Anshul Barnwall | Dartmouth College

President Donald Trump has come under significant criticism for his policy of separating families in an effort to curtail migration. In response, his administration has said that the policy is a “deterrent,” implying that if prospective immigrants fear the policy of separation so much that they would not change their minds about coming to America. This attitude betrays a crucial lack of understanding concerning the circumstances of the people trying to enter America, and is not only inhumane, but will almost certainly not have an effect on illegal immigration.

The way that illegal immigrants enter the US is often through Latin America-based organizations centered around drugs and trafficking-- drug cartels. These organizations have the knowhow and experience in sending people across the border, to the point where a leaked report to the Texas Department of Public Safety classified them as orchestrating a massive influx of undocumented children into America. The cartels make money by charging immigrants for passage, or by abducting prospective immigrants and trafficking them, but also by forcing them to labor-- as one reporter with 15 years of experience covering the drug war put it, “they kidnap immigrant families, force the husband or a brother to mule drugs across the border by threatening to kill the family, and then often kill them anyway”. Interacting with these organizations makes crossing the border an incredibly risky journey even before encountering any Americans officials. If the threat of drug cartels enslaving children or murdering families is not enough of a deterrent to parents, then why would separation by U.S. officials be any different?

Many of the immigrants to America take that risk with the cartels because they are fleeing violence themselves. The same cartels that profit off of trafficking also control the drug trade throughout North and South America, and frequently ravage villages with violence, corruption, and drugs. The drug trade is a competitive business, and rival cartels frequently fight each other, with civilians caught in the crosshairs. They routinely murder, torture and decapitate, and then put videos of the acts online.

And then they go and ravage America, too. Cartels are active in over 1,000 United States municipalities. They have been expanding their business in recent years, and though overt violence is not as high as that in Latin American countries, drug poisoning deaths have outnumbered deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide in the last decade.

Thus, it seems that the way to stop both drugs and the violence that forces immigrants towards the American border is to destroy cartels and manage the drug trade. Unfortunately, many current American policies run counter to those interests. Drugs are manufactured and made in places like Mexico and Colombia, where cartels control significant swaths of land and use it to plant the crops used to create drugs. The drug trade, depraved as it is, pays very well, and so many farmers are happy to plant the crops to sell to cartels.The old policy of the government of Colombia, which produces the vast majority of cocaine exported to America, was to manually spray the lands with chemicals so that they would be unsuitable for growth. This policy historically failed: it caused disastrous health side effects for the population, killed all crops, not just drug crops, and caused a backlash against the government that only helped cartels. More recent policy halted fumigation and stepped up diplomatic efforts instead of violent ones, and culminated in peace accords between the main rebel group in Colombia, FARC, and the Colombian government-- stopping violence and allowing for the gradual, peaceful destruction of coca crop. Unfortunately, the Trump administration reversed that successful policy, restarted raids against rebel groups (thus killing diplomacy), put the entire peace in jeopardy, and, as a result of driving cartels away from the negotiating table and back to drug farms, saw the largest coca crop in 20 years. In other words, Trump’s violent policies have resulted in retaliatory attacks from cartels, thus hampering peace and setting back negotiations that previous administrations have been working on for decades.

American policy at home only exacerbates the problem further. Punitive drug policies and the illegalization of drugs forces the drug trade into the shadows, where cartels operate best. If drugs were more accepted, prison sentences more lenient, or marijuana were legalized fully, perhaps the government could regulate the industry with scrutiny and allow local pharmacies to out-compete cartels. Indeed, in states where marijuana has been legalized, cartels have little sway or influence, as they simply cannot afford to keep up with the vastly more efficient local producers.

Drugs are the lifeblood of cartels. Without drugs, they have no money, and without money, they cannot function as traffickers, dealers, or anything else. If cartels went bankrupt, drug abuse would decrease, migrants fleeing violence in Central and South America would have little need or ability to without the help of smugglers, and both the United States and its Southern neighbors would see more peace.