Crisis at the Border: A Tragedy of Incentives

A picture by Jennifer Whitney for The New York Times perfectly captured the humanitarian crisis at the border. It has everything you need if you're looking for a way to get your heartstrings pulled at: It depicts a boy with a look of hope in his eyes handing over to a Border Patrol officer his birth certificate, which identifies him as Alejandro, age 8, and gives away his status as an unaccompanied minor of Honduran nationality who crossed the U.S. border illegally.

The journeys across the desert of unaccompanied minors hoping to flee poverty and violence are not, by any means, a new fad. New are the attention of the media and the qualifier of "humanitarian crisis," which it is, at 50,000 unaccompanied minors detained by the Border Patrol so far, and counting. Understanding or explaining the immigration "phenomenon" that drives Central Americans to the United States doesn't require major academic research or political philosophy theories, because it's a matter of incentives, a concept so characteristic to the human condition and so basic to the framework of economic theory.

Infallibly, human behavior is fueled by incentives: Regardless of fear, violence, or legal consequences, nothing determines decision making as much as the chance to increase well-being or survival. This simple axiom is what, for decades, has moved millions of Central Americans to uproot their lives and put themselves through the hell of crossing the U.S. border by foot: In their cost-benefit analysis, the benefit of the slight possibility of crossing safely and undetected is still larger than the costs of potential deportation, physical suffering, the taxing journey and the conformity of staying in their land.

In a column published by the Dallas Morning News, Christine Wicker drew an interesting parallel between the voyage of the St. Louis and the unaccompanied-minor-immigration crisis, in which President Obama is pursuing legislation that will allow him to expedite the deportation of thousands of minors currently detained at the borders. In 1939 the St. Louis, a German trans-Atlantic ship, reached the U.S. with close to a thousand Jewish victims fleeing the Holocaust. There were no laws in place to provide them refuge, so the ship was turned away and had to make its way back to the war-ridden European coasts, where many of those on board faced sure death. Regardless of the legality of the policy decisions taken in this regard by the Roosevelt administration, a lot of ground could be covered in a discussion of their ethical implications.

As hyperbolic as a comparison between the plights faced by the victims aboard the St. Louis and those faced by unaccompanied minor immigrants might sound, it provides for a valuable thought experiment that incorporates the ethical considerations surrounding the deportations that will continue to come as long as both a broken immigration system and the war on drugs remain unchanged.

While it is true that many of the families that these children are hoping to reunite with are also in the United States illegally, a lot have managed to make a living for themselves, in environments where minorities have a place within a community, as opposed to being the victims of the chronic marginalization in the Central American societies they have now escaped from. Some of them have achieved a stability they don't want to risk by making a trip back to their countries of origin to visit the babies they left behind, who have now grown into children and young adults unafraid to endure long journeys just to be able to reunite with their parents. Some have saved enough money to be able to afford paying smugglers a fee that, without any guarantees, buys them a shot at bringing their children from Central America.

According to investigative journalist Oscar Martinez from the Salvadoran digital media outlet El Faro, it isn't a surge in violence or an increase in poverty levels what has caused the migratory flow to escalate. The ugly statistics that depict the deadly Salvadoran reality -- and that of the region -- have fluctuated around the same levels since 2008, when 51.7 out of 100,000 Salvadorans were murdered. It declined to 39.6 in 2013 due to a truce between the main players in the gang wars, and though these levels have slightly increased in 2014, not a lot has changed in the region dubbed by the United Nations as "the most violent in the world."

It is also untrue that rumors of more flexibility toward immigrants have undocumented families harboring hopes of an amnesty that could provide legal status: Families are well aware of the threat of deportation, which is communicated in campaigns in their countries of origin and remains the main talking point of U.S. politicians when meeting their Central American counterparts in summits.

What also remains unchanged is the desire of parents to reunite with their loved ones. It is this element that has sparked a burgeoning market: Smugglers are capitalizing on the relative economic stability that some undocumented workers have achieved in the United States and are competing for their business, some of them by lowering the fees that were simply unaffordable for many families in the past.

Deportations won't solve the roots of the problem; they only tackle the symptoms. The incentives to flee the homeland, like the violence that arises from the war on drugs that empowers cartels without affecting the consumption of narcotics, the politically motivated growth of the American welfare state that could be attractive to so many, the apparent inability of Central American societies to rehabilitate marginalized communities -- none of these elements incentivizing migration is affected by deportations. And because the crisis at the border is a human tragedy, it's nothing more, at the end of the day, than a tragedy of incentives. And it will remain tragic as long as incentives remain unchanged.