The Lottery of Birth and Opportunity

By Conor Sanchez

We’re all born with varied advantages and disadvantages, which all too often predict where we end up in life. This is true within the United States, but it’s especially blatant at a global level.

Here in Nicaragua, I’m reminded of it daily, especially when someone talks about picking up and migrating to the United States to try and change their odds.

Nicaragua is proud to discount itself among the countries in Central America that have extremely high crime rates. That’s why, initially, I couldn’t figure out why someone would risk their life to go to a place where you couldn’t speak the language, spend years away from loved ones, and most likely work in manual labor. This isn’t Honduras or El Salvador, where people have legitimate life-threatening reasons for leaving.

Indeed, the motivation is all too familiar. People seek more opportunity. In my town, Nicaraguans routinely take off for either Costa Rica, the United States, and even Spain. In conversation, I try pointing out chances they have here, but they just counter how a friend or a relative told them about the money they could earn in any one of the aforementioned countries. By in large, people end up traveling to Costa Rica because it’s easiest to reach. But that doesn’t stop them from contemplating going to the United States, where they know the pay is even better.

There’s a paradox in all this. Although many Nicaraguans regard the U.S. as a historically aggressive superpower that intervened throughout much of the twentieth century, there’s simultaneously an obsession with all things American. America is the land of abundance and wealth. Spend a few weeks in Nicaragua and you realize that the overwhelming impression of America is this: everyone is fabulously rich and if you aren’t, you’ve got a fair(er) shot of getting there than most.

Increasingly, I’m starting to agree.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could take Nicaraguans through some neighborhoods in southeast D.C. and east Los Angeles or rural parts of New Mexico and West Virginia just to show them that we, too, have poverty. Social mobility clearly has its limitations even for talented, hardworking individuals.

But when I throw Nicaragua into the equation, some of these limitations pale in comparison. A year and a half into service, I now feel torn between feeling sympathetic to the desire to go to the U.S., where opportunities are obviously much greater, and wanting Nicaraguans to take ownership of their nation’s destiny by creating opportunity for themselves.

I can’t help but think of the movie Captain Phillips when Tom Hanks’ character tells Muse, the hijacker, there has to be something else besides fishing and kidnapping to get ahead in life. Muse flatly responds, “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”

The choices faced here are certainly not that extreme. Nevertheless, I find myself cheering people on who are applying to go to the United States on exchange programs that offer career development opportunities. Right now my counterpart teacher, Bayron, is anxiously waiting to hear back whether or not he was accepted to a U.S. Embassy program that would take him to the U.S. for five weeks to receive courses at a university about American democracy, from politics to government to culture. It’s called the Study of the U.S. Institute on Civic Engagement (SUSI).

“I want to visit the United States because I want to learn more about its culture. Language is more than grammar and vocabulary,” he said. “Then I want to come back and share that knowledge with my students.”

This is obviously a unique reason for wanting to visit the U.S., but the motivation to pick up and go is the same: the search for opportunity. At the same time, it invests in a leader who wants to expand opportunity in his own country so that the search isn’t as elusive for future generations. Bayron is an English teacher who wants to improve his skills so that he can, in turn, come back to open doors. It would also boost his resume.

I wonder what expanding opportunities like these would do for this country. I wonder what devoting more resources to programs that address the underlying reasons Central Americans head north, including gang violence, chronic poverty, high unemployment and weak government institutions, might do.

These are things we should be debating but instead, we keep hearing about a wall.

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