THE BLOG
11/21/2014 08:32 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Obama's Executive Action Helps Some, But Ignores Root Causes of Latin and Central American Immigration

MARK RALSTON via Getty Images

"FIXING THE SYSTEM," the banner atop the whitehouse.gov page proudly announces. Finally, after months of stalemate in Congress, President Obama decided to take executive action on immigration. And his plans will help some people. Now, undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for five years or who have children that are U.S. citizens will be temporarily protected from deportation and have the opportunity to "come out of the shadows," while "highly-skilled and educated" immigrants will face an easier path to citizenship.

But what Obama's action certainly does not do is "fix the system." His first move of the night, to increase funding and personnel to secure the border -- "to prioritize criminals," he explained -- just pumps more money into the same broken system. And every bill introduced in Congress, from the most bold to the most tepid Republican-backed reforms included more money for border security.

Spending more on border security feeds the system that has made U.S. immigration policy an international failure and tragedy for millions of people. Border patrol funding has reached a high of $18 billion, which is more money than the FBI, CIA, U.S. Marshals or DEA combined. The number of border patrol agents has increased from 4,000 to 23,000 in the past 20 years, not to mention the creation of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), at another 20,000. So how does increasing this budget and personnel further do anything to fix the system?

The fact is, funneling money into border control does not address the problem at any sort of institutional level. It does not examine any of the root causes that explain why immigration from Latin and Central America has surged in the past 20 years or give us any tools to better manage it.

U.S. policy with Latin America in the past 20 years has reinforced the mechanisms that impel people to migrate north. International trade agreements like NAFTA have coincided with more Mexicans in poverty and a higher incidence of human rights abuses. Consequences of NAFTA have weakened Mexico's economy, leading to fewer job opportunities and more migration.

U.S. opponents can say that undocumented immigration "isn't our problem," our government has exacerbated economic conditions that lead to immigration on such a large scale from Latin and Central America.

Of course, Obama's speech barely even mentioned the humanitarian crisis facing detention of recent immigrants. His plan will only protect people who have been in the U.S. for more than five years. Five years ago was 2009, a year that the U.S. supported a coup in Honduras that subverted the democratic rule of law. Now, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, and so it is no surprise that so many families have fled such dangerous conditions to seek safety in the U.S. Their treatment once they arrive once again speaks to the "not our problem" mentality of immigration policy. Instead of asylum, these families often instead face months in jail-like detention centers where they await their fates.

Because they are recent arrivals, Obama's declaration that "mass deportation would be impossible and contrary to our character" rings hollow. Not to mention that U.S. companies profit off of the exploitation of detained immigrants, and their lobbies undoubtedly influence policy choices about funding and structure of immigrant detention, another point the mainstream media often fails to mention as part of the policy-making equation.

Executive action was crucial, and for the five million immigrants who are eligible, the ability to "come out of the shadows" cannot be overlooked. But perhaps the reason no one can pass a solid immigration reform bill is because the conditions that motivate the immigration are so poorly understood. The mainstream discourse surrounding immigration today is entirely misguided. Conditions will not change until we recognize and address the complicity of U.S. government policy in creating the impetus for immigration in the first place.