Nicaragua is roughly 4 million steps from the US border — more if you’re a child. Our policy discussions too often focus on the last of those steps. It’s time to consider the first ones.
No discussion of US immigration policy is complete without considering why so many families risk so much by fleeing their home countries. No serious consideration of those reasons can fail to acknowledge the importance of education and community development in resolving the current crisis.
I first traveled to Nicaragua in 2014, on a research fellowship to support sustainable coffee-farming practices. The diligence and ingenuity of the campesinos wasn’t a surprise, nor were the perseverance and resourcefulness of the country’s many migrant workers. But I hadn’t anticipated that such a labor-intensive enterprise would hinder educational opportunities for children.
Migrant workers in Nicaragua earn just a few dollars a day, and family farmers don’t earn much more. Many families are forced to pull their children from school and bring them to work, even in the best of times. Too often, removing children from school represents a family’s disconnection from its community. A drop in global coffee prices, a bad growing season, or an interruption of public services can send families from the countryside to the cities, where work is steadier and a little more lucrative.
Others trek to neighboring Costa Rica, which is scrambling to absorb a recent influx of Nicaraguan refugees. For families hoping to give their children a stable future, the pressure to flee to the United States can be especially great. When children leave a community, its future dims a bit, and families that remain have even less reason to see the next crisis through.
It’s important to recognize that the United States has played a critical role in spurring massive migration to its southern border. US manipulation of Central American politics and society is significantly responsible for MS-13’s brutal presence in El Salvador, the domestic turmoil resulting from the Honduran drug trade, and Nicaragua’s latest round of political violence. Each of these situations cultivates desperation and drives immigration. While the United States pokes tragically at the economies and politics of its Central American neighbors, it has responded to the migration crises by cutting back on targeted developmental aid that once offset, if only partially, the damage it inflicted.
The answer to the migration crisis lies in Central American communities themselves, and their ability to adapt to the threats they face. It lies in developing agricultural practices that hedge against the whims of international markets, and in politics that promote self-determination. Above all, the solution to the immigration crisis lies in providing education for all children so they can adapt, innovate, and create locally driven solutions to the challenges of an uncertain future.
That answer is unlikely to come from Washington. Instead, it’s coming from cities like Boston. It isn’t the wealthiest city in the United States. There’s more money floating around Seattle, San Jose, and San Francisco. But it has earned the title as the top US city for social innovation and entrepreneurship, and as a state, Massachusetts ranks number one in primary and secondary education.
It is in Boston, the city of social innovation, where we will begin to develop solutions that address the root cause of immigration.
My organization, Project Alianza, strengthens Central American communities by investing in education for children who are marginalized from public services and school. They are at high risk of migration or joining gangs and the drug trade. As a nimble social enterprise, with no national or industry agenda to flog, we work efficiently with private farmers and local leaders, as well as US-based foundations and corporations to invest in educational and economic opportunities.
It’s a modest effort so far, but our effect has been extraordinary. Our students have a newfound stake in their communities’ futures and are gaining the wherewithal to make those futures brighter. Parents who might otherwise have considered fleeing to the United States now see a compelling reason to stay in their own communities.
Those results arose from a clearheaded view of the immigration crisis and the entrepreneurial spirit that reaches from Boston’s Seaport District to our partners in Nicaragua and El Salvador.