Amidst all the high-decibel and highly generalized discussions of our southern border,
We're going to do a wall ... Mexico's going to pay for the wall. — The Donald
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. — The Pope
let us make a highly specific, extremely cost-effective, low-decibel (if politically unlikely) proposal about stemming the flow of illegal migrants from Central America.
The suggestion is based on three quite separate, but mutually supporting sets of facts.
Fact One. While illegal migration from Mexico remains a major problem, that nation's developing middle-class economy, and the lowering of birth rates over the last two decades, means that the illegal migration from that country is plateauing.
Meanwhile, illegal migration through Mexico from Central America has exploded, largely because while the administration is perfectly willing to expel 17- and-18-year-old Mexican nationals arriving illegally, it will not do the same to those from Central America. And the economic situation in Central America now is grim — it is roughly comparable to what it was in Mexico 30 years ago.
Fact Two. Our essentially non-Hispanic government has, at least currently, major hesitations about discouraging the migration of Hispanics, but the all-Hispanic government of Mexico has no similar hang-ups about enforcing migration laws against other Hispanic populations. Further, the executive branch there is far less likely to be inhibited by the courts, or by the concept of political correctness, than ours is.
In short, Mexico is exactly the right place to enforce immigration law on non-Mexican law-breakers. This is something than can be done, given the right incentives.
Fact Three. Then there is the matter of geography. Mexico is at its broadest at its 1,900-mile-long northern border with the United States, and that is where we try to enforce our immigration law. Mexico is at its narrowest, as the map shows, near its own southeastern border. The distance from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, as the crow flies, is 130 or so miles. This is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; all land-borne illegal migration from Central America flows through this relatively narrow choke-point.
The Little Railway that Might. Given these three facts would it not make sense to pay Mexico to cut off the northward-migration of Central Americans? To some extent that is happening now, but our proposal is to make it more effective and easier to manage and monitor.
The suggestion is to construct a fence along an existing railroad, now nearly abandoned, built by dreamers a little more than 100 years ago who thought that they could entice ocean-to-ocean traffic away from the about-to-be built Panama Canal and across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec instead. The dream became a nightmare when it became apparent that using the canal was cheaper and faster than unloading freight at the Gulf of Mexico end of the little railway, shipping it by rail, and then re-loading it on ships at the Pacific end of the line. One website calls it the "UnPanama".
The railway bears the Spanish initials FIT (Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec). It runs from sea to sea in a seamless line, though not in a straight line, so it's about 190 miles long. There is a gap in the mountains at this point, which made the rail line easier to build and to maintain. Since the Isthmus is running east and west at this point, the railroad runs roughly north (the Gulf of Mexico) to south (the Pacific).
Our notion is to build a strong pedestrian fence on the western side of the route, allowing Mexican officials to use the rail line, and roads parallel to it, to patrol it. This would be a much better design than fences at our southern border, because if they are built right at the border, our Border Patrol has no power to seize people approaching it from the other side, as they are in another country.
There would have to be several places in the proposed fence, maybe a dozen or so, where legitimate crossings could take place, essentially from one part of Mexico to another. These crossings would be staffed by Mexican officials (presumably paid indirectly with U.S. funds). These crossing guards, the construction workers needed to build the fence, and the patrol agents would represent a huge economic shot in the arm for the state of Oaxaca, which is the second-poorest of all Mexican states. (The northern part of the line is in Veracruz state, which is also relatively poor.) The line would also be a few miles to the west of the state of Chiapas, the poorest of the Mexican states.
What about the Railway? The railway is still operating, but barely, as my colleague Kausha Luna learned after a number of phone calls. It is a single track (which suggests it never had much business); it currently carries some freight, but no passengers; and is owned by a government corporation, perhaps like our Amtrak (which is another clue to its lack of prosperity). Further, it was heavily damaged in a 2005 hurricane.
Up until nine years ago, the right to operate the line was in the hands of an American firm, the Genesee & Wyoming, which is a conglomerate of short lines headquartered in Connecticut. In 2007 the G&W opted out of this arrangement, at least party because of the storm. Then the rail line itself, and many other miles of railroad, were sold to a government-related entity at a bargain price.
The FIT railway, thus, cannot be worth much at the moment. Ideally the line would not run trains anymore, leaving the Mexican police free to use the rails to enforce their immigration law, free of complications made by the occasional freight train. Perhaps that could be arranged at a reasonable price.
The relative ease of the construction of a fence along the FIT railway, as opposed to along the U.S. southern border, is hard to overemphasize. Here is a relatively level land route in which the railway already owns all the real estate needed for the fence. The railway itself gives instant access to the area where the fence is to be built. Construction costs in Mexico are much lower in Mexico than in the States. There would be not be ranches along the border, as there are on some segments of our southern border, where part of the land would be one side of the fence, and part on the other. The railway follows a much straighter line than the Rio Grande, and so forth.
Above all, the total length would be just one-tenth the length of our border with Mexico. This is not to suggest that we abandon efforts to strengthen our own southern border, but the FIT fence would be an extremely valuable tool in the American enforcement arsenal.
There would be problems, of course. One of them would be the politics of building a barrier right in the middle of another nation, but with the price of oil lower than it has been in a long time, Mexico might be lured into the deal because of Uncle Sam's money. Such a barrier would also help Mexico control its own illegal immigration problems, all at the cost of another nation.
Then there would be the problem of controlling corruption among the involved Mexican officials, and seeing to it that the new fence was doing what it is supposed to do.
The Pope would not like the idea, but given a Trump presidency (I shudder at the prospect) perhaps The Donald would see this as an inexpensive and effective way to honor a campaign pledge.