This week, I’m in Central America, on an eleven-day tour through Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. And, naturally, that has me thinking about the places from which immigrants come—and why. No matter how you feel about undocumented immigrants or how the U.S. government should respond to those who have migrated unlawfully, I would hope that all Christians—those who want to welcome immigrants into the U.S. and those who would like to send them all back, and everyone in between—could agree that it’s a tragic situation when someone feels like they have to emigrate in order to survive. Economists explain migration as a result of “push” and “pull” factors. Difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations abroad such as hunger, lack of access to education or healthcare, natural disasters, or the threat of physical violence push migrants out, while economic opportunity, freedoms, and the chance to be reunited to family pull them in to a particular place. If we want to be truly comprehensive in our proposals for immigration reform, we must consider the “push factors” that drive immigrants outs. Here in Central America, the primary push out is economic. Many of Nicaragua’s rural poor live on less than $1 per day, struggling to feed their families. When they reach a certain level of desperation, they often make the difficult decision to migrate: some to the capital city of Managua—where they typically find work opportunities are also scarce—and others abroad, particularly to Costa Rica, which has a much more vibrant economy, or to the United States. Those who can acquire a visa do so, but many others are ineligible for visas and go unlawfully either to the south or to the north. The Church, though, has an important opportunity to address this poverty. The organization that I visited here, a local partner of World Relief called Pueblos en Accion Comunitaria (PAC), uses their limited resources very carefully to improve the lives of the rural poor. PAC makes small loans to rural farmers, who are then able to purchase more seeds and other inputs to plant. PAC’s credit agents are also trained agronomists, so they’re also able to give good advice to their clients on what crops to plant and how to ensure the maximum yield while also maintaining the health of the natural environment. At harvest time, PAC also provides the service of purchasing certain crops, such as coffee, allowing the crops of various small farmers to be pooled together to get the best possible price at the market, serving as a non-profit middleman. PAC partners who grow coffee, for example, are able to sell their coffee, via PAC, to Starbucks. These efforts—when added to the economic development efforts of other organizations and when tied to good trade policies, sound governance and personal responsibility—are making a difference. When the economic realities of a particular family improve, they are much less likely to consider migrating. Mexico serves as an excellent example of this reality: over the past several years, the net flow of migration from Mexico to the United States has actually reached neutral and possibly gone negative, with more folks leaving the U.S. for Mexico than the reverse. While increased border security and the economic downturn in the U.S. likely are partially responsible for this shift, the greatest factor, says researcher Douglas Massey, is the growth of the Mexican economy. As we learn to love the immigrants arriving in our communities as our neighbors, we ought to allow them to remind us that we have more neighbors—many of them also Christian brothers and sisters—in the countries from which our immigrant friends came. The call to love our neighbor as ourselves has to stretch beyond borders to the vulnerable abroad—those facing poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation that, when they become desperate enough, might compel them to migrate.
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