The much debated and vexed crisis over waves of illegal immigrants crossing our southern borders has its origins in the chaos and misery that plagues so much of Central America. The social, political and demographic ills that abound in the northern tier countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are contributing factors.

The endemic instability and grinding poverty that are so prevalent in these countries — and Mexico — have their roots in calamitous political histories, replete with autocracy, corruption, and violence. Most recently, the rise of gang violence coupled with human and drug trafficking have compounded the plight of the indigent in these countries.

The problems that these conditions pose for the control of our borders is clear. What is less clear is what can be done about the root causes. The following points may help clarify policy choices:

• Since at least the early years of the 20th century, if not since the publication of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States has played a heavy hand in the politics of Central America. In fact, we have intervened repeatedly in the governance of the previously named three countries, and elsewhere, often with negative consequences. In addition, while the U.S. government has disbursed enormous sums of aid to assist in their development ($2.8 billion in 2015-2018), the aid is simply not producing the intended progress sought. In sum, we cannot escape significant responsibility for the conditions which plague these countries.

• To the extent that drug trafficking contributes to gang violence and trafficking, it was, and is, the seemingly insatiable North American appetite and demand for drugs that fuels these flows to our southern borders.

• The annualized cost of “undocumented” immigration are staggering. Most estimates of the “net” burden to taxpayers are in the range of $49-$279 Billion. Clearly, if a fraction of these “costs” could be diverted to alleviating the misery that drives the march of the “descamisados” (without shirts), the burden could be lightened significantly. The challenges are: (a) how to dispense the aid, and (b) to whom should it go. If the past is prologue, large, regional assistance programs, such as the Alliance for Progress (1961-1965), will not be very successful.

Politicians on the political left argue that opening our borders to those fleeing poverty and violence from the south is the only humane and moral way to alleviate their suffering. To that end, they seem willing to encourage (or at least not discourage) the dangerous march of children across the Mexican desert to create a new mass of DACA candidates. When challenged regarding the economic, educational and social impacts, the answer is all too often predicated on a redistribution of the burden to able taxpayers, and to the extension of public “safety nets” such as health care and public housing assistance. These policies and their provisions as managed by the previous administration had a major impact in the outcome of the recent elections. They have polarized the electorate, and they are very questionable solutions for the future.

Returning to our opening premise, let us instead encourage a new wave of what I would label “popular humanism” to help alleviate some of these ills. Why not enlist and assist well intentioned and motivated individuals to contribute directly and personally to alleviate the conditions in the northern tier of Central America that spawn this immigration? Might we solicit and support (with tax free contributions) nongovernmental organizations (NGO) to assist in providing new forms of meaningful relief and development in these countries? In addition, could those most concerned help create and support a non-governmental “corps” of young, motivated volunteers (as was done during the Spanish revolution of the last century) to contribute “boots” — and helping hands — on the ground. Might we also forge a new bipartisan agreement to funnel government aid in support of NGOs engaged in discrete projects that promote economic and other forms of development? In short, couldn't more charity substitute for assistance distributed through government bureaucracies?

Finally, one area that is entirely dependent on governmental action and intervention is stemming the flow of narcotics to our country. While acknowledging that much is already being done at the federal level, given the burden of illegal immigration, couldn't we agree to do more across all levels of government? Perhaps we could even revisit the Posse Comitatus strictures that limit the role and contribution of the military in this fight. If well planned, and expertly led, It might be that one major “joint” military-law enforcement campaign of limited duration could permanently disrupt some of the major channels used by the traficantes today.

The tasks are manifold and the record of past efforts are discouraging. The starting point is to acknowledge that neither border walls nor open borders will lift our burdens and bridge our disagreements.

Philip A. Dur, PhD, is a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral (retired) and a Destin resident. He can be reached at