08/01/2014 09:21 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

A Market Approach to Immigration

The U.S. Congress has proven itself irrelevant in the face of the humanitarian crisis we see with migrants, and particularly children, who make their way to the United States under the pressures of extreme poverty and the violence that poverty sometimes breeds. With no reform in sight for our broken immigration system, the president of the United States should focus on addressing the market forces that contribute to this tragedy.

A lack of local economic development throughout large areas of Central America and Mexico leave many, many people reasonably looking for opportunity elsewhere. I am confident that if it were you in the same situation, the thought of migrating north would cross your mind. Drug thugs who serve the enormous consumer market for illicit drugs in the U.S. exploit these environments, making some communities unlivable and pushing more people north.

It is time for the U.S. to prioritize economic development in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico in the foreign-policy agenda. Effective economic development, in partnership with local communities, will reduce poverty-driven migration and stimulate trade. We have spent so much time at war that I worry that the public has forgotten that we know how to build allies and trading partners through a combination of foreign aid and foreign investment. In addition to agencies like USAID and the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. has a well-developed domestic infrastructure of Latino-led, nonprofit community- and economic-development organizations that are already providing culturally and linguistically relevant asset-building services to immigrants living in the U.S. We should be doing more to explicitly support the connectivity between immigrants in the U.S. and economic-development strategies in their hometowns.

And then there's the drug trade. Some argue that legalization in the U.S. will radically undercut the economic power of narcotraficantes. When that happens 30 years from now, if at all, I look forward to finding out. In the meantime, I believe it is worth looking at the approach and impact of the anti-tobacco public-information campaigns of the past. I suggest that every last penny recovered from drug busts in the U.S. be poured into hard-hitting messaging campaigns to target drug users in the U.S. and, more particularly, young potential drug users. A public-service announcement isn't going to dissuade a hardcore addict, but it can influence a kid who's thinking about experimenting with illegal drugs. Let's fight drug dealers for their market share.

One final thought: The deportation process frequently results in deportees losing the assets they have accumulated through hard work in the U.S., from cash left under a mattress to business equipment to vehicles. If deportees were given an opportunity to recover their assets and put their financial affairs in order, perhaps the urgency of going north would be less. There is no getting away from the fact that assets, and a lack of assets, have a powerful influence on our choices.

None of these ideas will help the unaccompanied children who are detained and waiting for deportation, or those who are making their way north as you read this. Until there is leadership to fix the larger systems and market forces that pinball these children across borders, I submit that compassion and mercy should guide our nation's approach to unaccompanied children.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post inadvertently omitted the final two paragraphs. The post has been updated accordingly.