The “caravan” of some 200 Central American refugees at our southern border has given Donald Trump another opportunity to inflame the already incendiary debate over immigration from the south. Tweeting that “our country is being stolen,” he called out the National Guard to defend us from the huddled groups of tired and poor that the Statue of Liberty beckons to our shores.
But even without this president’s vile demagoguery, Americans are divided— among and within themselves—over immigration policy. The compassionate side argues that we are morally obligated to shelter refugees from violence and natural disaster. And as a nation built by immigrants, we should continue to welcome new ones. In this spirit, polls report that a majority favor some path to citizenship for those here illegally who have worked and paid taxes—especially for those who came here as children.
The other side stresses “law and order,” notwithstanding the fact that immigrants have lower crime rates than those born here. It argues that there is a limit to how many immigrants the country can absorb, and that tolerance of illegal immigration has undermined our ability to control the borders. One-third of Mexicans—more than 40 million people—say they would come to the United States if they could. A majority of American tell pollsters that the current level of immigration is enough or should be reduced. Half of the country does not think we have an obligation to offer asylum to refugees.
This debate is almost totally focused on what to do with people who arrive at our doorstep. Missing from both sides of the argument is any recognition of the role that we ourselves have played there—in Central America—in creating the conditions that have driven so many to risk the long, arduous, and often fatal trek to get here.
Eighty percent of the caravan refugees currently knocking at our door are from Honduras. The rest are from El Salvador and Guatemala.
For at least 150 years, the United States has intervened in these countries with arms, political pressure, and money in order to support alliances between our business and military elites and theirs—who prosper by impoverishing their people. By far, the most important figure in the politics of these nations is the U.S. ambassador. These three nations are, in effect, our colonies.
Yet, despite the chronic poverty, immigration from the region remained modest until the Reagan administration’s contra wars against Central American leftists in the 1980s. The flood of dollars and weapons, and the CIA’s clandestine alliance with narcotraffickers, destabilized the already fragile lives of ordinary people. In the war’s wake, these countries became the major route for the shipment of drugs from South America to the United States.
With drugs producing more profits than coffee or bananas, many of the oligarchs partnered with the drug cartels. Protected by government officials, the gangs spread throughout the region, bringing a culture of hellish violence to daily life.
Those who have fled describe sickening scenes of rape, murder, extortion, and gratuitous torture—of children as well as adults—abetted by police, the army, and paramilitary thugs given impunity by corrupt judges. Honduras today places second among the 219 nations in the UN’s ranking of murder rates. El Salvador is number one. Guatemala, number six. Over 95 percent of the murders in these nations are unsolved.
The U.S. government’s response has been a War on Drugs that provides these regimes with political protection and a steady stream of weapons. In 2009, the “compassionate” Obama administration endorsed a coup by the Honduran military against an elected president whose modest social programs of food and education for the poor had enraged the country’s ruling class. In the wake of the coup, dissenters were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.
Last year, the “law and order” Trump administration backed the re-election of the oligarch president in a vote that observers from the UN, the European Union, and the Organization of American States found to be fraudulent. When Hondurans took to the streets in protest, hundreds were brutally beaten and jailed. At least 12 were killed. The message from the United States to Honduran reformers: “Don’t try it!”
Five years after the coup, the number of Honduran children illegally crossing into the United States had jumped by over 1,200 percent.
Despite U.S. and international law that requires us to give shelter to refugees, Trump says he will do everything possible to keep them out. His Citizenship and Immigration Services has slowed the processing system to a crawl, while his Department of Homeland Security threatens anyone making an incorrect entry on their application with prison. Families applying for refugee status often discover that the first step of the process is to separate children—even babies—from their parents.
We have trapped these migrants between a foreign policy that drives them from their home and a domestic policy that won’t let them into ours.
Over the past five years, more than 75 percent of asylum applications from these countries have been rejected. Going forward, we can assume most of those allowed in to apply will eventually be turned out. In desperation, many will try to cross illegally—again and again.
Until we Americans acknowledge our own responsibility for sowing the seeds of this humanitarian crisis, and reverse our policies that perpetuate it, it will only continue to grow.