How the U.S. can solve its immigration crisis: Legalize drugs

The drug war is the real culprit here

Illegal immigrants
(Image credit: (John Moore/Getty Images))

A refugee crisis has blown up along the American border in the last couple months. Something like 50,000 refugee children have arrived in the United States in 2014, an increase of more than 90 percent from last year.

As Greg Sargent points out, this is a genuinely tricky issue as a matter of immigration law and policy. But if we step back, there is one big step we might take to address the root of the problems in Latin America that are behind the flood of refugees. Namely, we can end the drug war.

Where are refugees coming from? Not Mexico as much as one might have thought; rather Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are the main sources of the increase. The refugees are fleeing apocalyptic gang violence. Honduras in particular is now the murder capital of the world. (Just to be clear, Mexico is no success story, either. It isn't showing the same skyrocketing increase in refugees as Honduras, but that means it is still past 12,000 so far this year.) Additionally, some people reportedly have gotten the idea that the U.S. government is now treating immigrant children more leniently.

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What is driving the violence is a complex question. The best writing I've ever seen on the problem is this Washington Monthly piece by Elizabeth Dickinson. She details how Colombia successfully beat back a leftist insurgency with aggressive use of military force, and then in the mid-2000s exported — with the U.S.'s help — that same strategy throughout Latin America as a way to deal with organized gang violence. But that strategy hasn't worked elsewhere. On the contrary, it sparked more chaos and violence, as upstart drug gangs shoot it out over who will take control over turf and control vacated by toppled kingpins.

What Latin America should do about crime is for them to decide. It seems clear to me that their militarized approach has been a disaster, but, frankly, America should stay out of it; we've already done enough damage.

However, it is unquestionably the case that a major source of conflict is the struggle over the United States drug market. The U.S. drug market is on the order of $100 billion in size, making probably the most important source of revenue for most gangs. Though some have diversified into things like iron ore, as Dickinson's piece and other studies make clear, control of U.S. drug trafficking routes is a key strategic asset for criminal gangs, one for which they will fight like mad.

Therefore, by taking a more sensible approach to our own drug problem, we can cut out a major source of money and power for the gangs, and reduce the incentive to fight over trafficking routes. In other words, this isn't a matter of trying to micromanage other nations' political systems. Instead, it's about moderating our existing actions to reduce their negative effects — actions that are causing serious problems here at home.

Ending the drug war could involve many different policies, but the most important part when it comes to clamping down on gang violence is removing drug supply from the control of criminal gangs. Decades of utterly failed coercive policy shows that it is simply impossible to stop drug trafficking by force. Anything that moved from the drug war model to a more treatment-based, harm reduction model would be a positive step. For a more aggressive policy, we might institute a strict government monopoly on all currently illegal drugs, and say that any addict certified by a doctor can get a supply at cost from the government, with the deliberate intention that enough will leak out to supply current demand. Drugs are easy to make; it would be trivially easy to beat the cartels on price.

Another alternative would be to fully legalize all drugs. Personally, I favor mostly full legalization for less harmful drugs like MDMA, psychedelics, and marijuana, with stricter controls on harder stuff like heroin (and alcohol, which could stand much higher taxation). But the idea is to undercut the most important profit center for the drug gangs. It wouldn't solve all crime problems at once, but it's a good idea on the merits, and it would vastly strengthen the relative position of the forces of law and order in Latin America.

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