WASHINGTON — Do immigrants deserve the right “not to migrate?” For a migrant from Central America, that right would mean a chance for a job and a living wage at home. For one young migrant, having that right would have meant never boarding the train that cost him his two legs.

“This is a huge problem,” Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., told the Register, as he relayed the story of the now-disabled young man he met, who will spend the rest of his life unable to support his mother and her seven other children. The young man lost his legs trying to jump on board a train into the U.S. because he could find no work at home. Others face worse fates.

“This year, 129 migrants have died” crossing the desert, Bishop Kicanas, board chairman of Catholic Relief Services, said. “Since the year 2000, about 2,600 have died.”

Much of the U.S. debate rages over granting a path to citizenship for 11.1 million immigrants living in the U.S. without legal papers.

Bishop Kicanas and the rest of the U.S. Catholic bishops have tried to draw attention to the little-known factors that are pushing immigrants to leave their home countries in the first place — and to demand positive solutions as part of  comprehensive immigration reform.

Few U.S. citizens realize the damage U.S. trade agreements and agro-subsidies have inflicted on Mexico, Central and Latin America. They play a major role creating the unemployment there that drives illegal immigration here. Nor are many aware how the rampant unemployment in Central America is fueling gang and drug violence that forces people, especially unaccompanied minors, to risk life and limb on the dangerous journey to the United States to find work and seek a better life.


Pioneering Positive Solutions

Catholic Relief Services has called upon Congress to retool U.S. aid and policy to spur economic growth in Central and Latin America as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

“We believe that the current debate on immigration reform must include a recognition that migration does not occur in a vacuum or only as a domestic issue,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy for CRS, in an Aug. 21 statement. “We need to more effectively respond to the factors that are at the root of migration, including poverty, lack of public safety and persecution.”

A Pew Research Center study from 2012 lends support to the conclusion that reviving Central-American economies is key to any long-term immigration-reform strategy. Net migration to the U.S. from Mexico, where the economy has improved, now ranks zero or less, according to the Pew study.

The Register spoke with Catholic Relief Services about the solutions that they’ve pioneered in El Salvador.

Rick Jones, CRS deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice in Latin America and the Caribbean, told the Register that in Central America they’ve been working on a number of initiatives that they think can make a difference if they can be applied more broadly.

Jones said CRS’ programs in El Salvador have focused on teaching rural farmers how to establish household food security, diversify the agriculture they produce throughout the year and maximize the profits they can obtain from selling excess produce to major markets.

“It’s very difficult to compete,” said Jones, pointing out the U.S. already has a built-in advantage of plenty of flat land and mechanized farming.

But he pointed out that “it’s not a very free market either,” because federal subsidies mean U.S. farmers can undersell the small Central-American farmer with prices they cannot match, and their governments cannot protect them.

“Central America has no unified agriculture policy,” Jones said.

But Jones explained that what is key is maximizing the natural advantages of Central-America’s farmers and overcoming the recent challenges of climate change.


‘People, Planet, Profit’

Jones said the CRS program has three words to sum up its message: “people, planet, profit.” The message is that what is good for people and good for the environment is also good for business.

Key in the strategy, Jones said, is educating not only the farmers, but also the farming cooperatives on how to increase productivity and leverage for better prices. A major part of this initiative is that CRS has facilitated a dialogue between the farmers and multinational corporations with their needs — such as big coffee roasters like Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee. This allows both sides to figure out how to cooperate to each other’s advantage.

“They know if the families are in good shape so is their business,” he said.

U.S. agriculture involves monocropping: lots of land dedicated to one crop. However, CRS has been teaching farmers to diversify crop yields throughout the year, not only to increase their profits, but also to cope with climate change.

“In 2009, we got more rainfall in one day than we got from Hurricane Mitch in 1998,” he said. “We lost 50% of the crop.”

Jones explained that the climate has changed radically for Central America in the past two decades. Corn and beans are the two main staple crops, so saving the rural farmer means developing new systems of retaining water, but also diversifying crop yields throughout the year.

“We’re trying to get a mixture of things where they can get food security and crops at different times of the year,” Jones said.

He added that, since growing seasons for Central America and North America can be complementary, the competition between the U.S. farmer and Central-American farmer does not have to be cutthroat, but can be cooperative.


One Small Step

Jones said CRS’ efforts have paid off where they’ve been tried, generating more opportunities, correcting malnutrition and improving income and livelihoods. But, he said, for these efforts to have a large-scale impact and effect real change in Central America, it will require the involvement of business and government.

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration-policy expert at the Cato Institute, told the Register that immigration from Central America will not stop unless income and job opportunities increase. But he said the United States could facilitate this effort with two actions: allow real free trade (thereby eliminating subsidies that give U.S. farmers an unfair advantage) and allowing many more people to immigrate legally.

“Central-American countries do not have much investable capital, but they have a lot of labor,” Nowrasteh said. “Allowing more laborers to immigrate here will increase the flow of investable capital back to Central America that will help grow their economy and remove the need for immigration in the future.”

In the meantime, Jones said CRS is continuing to pioneer and partner with groups and businesses that can alleviate the chronic unemployment young people face and create for them opportunities that will allow them to remain in their home countries.

Other efforts include getting young people better education. One farmer was able to send his son and daughter to college, and the son studied agronomy so he could return and improve the farm.

Said Jones, “We’re not going to be stopping the flows over night, but, right now, people feel they have no choice but to immigrate.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.