To solve the immigration crisis, use a carrot, not a stick


Aug 1, 2019

Jennifer Costello, inspector general for the US Department of Homeland Security, issued a final alert on July 2 calling for immediate action to address the “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults” at detention facilities along the US-Mexico border. The recent arrival of record-setting numbers of undocumented immigrants has spawned a growing humanitarian crisis that has vexed leaders, policy experts, and advocates; it’s a predicament that’s costly and difficult to solve, yet impossible to ignore.

Missing the more important question

In June, President Trump negotiated a new immigration agreement with Mexican President López Obrador. Mexico promised to send 6,000 troops from its newly-formed national guard to patrol the country’s southern border as part of a strategy aimed to “greatly reduce, or eliminate, illegal immigration coming from Mexico and into the United States,” according to a tweet from the US president on June 7. 

The agreement attempts to answer the question of how to stop migrants from making their way through Mexico and into the US. But US and Mexican leaders have failed to address a more important question: why are migrants making this journey in the first place?

To put that question into perspective, consider the proposition from the point-of-view of migrants about to set out from their homes. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars to transport individuals and families across the border, requiring most to take out substantial loans. This often means that even if they fail to reach their destination, they must try again, since they have no hope of repaying the loans without earning higher wages. The non-financial costs are often much higher. According to Amnesty International, as many as 20,000 migrants are kidnapped by gangs each year. Horrifyingly, an estimated six in ten women and girls are raped. Gangs demand “tolls” for safe passage, and reports of extortion and abuse by police and officials are common. People routinely die from exposure and thirst in the arid, unforgiving desert. 

Yet in spite of the unfathomable risks and cost, hundreds of thousands of people are still willing to make the journey. This begs the question: what’s driving people to make such a drastic and dangerous decision, and will placing a few more obstacles in their way make a difference so long as that driver remains? 

Migration is a workaround

What if we thought about the problem differently? 

To start with, we need to take a step back. Migrants from Central America face particularly desperate circumstances like gang violence and extreme poverty, but they aren’t the only ones trying to solve problems in order to make progress in their lives. We all do it in one way or another every day, selecting the best solution available to us given our unique, albeit usually less harrowing circumstances. For instance, when I needed to get from my apartment to work this morning, the solution I chose was driving my car. I had other options—I could have taken public transportation, but I would have been late to work. I also could have taken an Uber, but it would have cost more than I wanted to spend. Thus, I settled on the car. Put another way, getting to work was a “job” I needed to get done, and driving my car was the solution I “hired” to do it. We refer to this concept as the Theory of Jobs to Be Done.

In the same way, migrants fleeing Central America have their own Jobs to Be Done—whether it’s helping an aging mother receive the healthcare she needs, trying to escape gang violence, or trying to create a better future for a child. Many of these jobs fall into the category of “help me create a better life for myself and my family,” and the solution that’s hired is a long dangerous journey northward to get that job done. It doesn’t take much to see that this is a woefully suboptimal solution—such a journey could be no one’s first choice—but given the circumstances in which many migrants find themselves, it’s often the best one available. Migration is a workaround for people that don’t have better options.

Use a carrot, not a stick

The key to solving the migration crisis, then, isn’t trying to stop migrants in the middle of their journey; it is providing would-be migrants with a better alternative so they don’t have to start.

So, how can it be done? 

Currently, people flee Central America in hopes of escaping the poverty and crime that plague the region. However, history shows that innovation—specifically market-creating innovations can lay the foundation for prosperity to emerge in some of the most difficult environments

Market-creating innovations transform complicated, expensive products into simple, affordable ones, and pull people who couldn’t afford those previous products into brand-new markets. These new markets create profits and new jobs that bolster the economy, and provide much-needed tax revenue for governments strained for resources. Newly-created markets also naturally pull in needed infrastructure and institutions as the firms and governments who benefit from them make investments to support business operations and provide education and training for employees. What’s more, as more people gain dignified work that enables them to solve their problems and gain a better life where they are, they may begin seeing their society in a brighter, more hopeful light, building people’s trust in institutions and in each other. Poverty and violence won’t disappear overnight, but this process will allow innovative people to chip away at them until they begin to diminish. 

The governments of the United States and Mexico can facilitate market-creating innovations within the borders of their southern neighbors by enabling local innovators through incentives such as financing and training programs. Our research suggests that these investments will have much better returns than pouring more money into ineffective border solutions that can only ward off migrants temporarily. 

None of this is to say that governments should stop worrying about the migration crisis in the near-term; they shouldn’t. It presents humanitarian and security dilemmas that leaders can’t ignore. But they also need a long-term strategy that enables would-be migrants to create a better life where they are, without having to resort to the dangerous, costly alternative of migration. Unless governments address the core issue of why migrants make the grueling journey in the first place, the crisis will never end.

Lincoln Wilcox is a research associate at the Christensen Institute, where he researches ways in which individuals, businesses, governments, and development organizations can create prosperity in low-income countries and communities.