Kamala Harris Is the New Border Czar — Sort Of

She has a thankless job addressing intractable issues that will end in failure, if history is a guide

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 2, 2021

Vice President Kamala Harris is apparently the new “border czar” — sort of. As Politico explains: “Harris’ exact role hasn’t been fully laid out publicly.” But she is ostensibly spearheading efforts to deal with what some experts describe as the “root causes of migration” — usually described as “poverty, high levels of violence, and corruption in Mexico” El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I wish her the best, but she will likely be no more successful than her predecessors.

It should be noted at the outset that migration actually exacerbates those “root causes”.

Corruption: My colleague Todd Bensman explained on March 29 how the recent migrant surge is enriching Mexican officials who are demanding bribes from and shaking down Central American migrants. Don’t think for a minute that bribes and graft are not built into smugglers’ pricing structure elsewhere, at every step along the migrant journey.

High levels of violence: Violent drug cartels make money by demanding a “tax” or piso from smugglers who are moving migrants across what those cartels deem “their territory”. That money gets plowed back into their other criminal enterprises. And, of course, smugglers themselves are violent criminals, as a recent Wall Street Journal article makes vividly clear.

Then, there are the gangs, and in particular MS-13. Most Central American asylum claims are premised on some sort of harm by the gangs: extortion, recruitment, or threats to scare off witnesses and informants.

As the Obama-era Treasury Department made clear, however, MS-13 operates in the United States, too (with 8,000 members in 40 states and D.C.), and is involved “in multiple crimes including murder, racketeering, drug trafficking, sex trafficking and human trafficking including prostitution.” Profits from those enterprises get funneled back to the gang’s leadership in El Salvador, enabling them to engage in more violent crime in Central America.

MS-13 recruits new members in the United States to commit those offenses, in part, by targeting recent immigrants, including unaccompanied alien minors, as Timothy D. Sini, the police commissioner of Suffolk County, N.Y., explained to a Senate committee in May 2017. Thus, the circle of crime and illegal immigration — both in Central America and the United States — is regrettably completed.

Poverty: As Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in mid-March, “mass immigration is ‘not profitable’ for either country involved”. Bukele explained:

If you send hardworking people and talented people and people who want to risk it just to go to work, you want to keep them here because those will be the drivers of your economy. You don't want them there so that they can send a remittance, which would be a small portion of what they would earn and produce; you want them to produce here.

Bukele would know: At least 20 percent of El Salvador’s population lives abroad (most — almost 1.3 million Salvadoran immigrants — in the United States), and their remittances account for around 20 percent of the country’s GDP.

In any event, however, this is not the United States’ first foray into ending those “root causes” of illegal migration. Here is then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, in a statement from 2016:

Border security alone cannot overcome the powerful push factors of poverty and violence that exist in Central America. ... Ultimately, the solution is long-term investment in Central America to address the underlying push factors in the region. We continue to work closely with our federal partners and the governments in the region, and are pleased with the $750 million Congress approved in FY 2016 for support and aid to Central America. We urge Congress to provide additional resources in FY 2017.

Given the fact that poverty, violence, and corruption are still cited as factors in Central American migration, that funding either wasn’t enough, or simply made little or no difference in addressing these factors.

President Biden has, nonetheless, proposed a:

$4 billion four-year inter-agency plan to address the underlying causes of migration in the region, including by increasing assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, conditioned on their ability to reduce the endemic corruption, violence, and poverty that causes people to flee their home countries.

That is an increase of $250 million per year over the funding plan Johnson discussed in 2016, but will it do any good? Respectfully, there is no reason to suggest that it will.

The average annual income in El Salvador is $4,000, in Guatemala it is $4,610, in Honduras it is $2,310, and in Mexico it is $9,480. By comparison, it is $65,850 in the United States.

Of course, those are averages, not actual income. The minimum yearly wage in El Salvador is between $2,433.84 and $3,650.04, depending on the sector of the economy.

In Guatemala, the yearly minimum wage is $2,734.00, again, with some differentiation among sectors.

The approximate official yearly minimum wage in Honduras is $7,915.00, suggesting that a large portion of the economy is working off the books, and/or that taxes are really high.

By contrast, the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour, or about $15,080.00 per year. In California, however, it is $13.00 per hour ($27,040.00 per year); in Washington State it is $13.69 per hour ($28,475.20 per year); and in D.C. the minimum wage is $15.00 per hour (or $31,200 per year).

And the population of El Salvador is about 6.5 million; of Guatemala just over 18 million; and of Honduras, around 10 million, for a total of around 34.5 million. The $4 billion in aid that the president is proposing would total about $116 per person over four years, or about $29 per year. That is nowhere near enough to make up the difference in the wage gap between those countries and the United States.

And, while I have no doubt about the vice president’s negotiating skills, or her ability to combat crime (she is the former attorney general of California and San Francisco district attorney), I question whether she will be able to make any appreciable impact on the endemic crime and corruption in the Northern Triangle.

The United States does not have a great track record of addressing such structural issues abroad. We have been attempting “to improve the lives of the Afghan people”, for example, for the better part of two decades, and have little to show for the $500 million in civilian aid we provide there annually.

An evergreen hearing that we would regularly have when I was on the House Oversight Committee was with John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. In one instance, when he was asked whether he was familiar with $6 million that had been spent on a plan to import nine blond goats from Italy, Sopko responded:

Yes, unfortunately, I am. And it was a program by the Task Force for Business Stabilization. It was basically an attempt to rebuild or build a cashmere market, and as far as we know, it was a failure. They did import goats.

I will cut off the testimony there before it veers into animal husbandry, but you can read about that and other wasteful Afghanistan rebuilding efforts in a Washington Post article from August 2017 captioned “Here are six costly failures from America’s longest war. No. 1: Cashmere goats”.

Rather than traveling to address the so-called (and intractable, at least in the short run) “root causes” of illegal migration, the vice president would be better served by staying in Washington and cleaning up the “pull factors”, that is the loopholes in U.S. law that are drawing migrants to enter illegally. She can do that much more cheaply — and likely exponentially more successfully — from her office in the Capitol.

Topics: Politics