Beyond the wall: What's missing from our immigration debate?

The national debate over America's immigration policy has a cyclical nature to it, tending to spike during political seasons where the posturing is long on emotion but often short on substance. We all know, however, that a comprehensive immigration plan that balances our desire for the rule of law with an innate American compassion for human life - especially the lives and futures of children - is more complicated than simply building higher walls or increasing enforcement. What's really called for is some Solomonic wisdom.

I don't profess to have such wisdom myself. But what is conspicuously missing from the debate - and where solutions likely lie - is a better understanding of the conditions of those who have fled their homes to find greater opportunity on this side of the Rio Grande.

A case in point is Honduras. A Central American nation of just over 8 million people, Honduras is among the world's poorest and most dangerous countries. The World Bank ranks its GDP at 110, among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. As if abject poverty were not enough, Honduras must also cope with the world's highest homicide rate - an average of 20 murders per day. These deaths are mostly teenaged boys caught up in the gang violence that has swept through a generation of young Hondurans. UNICEF tells us that boys between ages 15 and 19, an age when many of them drop out of school, face a homicide rate that is 14 times higher than for those between ages 10 and 14.

With little economic opportunity and futures that hold small promise, it's no surprise that many young male Hondurans struggle to find a healthy and productive path forward in their own country. The absence of work compels some to turn to petty crime or succumb to the temptation of the illicit drug trade and the often-lethal risks that go with it.

But then there are those who embark on another risky choice, setting out through Guatemala and traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border, a trek of at least 1,500 miles - akin to making your way from Boston to Lincoln, Nebraska over mostly back roads. Their flight to North America from such destitution and danger at home - even as illegal aliens - should evoke at least some understanding in those of us who were lucky enough to be born within more stable and hopeful circumstances.

That understanding should also extend to the women and children whom these men leave behind. I've had an opportunity to speak to many Central American women over the years, and I have come to appreciate the stress and uncertainty that hang over their days. Not only must they bear the burdens that go with being a single parent within an impoverished and dangerous environment, but they also live largely without communicating with those who have left. Imagine the fear and uncertainty of not knowing if and when any money will arrive or whether their husbands and sons will ever, in fact, return.

These current circumstances, this choice between staying or migrating, hold no solutions, neither for U.S. policymakers nor the Honduran families themselves. And yet there are some initiatives that can help young Hondurans so that migration becomes a less-attractive option. They start with ensuring that the children are well protected from the violence in their surroundings and have access to education and other activities that can improve their capacity to find and keep jobs. Providing opportunity to these young people is the most effective means for keeping them out of gangs and on a productive path.

At ChildFund International, we have instituted an innovative program that has made a tangible difference in helping prevent violence against children. Called Miles de Manos (Thousands of Hands), the initiative not only works directly with at-risk children to improve their ability to cope with their environment, but it also engages their teachers, parents and other adult family members whose support is essential. We seek to improve parenting skills and practices so that parents can help reduce their children's high-risk behaviors. We work with teachers to help them create positive school environments, and we help students themselves develop social and problem-solving skills.

Programs like Miles de Manos get results because they are creating foundational change at the community level. While improving economic conditions will likely require a long-term strategy and considerable resources, changing attitudes to better protect these young people and help them cope with their circumstances at home will go a long way toward stabilizing Honduras.

There is no great, sweeping panacea that can fix the complex matter of immigration. But finding solutions in communities in Honduras and throughout Latin America represents the best incremental steps we have for addressing the issue at its source. Political rhetoric that acknowledges as much would be refreshing.