Fresh ideas needed in US immigration debate

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Photo credits: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

By Nicholas Cohn-Martin

BOLOGNA, Italy — It’s somewhat coincidental that only four days after Paul Romer was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, the migrant caravan which dominated midterm debate over immigration in the U.S. began marching from Honduras. Romer, who was awarded the prize for exploring how new ideas contribute to economic growth is less well-known for his controversial ideas on charter cities and their application in Honduras.

The purpose of a charter city, which can be summarized as an economic region with external governance, is to provide stable institutions to encourage investment and economic growth. Romer popularized the concept in a 2009 TED Talk, which prompted Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to ask for Romer’s help in setting up one of the world’s first charter cities in Honduras.

Though Romer’s involvement in Honduras was quickly curtailed, the project continues to this day despite not producing any significant results, as reported by The Economist. But as problematic as some may find the idea of charter cities, his concept is emblematic of what’s missing in the political debate over immigration in the U.S. — new ideas.

The migrant caravan quickly became a focal point of the recent midterm elections. In a series of bombastic moves, President Trump threatened to suspend aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, sent 5,200 active duty troops to the Mexican border, claimed he would issue an executive order to end birthright citizenship, indicated that his administration is planning to build “tent cities” for migrants, and hammered his hardline focus on border security in every campaign appearance. Clearly, in Trump’s calculus, the migrant caravan, despite its distance from the U.S. border, was a defining issue on which he wanted to stake the midterm elections.

But nowhere in this rhetoric will you find a hint of actual analysis on the issue of migration. For a president so committed to stopping migration, policies such as ending aid to Central American countries may very well be the definition of shooting yourself in the foot.

None of this is surprising. Even outside the confines of the Trump administration, it’s difficult to find any politician providing innovative solutions to the migration debate. On all sides, it’s too easy to just fall back on the standard tropes.

Indeed, there is hardly any recognition given to the underlying factors that drive people to come to America and the real benefits and costs they bring with them. In a similar vein, there’s very little attention given to the different ways we can work with other countries in order to address these issues.

Both sides continue to beat the drum on immigration but rarely does one hear politicians provide a whisper of creativity or innovation to key questions. For example, how has  migration been exacerbated by climate change? What’s the effect of an “America First” trade policy, strong dollar and expanding economy on immigration? What are some new steps we could take outside the U.S. to help address migrant needs? These questions are rarely discussed in mainstream politics.

Regardless of how you feel about the notion of charter cities, it is hard to deny that new ideas like charter cities are important for ongoing issues like the migrant caravan. Obviously, Honduras’ experience with charter cities isn’t going well, but perhaps a charter city or special economic zone could exist within the U.S. or Mexico, serving to receive migrants and investments from companies who’d want to employ them.

Granted, this idea isn’t fully developed, but the point is that it’s a different way of thinking about the current debate over immigration. A debate which, regardless of your personal political feelings, could benefit from some fresh ideas.

Nicholas Cohn-Martin is a Master of Arts in Global Risk student at SAIS Bologna.