion akin to the Mafia, but worse, he said.
“They will kill your entire family before they will kill you,” he said. “The Mafia had rules.”
Thousands of women and children are escaping those nightmare conditions, Gawronski says, adding that the United Nations estimates there are 54,000 hardened gang members in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).
Adding to the region’s ills is that America also is the world’s biggest consumer of illegal drugs, source of military-grade weapons and a major money launderer, Gawronski says. Cash, drugs, weapons and gangs combine to form a combustible mix, he says, and much of it goes back and forth across the southern border.
America simply can’t afford to take in all who can make it to the southern border, Grayson responds.
He is a self-proclaimed liberal and two-time Barack Obama backer who says the border resembles a sieve blasted by buckshot. He has made more than 125 research trips to Latin America and written 20 books on international affairs. America needs to do an about-face on illegal immigration, he says.
“Obama has sent a signal to Mexico and Central America that America is a sanctuary,” he said. “We should send a message that we don’t adopt their disadvantaged people at the border.”
He points out that only 315 miles of the border fence in Texas is complete, leaving 75 percent of Texas' border wide open. But America is not helpless in stemming the tide, Grayson says.
“We should deploy the National Guard to provide surveillance on the border,” he said, adding that they couldn’t provide border enforcement but could intimidate.
Most illegals are now being let go in hopes that they will return for a court date, he said.
Aid from America, which is far too generous, should be dependent on whether a nation like Honduras works to keep their people at home, he added.
Mexico is an extremely wealthy country full of opportunity, Grayson says, and we should not view our southern neighbor as an object of sympathy.
He cites its oil industry, gold, silver, top 15 in the world industrial sector, fantastic resorts, rich fishing reserves, archaeological museums and other national treasures. But corruption runs rampant as does greed, he says.
“Politicians turn a blind eye to the narco traffickers and it’s time for America to practice tough love,” he said. “Internal corruption – ending it is like the ancient king trying to sweep back an ocean with a broom.”
He says the elites in Mexico enjoy the bounty of the nation while millions live without.
The border is a national security issue, he says.
“What if ISIS sends a terrorist through one of the tunnels that the drug cartels use under our border?” he asks. And amnesty begets more amnesty, he believes.
“America tried that in the mid-1980s (Immigration Reform and Control Act) and gave 4.3 million people green cards and path to citizenship, and now we have 11 million. As soon as we do one amnesty, another line forms,” he said. “We should be concerned about the downward pressure on wages for blue collar people and the middle class.”
Dr. Ed Hudgins, a former senior economist for Congress, says America must make it easier for honest people to immigrate to America and find work.
“The immigration system has been broken for decades,” he said, adding that people are on waiting lists for years to get into the United States.
The Washington, DC-based Hudgins disagrees with Grayson and believes that immigrants are not taking jobs from Americans, but just escaping horrible conditions as anyone would.
“Americans don’t own a job,” he said. “The only moral thing for a person to do is to come illegally to look for work. The moral principle is everybody should seek the best for themselves.”
He has worked to promote economic development south of the border since the 1980s as part of either the government, Heritage Foundation or other groups.
In the long term, America should export its free market ideas throughout the hemisphere. The problem, he says, is that those in the federal agencies tasked with the job don’t understand those principles.
Therefore, it will be private businesses and entrepreneurs who change the dynamics of Central American economies, he believes.
“We should send the best of the U.S. to Central America,” he said, offering Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and a growing middle class in India as examples of where free-market practices turned national economies around.
“India has developed a middle class of 325 million in just three decades since economic liberalization in the 1970s,” he said. “There are private entrepreneurs who do wonderful things and believe in outreach. You have to understand the problem and get honest, middle-class folks to change the system.”
He agrees with Grayson and Gawronski that corruption and government red tape hold down Mexico and Central America.
But Hudgins says the message America speaks is important. And he offered an example.
After the fall of the USSR, he attended a free-market conference in the former Soviet republic of Estonia where people told him they heard the words of former President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and knew their own communist system was broken.
“They said, ‘We knew our system was failed and they gave us hope and inspiration,’” Hudgins said. “It’s wrong to underestimate what a U.S. president can do.”
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