Rick Sanchez: Our Real Border Problem Is Not On The Border

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Flying into Honduras, the plane makes a peculiar banking maneuver as we approach Tegucigalpa. If you’re a white-knuckle flyer, you should know this is an airport to avoid. Mildly put, the approach is downright scary, if not even creepy.

In order to find the runway, pilots must make a hard left and straight down as they straddle the side of a mountain. It’s a move that left me staring at a poor woman washing her clothes by hand out of a bucket in her kitchen for what seemed like an eternity. There she was, in a shanty on the side of a mountain seemingly less than a stone’s throw from my window seat. Welcome to the bizarreness that is Toncontin International Airport.

There is hardly a single immigrant who has come to America, whether because of politics or economics, who would not have preferred to stay in their home country.    

— Rick Sanchez

As our eyes met, I thought how inappropriate it was for me to invade her privacy from my window seat.  Even now, thinking about it, I feel sympathy for this brown-eyed woman whose stare remains a constant visual script with me to this day.

(Note: Since my flight to Tegucigalpa, they have excavated part of the mountain to elongate the runway by 984 feet.)

Honduras, the place from where children are sent packing for America by the tens of thousands, reveals herself as both meager and dangerous. She is part of the triad of countries being decimated by poverty and violence caused by drug dealers. The others, Guatemala and El Salvador, may be unsafe in some parts, but certainly not worse than Honduras — certainly not more dangerous.

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According to a Pew study based on Department of Homeland Security information, the top three municipalities sending children to the U.S. are all in Honduras. Tegucigalpa, Juticalpa and San Pedro Sula are also considered among the poorest and most hazardous cities in the world. Last year, San Pedro Sula, Honduras gained the distinction of murder capital of the world. It’s a place where, for every 100,000 residents, there are 187 homicides. And gang and drug trafficking violence drive most, if not all.

Using that same calculation of murders per 100,000 residents, our most murderous city seems safe by comparison. There were 440 murders in Chicago last year, but it’s a city with a population of 2.7 million. That means if 187 out of every 100,000 Chicago residents were killed last year, there would have been 5,049 murders. Can you imagine living a U.S. city with more than five thousand murders?

In San Pedro Sula, children either become lookouts for gangsters and drug dealers, or they fall prey to them. Is it any wonder parents are sending them away? What would you do?

Regardless of your answer, this much is certain: the people who make our policies are more focused on the border than they are on the genesis of the border problem. While the left argues for finding a way to allow the children stay, which could invite 50,000 more, the right argues for a way to send them back, which does seem on its face both cruel and unjust. Why not focus on the origin of the problem?

Allow me first to postulate a mind-bender for the many Americans who are naturally removed by generations from being able to understand what drove their ancestors' journey to America. It’s this simple! Ready? Given a chance, they would not have come. That’s right.

There is hardly a single immigrant who has come to America, whether because of politics or economics, who would not have preferred to stay in their home country.

Not the English, not the Haitians, nor the Cubans, nor the Irish, nor any of them. They are not here because they want to be here. Their reasons, at least as they see it, are unavoidable and beyond their control.

So what makes the plight of today’s immigrants from Central America different? Only this: in some measure, we are responsible for the conditions in their homeland.

For starters, we consume the drugs they sell. Americans provide the fuel that keeps the cartels' engines stoked. Take away the American drug consumer and there would likely be no drug cartels.

Two, we instigated many of the wars that in many ways destabilized the economies of Central America. Nowhere is this more evident than in Guatemala, where a coup d’etat carried out by the CIA in 1954 deposed a democratically-elected president and replaced him with one of the most brutal and repressive military dictatorships in the history of Central America. It stirred the longest and bloodiest civil war in Latin American history, which was fraught with accusations of genocide carried out by the government and its military against the indigenous Mayan people. More than 200,000 were killed or disappeared.

Three, CAFTA, while generally positive for certain large cities and border towns, has been a disaster for the agrarian regions of Central America. That’s right, the Central American Free Trade Agreement has arguably put millions of small farmers out of business by flooding their markets with subsidized U.S. produce. Dead broke and desperate for work, they eventually try and make their way into the United States for a job, any job.

I’ve come to know them here in the U.S., as well as there in Central America. The poor woman I saw from the window of my 737. I went looking for her out of curiosity once on the ground in Tegucigalpa. I wanted to know who she was and how she lived. I wanted to interview her, but never found her. Instead, I came to know her neighbors who showed me what true poverty really looks like. They uncovered their week’s rations by removing a cloth placed on them to keep the flies away. It was a tin of corn and another of beans. It’s how they live. And yes, we have every right to say it’s their problem, not ours.

Let me be clear, America doesn’t own Central America’s problem, nor is it responsible for Central American’s woes. But at the very least, we are responsible for understanding how we got where we are today. And at the very least, we should have considered whether we’d been better served allocating some of the $3 trillion spent in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan closer to home — in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Let’s just say that for the sake of the children we may or may not send back, or maybe the tens of thousands still on the way who really don’t want to be here — maybe it’s not too late.