Border Wall at Nogales

Border Wall at Nogales

Moving the Dialogue from Border Security to Food and Livelihood Security

We believe that including food security and development strategies as part of comprehensive immigration policy will reduce migration to the U.S. more effectively than border security alone does. An investment in sustainable, locally-driven food systems in Mexico and Latin America could not only improve community well-being but also mitigate migration north to the U.S. by addressing key root causes.


The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, save, nutritious food to maintain a healthy, active life.”


Evidence exists that many unauthorized immigrants come to the U.S. because at home they cannot feed their families. A study in 2008 by Catholic Relief Services in Central America found that lack of sufficient food was one of the main causes of migration and the majority of families are purchasing food with the money they receive in remittances (money sent home from family members working in the U.S.). 1


52.9% of households reported lack of sufficient food. (82% in Nicaragua)

40% of households had a family member living abroad: Of those, 65% reported receiving remittances;

Of those, 75% reported spending their remittances on food (93% in Honduras.)

Hunger is a major factor behind why people immigrate, but it is not a natural condition and it did not come out of nowhere. The policies of the U.S. government have played a role in creating the problem – but they have also played a role in the solution, and there is more we can do! Some of the key moments that contributed to hunger include:

Hunger is a major factor behind why people immigrate, but it is not a natural condition and it did not come out of nowhere. The policies of the U.S. government have played a role in creating the problem – but they have also played a role in the solution, and there is more we can do! Some of the key moments that contributed to hunger include:

  • The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led to the loss of livelihood for over 15 million small farmers in Mexico because they could not compete with highly subsidized corn imports from the U.S.

Many of these farmers felt they had no choice but to migrate as a “safety net” for their family. The country went from being self-sufficient to depending on imports for basic food supplies. 2
With the loss of the local market, there was no safety net when global food prices rose.

  • In 2007 the growth in “agrofuels” (corn ethanol) diverted 25% of the U.S. corn harvest from food to fuel. Corn prices rose in Mexico & Central America, where most corn was now imported from the U.S., leading to the “Tortilla Crisis” and alarming levels of hunger. 3
  • In 2007 hunger was rising globally but food aid fell 15% because grain prices rose and it became more profitable to sell grains on the global market, leaving less excess for food aid. When people are less able to afford food, there is an associated decrease in food aid. 4

Currently, the U.S. government’s policies for addressing immigration do not include food security and development. Overall, funding for development and aid is very low compared to border enforcement:


As long as there are people in Mexico and Central America who cannot feed their children if they stay at home, many of them will risk their lives in the desert to get to the U.S. and work – no matter how much we spend to stop them. Over 2,000 bodies have been found on the Arizona/Mexico border since 2001.7 A comprehensive investment in food security will not only save lives and help them to stay home – it will also allow border patrol and other security measures to focus on drug trafficking, cartels, and dangerous criminals, rather than use our taxpayer money going after non-dangerous immigrants. The good news is that it is possible, even practical, to address food and livelihood security as part of the strategy to reduce unauthorized migration. But how?


Programs that deliver food to the hungry are good, but they are not enough. Effective policies and programs prevent ongoing dependency on international aid, ensure access for those that need it most, and support economic opportunities for the poor.

A response should:       

  1. Address the immediacy of hunger;
  2. Include a long-term plan that can impact the root causes of food insecurity;
  3. And help build a self-sufficient local food system.

Recommended Approaches:

Sustainable Agriculture projects enable rural communities to feed themselves locally no matter what is happening in the economy. Practices like crop rotations and diversification, integrated pest management without pesticides, seed saving, and vermiculture make small-scale sustainable agriculture more affordable and productive. Small-scale farms can actually produce 4 to 10 times more food per acre than large-scale mono-crop farms. 8

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene systems managed and maintained by the local community are very important for food security because they prevent diarrhea and other diseases that cause children and adults to lose all nutritional value from food they do eat.

Supporting Local Markets and Distribution for small producers both creates economic opportunities in poor, rural communities and helps stabilize the food supply when there are changes in the global economy. Microcredit loans, grain silos to prevent post-harvest loss, and on-site crop processing are all good practices for strengthening local markets.

Many successful programs already use these approaches, but they are only a small piece. The U.S. could be recognized as a forward-thinking leader by making programs for local food self-sufficiency the center of our development policy, addressing immigration from the roots up.


  1. 1. A Catholic Relief Services unpublished baseline study for the Howard Buffett Foundation’s Global Water Initiative, including 3,253 households from 106 rural communities in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, in 2008.
  2. 2. Public Citizen. “Down on the Farm.” Washington, D.C.: Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch., 2001.
  3. 3. Holt-Ginenez E., Patel R. Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Pambazuka Press: 2009.World Food Program.
  4. 4. “Food Aid Flows, 2007.” Food Aid Monitor. Rome: Office of the Executive Director, WFP.
  5. 5. Immigration Policy Center. “Throwing Good Money After Bad.” Washington, DC: American Immigration Council, 2010.
  6. 6. USAID. “Latin America and the Caribbean: Overview.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development, 2009.
  7. 7. McCombs, B. “Special Report : A Decade of Death,” Arizona Daily Star, August 22 2010.
  8. 8. Rosset, P. “Policy Brief No. 4: The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture.” Oakland: Food First, 1999.