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Addressing Why Migrants Leave Their Home Countries

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SAN DIEGO -- The "Gang of Eight" senators should be presenting their long-awaited immigration reform bill any day now. And the bill will almost certainly not address what is, in my mind, a fundamental driver of illegal immigration into the country: The U.S. tends to be a better place to live than the place people are migrating from.

We can put up walls, increase enforcement and make our immigration system work better, but immigrants — at least some — will continue to come illegally. If they don’t come from Mexico, they’ll come from a poorer country.

But what if the U.S. chipped in to try and make things better in migrants’ home countries? What if we put pressure on migrant-sending governments to do the same?

We could invest some of the billions of dollars we spend enforcing our immigration laws on creating jobs in places like Honduras and Mexico. We could offer U.S. companies incentives to locate in migrant-sending countries, or offer micro-loans and training to help would-be migrants start up businesses.

We could include these initiatives in the immigration reform bill, tying them specifically to the goal of reducing the illegal flow of labor.

At the same time, we could put pressure on migrant-sending countries to discourage their citizens from migrating illegally to the United States. They could do this through public awareness campaigns, and through initiatives designed to offer in-country opportunities for education and growth.

I imagine driving down a highway in rural Guatemala and seeing a billboard that reads, “Thinking of going to the U.S.? Before you go, come to the upcoming job and education fair.”

We should also work to decrease the violence that’s increasingly cited by Central Americans as a reason for leaving their home countries.

This may all sound naïve, and maybe it is. But failing to address what pushes people out of their home countries seems equally naïve.

Years ago, I met a man in the mountains of Guatemala who had sent his son to the U.S. multiple times. Each time, the young man did something stupid, like drive drunk, get caught and get deported.

His father would scrape together another $5,000 and send him again.

I remember tallying up what he had spent to export his family labor and the total came to something like $25,000. How much could someone do with that kind of money in Guatemala? A lot!

He could have bought land, opened a business, or sent his kids to college. Instead, he invested in his son with the hope that the son would send back even more money over the years, while at the same time making a better life for himself.

For me, changing the way a potential migrant calculates the risk and benefit of such an investment could change the entire immigration conversation.