By Sara Orton
As the humanitarian crisis on the border plays out with thousands of young, unaccompanied minors crossing the border every day, mostly from Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the debate in America over what to do with these children has become highly politicized.
Politicians and ordinary Americans alike are quick to jump to conclusions about the crisis. Many Americans view these young immigrants with compassion and believe that our immigration system must be bolstered so that we can treat unaccompanied minors with justice under the law. But some call for immediate deportations and for an expedited deportation process that would leave many unaccompanied migrants with nobody to advocate on their behalf.
There has been significant rhetoric about the adverse effects these young immigrants might bring to our country. Immigrants from Central America are blamed for a rampant drug culture that is violent and dangerous. They are blamed for growing gang influences in American cities. They are blamed for our economic woes. And some Americans fall prey to the patriarchal view that immigrants bring communicable diseases across the border.
Since it became national news that thousands of young immigrants from Central America were attempting to cross the border and overburdening our border security system, we have been occupied with the question of how to solve the crisis at hand. The real question we should be asking is: Why are thousands of children leaving their home countries for the United States in the first place?
At face value, the answers seem obvious. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are some of the most violent countries in the world. In addition, the poverty rates are some of the highest in the world, and economic and political stability is shaky at best. Honduras recently overtook Guatemala as the murder capital of the world. In addition to high rates of homicide, children are fleeing violence and extortion at the hands of violent gangs and criminal organizations.
Additionally, American foreign policy over the past hundred years is partially to blame for many of the structural issues that are causing young Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadoreños to leave their home lands.
During the Cold War, the United States fought proxy wars in Central America under the guise of defeating communism. We spent millions on economic and military aid in El Salvador’s civil war, funding the anti-communist government against the pro-communist guerrilla fighters. More than 75,000 people were killed, many of them civilians.
A similar story played out in Nicaragua, where Reagan secretly funded the Nicaraguan right wing Contras to fight the revolutionary, socialist Sandinistas. History buffs will remember that Reagan funded the Contras by selling weapons illegally to the Iranians during the Iran-Contra Affair.
Meanwhile, Honduras was used as a staging ground for the funding of anti-communist fighters in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Honduran military received more than $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars throughout the ‘80s. During that time, the CIA was well aware of intense human rights abuses the Honduran government carried out against its own people.
In 1954, the U.S. covertly supported a repressive dictatorship in Guatemala. The CIA trained and equipped the Guatemalan military, and allowed for Castillo Armas to become dictator. During his CIA-supported tenure, Guatemalans were treated brutally; thousands were arrested, killed and tortured; political parties were outlawed and freedom of speech was stifled.
U.S. support of right-wing governments caused a massive influx of Central American refugees and immigrants into the U.S. during the Cold War. These refugees did not bring gang culture with them; they learned it in U.S. cities. Many were deported for criminal activity when the U.S. implemented “tough on crime” policies, thereby bringing home the gang culture imparted upon them by Americans. Often, these gang members were deported with little warning given to Central American governments, which contributed greatly to the lawlessness that has come to define much of the region.
The U.S. should question its tendency to look upon Central America with pity and distaste. We must remember that our involvement in the region was a catalyst for much of the instability in the region today. Our selective memory in Latin America and Central America has become quite convenient now, as thousands of young children are traveling across Central America and Mexico to arrive at our borders. We should not be so quick to send them back to the countries we helped to unravel just a few short decades ago.
Instead of blaming the Central American countries as Congress and many American people have done, we must realize that we are responsible for the political actions of those who came before us. That does not mean we should take on all of the migrants who attempt to cross the border illegally.
It does mean, however, that we should be careful not to frame the issue of Central American immigration in paternalistic and xenophobic terms, because the current crises in their countries are the symptoms of illnesses that our predecessors inflicted upon them.
Contact Sara Orton at [email protected]