Why Drug Legalization is an Immigration Issue

On the one-year anniversary of the global COVID lockdown, March 2021 saw the highest rate of undocumented border crossings in twenty years. The usual politics of the situation were naked: conservative pundits decried “kids in cages” hypocrisy while President Biden opened overflow detention centers with restricted media access and even continued border wall construction. But despite some pundits’ apparently greater concern for hypocrisy (which Biden did exhibit) than humanitarian crises, there are unifying principles around illegal immigration. 

Everyone is appalled by kids in cages. Everyone is appalled by the tragically high rates of rape and sexual assault migrant women endure on the journey to the border. And whether through a wall or relaxed migrant policies, no one wants to be receiving tens of thousands of trafficked children under destitute humanitarian conditions. Seen in the ample political time spent on dramatic shots of AOC crying at the border or Donald Trump’s “Build the Wall” chants, the immigration rhetoric too often betrays the relevant question: why do hundreds of thousands of people risk their lives to reach American soil? In short, it’s not all about jobs and has a lot to do with the international consequences of the domestic drug war.

It’s Not All About Economics

Recent media attention on events like the late 2018 migrant caravans from Central America have broadened the American image of illegal immigration. Indeed, it is a complex demographic picture, with about half of undocumented immigrants originating from Mexico and over two-thirds from either Mexico or Central America, all with individualized motivations.

Economic opportunity in the United States is no doubt a primary cause of illegal immigration, but for each surge in border apprehensions where there often are discrete causes, identifying single motivations proves difficult. The most recent influx of migrants can be credibly sourced to factors varying from President Biden’s promised relaxed border policies to his international image as the “migrant president” to even regional hurricanes

But beyond stochastic surges, violence at home seems to be a consistent driving force of drastic movement, particularly for migrants from Central America. As of 2016, almost 42% of immigrants received at the southern border were from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This represented an increase of 150% from their share in 2010 apprehensions. Simultaneously, the Northern Triangle nations rank among the most violent places in the world, with El Salvador and Honduras having the highest rates of homicide of any nation. 

Likewise, it is little surprise that violence is frequently cited as reasons for leaving. A Brookings Institute article on the issue paints a sobering view of life on the ground in the Northern Triangle. The piece cites a survey conducted in 2015 of immigrants living in Mexico from the Northern Triangle, reporting that nearly 40% of respondents cite violence as reasons for leaving. The report features other staggering statistics, including more than 40% of respondents reporting the killing of a family member in the past two years, 31% knowing someone who was kidnapped, and 17% knowing someone who disappeared. Further research found that, controlling for economic factors, a continuous increase of one homicide per year in a given area of the Northern Triangle causes an additional 0.9 apprehensions of unaccompanied children from that area. 

It is far from a picture of hope that Mexico, the direct northern neighbor to the Triangle, has seen record-breaking levels of violence as recently as 2020. Factors including economics do play a key role in driving immigration –– indeed, the instability of violence may even contribute to privation which motivates migrants –– but it is certain that violence itself is also a key driving factor in the changing demographics of illegal immigration, and Mexico and Central America are hardly safe places for domestic refugees. The tragic state of affairs may be that fear of murder, kidnapping, or disappearance at home is a prominent causal factor for individuals and families prepared to face the dangerous journey to the American border.

American Drug Prohibition and International Violence

But what exactly is the root cause of violence in Latin America? The answer to what drives a pattern of violence in any region is rarely clear, and likewise, solutions touted as silver bullets should be duly scrutinized. Nonetheless, the histories of gang violence, civil war, and massive drug cartels certainly contribute to the observed violence. 

It is difficult to understate the magnitude of the illegal drug trade in Central America’s regional instability. In the Northern Triangle, drug trafficking is quantitatively the prime driving force of regional violence. Research suggests that 40% of homicides in one of the Northern Triangle countries, Guatemala, can be directly linked to drug trafficking. Further, controlling for income, organized armed conflict, employment, education, and rural/urban divisions, drug trafficking “hot spots” in the Triangle suffer murder rates 111% higher than their non-hot spot counterparts. Just to the north in Mexico, drug turf wars have been ravaging the nation for decades, with especially brutal force last year. March 2020 marked the second-highest monthly homicide rate in Mexico on record, and by the middle of the year, Mexican officials connected 70% of homicides to cartels

Few other multi-billion dollar international trade industries leave such a heavy death toll. Indeed, the simple trafficking, or movement, of drugs is not what kills people –– rather, people die when businesses must assume the role of a forceful government in ensuring their property and contract rights. Drug prohibition places drug traffickers underground, with functional law enforcement and law-making in their own hands. 

The logic of the case is simple: with no means to ensure property rights, drug market goods are not protected under any legal system, and cartels have an effective free reign over enforcement. To mediate disputes over trading routes and contraband goods, they must assume the governmental role of legitimate force. Because their products are illegal, there is no unbribed legislator, police officer, or official that a trafficking organization can appeal to. Instead of litigating in court, cartels become the competing jury, judge, and executioner for their own disputes, wreaking havoc, displacing families, and driving refugee flight. Banana trading companies have no such problems. 

And neither do American beer firms. But less than one hundred years ago, that was not the case in the US. The 1920 passage of the 18th Amendment, which banned the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” began the era of speakeasies, Al Capone, and bootlegging. But beyond the romantic notions of the 20s, the prohibition of a massively popular product spurred strikingly similar domestic problems to those observed in Central America today.

Although the increase in homicides after Prohibition’s passage generally followed pre-existing trends, national homicide rates in the US peaked in the ban’s final year at 9.7 per 100,000. Following alcohol legalization, murder rates fell precipitously to nearly half of the 1933 highpoint by 1941. A whole host of factors could have contributed, including the end of the Depression and the WWII drafting of young men, but with alcohol prohibition’s repeal, organized crime centered on alcohol distribution became obsolete as black markets finally enjoyed government protection. Thus, would-be Al Capones had no reason to operate using clandestine murders and turf wars –– it simply became more profitable to work out disputes in court without the inconvenience of bloodshed. When organizations can be reasonably confident in their property rights and fair legal arbitration, the economics of murder simply don’t pay.

Drug prohibition is no different, and if there is any hope to eliminate narcotic trafficking-related violence, the black markets must be shut down. Historically, virtually all involved governments have recognized the role of drug trafficking in violence, from the Northern Triangle countries to Mexico to the United States. But unfortunately, shutting the black market down has manifested in a militarized war against cartels. In the US, despite attempts by the Trump administration to cut foreign aid, Congress has funded significant counter-narcotics initiatives in Latin America since the 1990’s while Mexico has waged a “war on drugs” since 2006. Mexican President Filipe Calderon (2006-2012) began his term by deploying military personnel with US support to capture or kill the majority of top Mexican drug kingpins. Over the course of his tenure, the Mexican government recorded a doubling of homicides. Calderon’s successor, President Enrique Pena Nieto (2012-2018), pursued similar policy with heavy US aid, particularly in the capture of the infamous “El Chapo.” Despite an initial decline in murder, by the end of Nieto’s term, homicide rates had risen to the highest level in modern Mexican history. Mexican tough-on-drug policy has come at a high cost. 

If the elimination of the black market is the goal, the most feasible solution is to repeal drug prohibition, rather than waste money and human lives by killing and arresting the trade away. Instead of pursuing a market destruction at the end of police and military rifles, policy decisions to legalize the market and therefore make violent competition unprofitable could yield encouraging results like those seen at the end of American alcohol prohibition. 

Encouragingly, some actors have moved in just this direction. With support from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in March of 2021, Mexican lawmakers passed a bill to legalize the recreational use, small cultivation, and authorized sale of marijuana nationwide. Even though cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and heroin remain illegal and are also smuggled to the US by drug traffickers, if enacted, the law would mark a new era in Latin America’s struggle against drug empires. 

Still, while most illegally trafficked drugs remain federally prohibited in the United States, laws similar to those recently passed in Mexico have little hope of breaking the international black market. Despite some states’ movements to legalize marijuana, the importation of cannabis and certainly harder drugs remain illegal––we are hardly on the cusp of establishing a secure international trade. A true raising of the underground market, which could make significant progress to eliminate Latin American drug violence would require international cooperation and a greater movement to “Regulate Weed like Alcohol” (to borrow the name of US Representative Earl Blumenauer’s proposed legislation). 

But, there are steps that American officials can take. Despite Joe Biden’s branding as the “most progressive” president in American history, full domestic legalization of all drugs amidst an opioid crisis is hardly a likely scenario. However, with an increasing number of states moving to legalize marijuana consumption, there may be political momentum to move towards federal legalization. Both Senate Democrats and House Republicans have recently pushed for legislation friendly towards marijuana prohibition repeal, and a new “Cannabis Freedom Alliance” with Koch (and Snoop Dogg) backing may just persuade libertarian-leaning conservatives like Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Even if only cannabis was legalized, which accounts for 70% of drugs illegally smuggled for the US, it would likely be a game-changer for cartel violence by opening the possibility of international trade. 

Narcotic legalization is hardly the silver bullet for illegal immigration. Like most policy conundrums, there are few simple answers, and even if drugs were legalized from Anchorage to Guatemala City, illegal immigration would continue.  But if only to abandon the failed and costly policy of drug prohibition while dampening the horrific situation of illegal immigration, the positive ramifications of regulating drugs like alcohol warrant careful consideration. Personally, I would be ecstatic to see the embrace of individual liberties with narcotic legalization, followed by a moral market backlash that would put most drug suppliers out of business. But regardless of one’s convictions, drugs will likely always be with us. The question is not whether we should treat narcotic policy as a public health, criminal, or even international issue, but rather, how we can best respond to the presence of all three in contemporary policy making. Indeed, nested in the horrific humanitarian crisis on the southern border of American soil are American policies’ contribution to even more horrific conditions on foreign soil. Through the plight of migrant children and families on American ground, it seems that US drug policy has come full circle back to DC –– it is time to consider its ramifications at and beyond the border.