President Trump wants to deter illegal immigrants and asylum seekers from crossing the southern border. He might have more success if he looked at the situation from another angle: Rather than focusing solely on tough measures for unauthorized entry in order to reduce the “pull factor” that draws immigrants to the United States, he might also address the “push factors” that motivate family units and unaccompanied minors from leaving their home countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America.
The appeal of this approach is that the president has far more latitude in foreign affairs than he does in domestic policy, where Congress, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy constrain or thwart his initiatives. Indeed, the only thing preventing Trump from going to the source of the problem — state failure, official corruption, and transnational criminal networks in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador — is his commitment to a foreign policy of retrenchment. Humanitarian intervention, nation building, entanglements abroad, and foreign aid are unpopular. China, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Russia are trouble enough.
Trump sees foreign aid as leverage, which is why he threatened to stop the flow of money to governments in the Northern Triangle. The problem, Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out today, is that tax dollars go not to governments but to NGOs and to programs monitored or administered by the U.S. Department of State and USAID. Nor is there much a government can do when a criminal enterprise dominates large parts of its territory. To the extent that central governments in the region do have authority, we need them as allies against the baleful influence of Ortega in Nicaragua, Díaz-Canel in Cuba, and Maduro in Venezuela. Withdrawing ourselves from the region empowers bad actors to create the conditions for mass exodus to the United States.
We’ve deployed economic, political, and military assistance to strengthen democratic governance and reduce civil strife in Latin America before. The most successful case was Plan Colombia, an intensive, expensive, and controversial strategic plan that brought Colombia from desolation to peace and prosperity. But the circumstances that gave us Plan Colombia are no longer present. Public opinion constrains the president and Congress from an expansive foreign policy, and neither branch of government is interested in persuading the public otherwise. The results are disappointing and sometimes tragic. Why? Because forward defense is not just a military doctrine. It’s also a diplomatic one. When you fail to address challenges abroad, you soon find them knocking on your door.