As the number of Central American migrants making asylum claims at the southern border continues to soar, migration advocates have pushed a number of specious arguments attempting to explain why migration is surging.
Rather than close the loopholes in our asylum law that are actually encouraging migrant families to come to the United States by ensuring that they will be caught-and-released into the country, high-immigration activists have pointed the finger elsewhere. One of their common arguments is that migrants are fleeing for physical safety from gang violence. I debunked that earlier this year by demonstrating that there is no statistical relationship between homicide rates in Central America and border apprehensions. Then, activists started to claim that it is actually climate change driving the current border crisis. I debunked that claim as well, by demonstrating that crop production has actually been rising in Central America.
Now, activists are trotting out a new argument: Migrants are fleeing to the United States because America does not give enough foreign aid to Central America. If only, they argue, America were to further develop these countries with more military and economic aid, migration would decrease.
That's the argument being made by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, whose recently released immigration plan calls for $5 billion in aid to Central American countries. Similarly, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times said that if we want to end the border crisis, we must first "fix Latin America". How simple!
To see if there is any truth to the argument that aid could be used to restrict migration, I compared annual foreign aid sent to the Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) as well as Mexico, to see if it correlated with the annual border crossings from citizens of those countries each year.
Overall, there appears to be little correlation between those two factors.
Honduran foreign aid is roughly 90 percent economic and 10 percent military in nature. The money goes primarily toward local governance, with large carve-outs for agriculture and education. Aid to Honduras increased steadily over the course of the Obama presidency, rising to $181 million by 2017.
Border crossings from Honduras spiked in 2014 (along with crossings from the rest of the region) in the wake of President Obama's DACA amnesty. However, foreign aid to Honduras in 2014 ($96 million) was not materially different than foreign aid in 2013 ($103 million) — so it does not appear to have been a major factor in the surge in crossings. In fact, crossings from Honduras jumped between 2012 and 2013 despite a 34 percent increase in aid.
Guatemalan aid is 87 percent economic in nature, and 13 percent military. In 2017, it totaled $257 million, slightly down from 2016, but still well above earlier levels.
There is a positive correlation between aid to Guatemala and migration, meaning that historically more aid to Guatemala has actually meant more border-crossers, not fewer. Between 2015 and 2016, aid more than doubled, from $138 million to $297 million. Despite that increase, Guatemalan border crossings actually rose — from 57,000 to 75,000.
Ironically, the reason that the Obama administration dramatically increased aid in FY 2016 was due to the border surge — the administration said it needed an additional $1 billion for the region to improve "economic prosperity, security, and governance." Clearly, this investment did not have the desired effect on illegal migration in Guatemala.
El Salvador takes in relatively less aid than other countries in the region, but on a per capita basis it takes in more, given the nation's small size. The aid is approximately 92 percent economic and 8 percent military, with a focus on security and governance.
Aid to El Salvador quadrupled in 2015, from its usual $80 million to $320 million in 2015, as part of an Obama administration initiative to combat El Salvador's soaring violence, which reached an astounding 103 homicides per 100,000 in 2015. Indeed, border crossings that year did decline, well below the 2014 surge and back to 2013 levels. However, border crossings also declined in the rest of the region that year, so it is unclear how much of that decline is specifically attributable to the aid. Further, the benefit was not long-lived — by 2016, border crossings from El Salvador spiked again, this time reaching a record high of over 70,000 people.
Finally, it is worth examining aid to Mexico given both the large numbers of Mexican migrants who have historically crossed the border, and recent talks between President Trump and Mexican authorities on how Mexico can stem the current migrant flow.
Unsurprisingly given both its size and proximity to the United States, Mexico receives large amounts of U.S. aid — approximately $290 million in 2017. Unlike Central American aid, which is used for a variety of development purposes, aid to Mexico is intended almost entirely for governance.
Historically, most border-crossers were Mexican. That has steadily declined over time, with Mexican border-crossers falling from 300,000 in 2011 to less than half that number by 2017. This decline does not appear to have much to do with foreign aid. Even as foreign aid dropped off significantly between 2015 and 2017, Mexican migration continued to fall.
While it is indeed true that standards of living and quality of life are higher by nearly every quantifiable metric in the United States relative to much of Latin America, and that these disparities are likely a factor driving immigration, it is unrealistic to expect that America can simply "fix" the serious structural challenges in these developing countries by increasing foreign aid.
As the past eight years indicate, there is little evidence that foreign aid does much to stem the tide of migration. While it is possible that aid has positive long-term effects, it certainly does not appear to have shown up in the data yet. In the shorter term, the United States faces the pressing challenge of a humanitarian and political crisis at the border.
What we need most are immediate legal fixes, such as closing the catch-and-release loopholes that are actually driving this crisis — not the kind of wishful thinking that posits that Latin America can eventually develop on par with the United States if only we spend billions more dollars and wait many more years.