On one side of the current migrant crisis we have rabid haters eager to see blood spilled on the border as desperate people try to storm our boundary fences in illegal entry. On the other side we have kind-hearted sympathizers wanting to bring them in, feed them, and let them apply for asylum.
Some news reports say it could take two to four years of processing to verify whether any of these folks deserve asylum. What happens in the meantime, no one knows. Trump wants this to be a warning shot to all of Central Americans — don’t come to the U.S.
What Trump could have done is to send a team to work with these folks when the caravan first crossed into Mexico, giving the U.S .government time to process their claims before they ever neared our southern border. He could have made provisions but instead preferred to incite fear in order to portray himself as some kind of hero.
He could have expanded what other U.S. presidents have done, which is to work within those countries to help those governments get control over violent gangs, build better infrastructure, and enhance job opportunities. Instead, he has threatened to cut programs offering that kind of support, virtually guaranteeing that more people will flee their homelands in search of safety and economic opportunity.
Now we have a situation where all these people can’t possibly be processed fast enough to keep them from starving or spreading disease in ramshackle encampments. As they become more desperate, some will attempt entry. Trump’s solution is to shoot them, which might please his cult of hate, but will remain a blood stain on our nation for the rest of time.
And it won’t solve the problem.
I’m reminded of something my dear friend Virginia said to me back in the early ‘70s. We’d been talking about U.S. foreign policy in Africa and the problem of hunger. Somehow the conversation came around to how many people were starving as Ethiopia and the west African Sahel suffered drought.
“They’re going to come after us someday,” she said.
“What?” I said, thinking there was no way starving people of sub-Saharan Africa were going to swarm our shores.
I couldn’t imagine it. But I’ve remembered her words.
Her premise acknowledged the colonial and imperial mindset of the U.S., the centuries-old tradition of Western European nations who as early as 1500 began raiding less advanced places and looting their wealth. It didn’t matter if the wealth was gold and other precious metals and gems, slaves that could be exploited or sold, or mostly unspoiled land where the Europeans/Americans could commandeer the natives into producing crops of sugar, coffee, tea, bananas, cotton, tobacco, and much more.
In the process of capitalizing on virgin landscapes for timber and crops, Europeans destroyed local traditions, religions, and social structures. What we’re experiencing now is the fallout. In our rush to grow rich on the wealth of undiscovered lands and defenseless natives, we assumed that the people would either remain subordinate to us and/or that they would assume the traditions, religions, and social structures of the West. Because we were, after all, the ‘most advanced’ societies of the world. Who wouldn’t want to be like us?
Well, it’s now obvious they do want to be like us, but they don’t have 2,000 years of Western Civilization to back up their desires. There is no tradition of capitalism in El Salvador or Ethiopia or anywhere else in these so-called Third World countries. No tradition of schools and literacy, central authority, or democratic institutions predates the invasion of European conquerors. Generally speaking, the conquerors did not see any reason to instill those traditions among those considered useful only to the extent they could work the plantations we built for our benefit, not theirs.
Oh, we might have appeased our consciences with the idea that instilling our values and traditions among these ‘savages’ constituted a beneficent act. We might have believed, as some still do, that without us, they’d still be living in dirt floored huts without any of the advances we enjoy. We ignore the fact that for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, these natives had gone about the business of life in well-ordered societies with their own spiritual beliefs, hierarchies of governance, and social traditions that served them very well. It was our arrogance to believe that we could impose our culture onto them and expect it to work out.
Here’s just one example of where it’s ended up.
When Donald Trump said [in January 2018] he would end temporary protected status for almost 200,000 Salvadorans, the number of immigrants standing to lose protections under this president approached the 1 million mark. This includes people, like those from El Salvador, that now stand to be deported to countries where their lives could be in danger. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates—due in no small part to the policies of the country now trying to expel them.
In the early ‘80s, El Salvador was receiving more such aid than any country except for Egypt and Israel, and the embassy staff was nearly as large as that in New Delhi. For Reagan, El Salvador was the place to draw the line in the sand against communism.
Many Americans would prefer to forget that chapter in American history; those under the age of 40 may not even be aware of it. Salvadorans haven’t forgotten, however. In El Mozote and the surrounding villages of subsistence peasants, forensic experts are still digging up bodies—of women, children, and old men who were murdered by the Salvadoran army during an operation in December 1981. It was one of the worst massacres in Latin American history. But while Trump might smear the country’s image with crude language, today El Salvador has a functioning legal system—more than three decades after the event, 18 former military commanders, including a former minister of defense, are finally on trial for the El Mozote massacre.
The U.S.-fueled war drove tens of thousands of Salvadorans to flee the violence for safety in the United States. In the mid-90s, Clinton allowed their “temporary protected status” to expire. This decision contributed to the gang violence that marks El Salvador today—not long ago, when a day passed without a murder, it was banner news. Thousands of the refugees sent back were young men, who had either deserted from the army or the guerrillas during the war. And when they got back to El Salvador, with little beyond their fighting skills, they formed the nucleus of the gangs. (Citation)
These gangs were shaped by the decade-long civil war that began in 1980. Leftist groups battling the government materialized as gangs when hundreds of thousands of young Salvadorians fled to Los Angeles, California. They formed gangs to protect themselves from other marginalized minority groups in the city. Many members were deported from the U.S. years later and brought the gangs with them back to their home country. (Citation)
An informed and thoughtful president thinking in terms of our nation’s future would have acknowledged our history of exploitation in Latin American. A president determined to “make America great” would have brought in the best and brightest advisors to develop and implement foreign policy that would address the problems forcing people to flee their homelands. Instead, Trump has done nothing to work toward solutions. He evidently can’t be bothered to become informed on the root cause of these migrant caravans.
At the margins of the mainstream discursive stalemate over immigration lies over a century of historical U.S. intervention that politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle seem determined to silence. Since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 declared the U.S.’s right to exercise an “international police power” in Latin America, the U.S. has cut deep wounds throughout the region, leaving scars that will last for generations to come. This history of intervention is inextricable from the contemporary Central American crisis of internal and international displacement and migration.
The liberal rhetoric of inclusion and common humanity is insufficient: we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen. In the past fifteen years alone, CAFTA-DR — a free trade agreement between the U.S. and five Central American countries as well as the Dominican Republic — has restructured the region’s economy and guaranteed economic dependence on the United States through massive trade imbalances and the influx of American agricultural and industrial goods that weaken domestic industries. Yet there are few connections being drawn between the weakening of Central American rural agricultural economies at the hands of CAFTA and the rise in migration from the region in the years since. In general, the U.S. takes no responsibility for the conditions that drive Central American migrants to the border. (Citation)
So yes, Virginia, you were right. They’re coming after us.