Gas canisters fly through the air and land in the sandy soil, releasing their stifling contents. Armed men in uniforms bark orders at the fleeing women and children who left their homes to leave behind the all-consuming violence, only to find it blocking their path to safety. In their country, the government has lost control of large swaths of the country to organized, militant groups seeking to exercise their own control, to make their own rules. After the young men were rounded up and forced to join, escape was the only option for those left behind.
It is a sad state of affairs that the above scene could easily be mistaken for war-torn Syria or Iraq, but is instead the reality at the United States’ border with Mexico. The language used to describe immigrants to this country has become far more hateful in the past decade, even as U.S. policies towards the Americas have exacerbated the problems and made people more likely to leave their homes.
It has been a long time since America was content with holding children in cages, a truly shameful chapter in our history that the Japanese-American community had to fight for the rest of us to recognize. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine President Ronald Reagan ordering these horrific practices. Reagan. A man with unabashedly hawkish policies toward Latin America. Yet for all his stiff-upper-lip, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, even he recognized the need to help those coming to the Shining City on a Hill.
His party today falls far short of that. In a 1986 speech on the recently passed Immigration Reform and Control Act, the most recent landmark immigration bill to be signed into law, Pres. Reagan outlined the Republican objective of immigration reform as establishing “a reasonable, fair, orderly, and secure system of immigration into this country and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people.”
While some of the buzzwords remain, the spirit and tone of the right towards immigration is lost, outside of the Never Trump movement and the receding “compassionate conservative” coalition. In a debate during the presidential campaign of 1980, Reagan outlined his immigration policy. The tone and content of the speech seem a world away from the current debate.
He recognized the problem of economic migration in Mexico, which now plagues its Central American neighbors too, but blanketly rejected the idea of a wall. His solution to the problem was to “work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they’re working here, and earning here, they pay taxes here, and when they want to go back they can go back, and opening the border both ways.”
In the same debate, the man that would follow him to the Oval Office, George H.W. Bush, outlined what can best be described as the foundation of the “compassionate conservatism” stance on immigrants: “The [immigration] problem has to be solved. Because we have made illegal some kinds of labor that I would like to see legal, we’re doing two things. We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family loving people, that are in violation of the law, and second we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico… If they’re living here, I don’t want to see six- and eight-year-old kids totally uneducated and made to feel like they’re living outside the law. Let’s address the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people.”
George W. Bush spoke with similar rhetoric, and still does. In a speech in 2013 he characterized immigrants as “decent people who work hard, and support their families, and practice their faith, and lead responsible lives.” However, Bush’s drive for an immigration bill in 2006 was a major splitting point on immigration. This split wasn’t created from nothing, there was already significant tension on the issue, but it did bring it to a head. Its failure to become law allowed the issue to fester, and it has become gangrenous since.
All of these men addressed the immigration issue as a fundamentally human problem, one where families were coming to the United States to create a better life. This remains the case today. While the immigration flow of Mexicans has decreased significantly, the amount of people fleeing Central America has grown drastically. Estimates put the growth at nearly twenty-eight times the level of immigration in 1970. Last year, 87% of these immigrants came from just three countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
They aren’t nefarious criminals, they are victims of persecution and violence fleeing problems in their home countries, problems the United States had a hand in causing. As a result, these immigrants tend to be refugees rather than economic migrants. This is the reason there are more children and women arriving at the border than in the past. They are not young men searching for work. These are families fleeing for their safety.
The present instability in El Salvador can be directly linked to the anti-communist repression in the 1960’s and 70’s and the brutal civil war that rocked the country from 1979-1992. The U.S. not only backed the authoritarian government of Duarte with military training and arms deals, it also trained the infamous death squads responsible for the murders and torture of hundreds of civilians in the 60’s and 70’s. In the civil war itself the United States also inserted U.S. military officers into key military positions in the El Salvadoran military, effectively dictating the strategy of the civil war.
El Salvador has never fully recovered from the war, and the ensuing weakness created an opening for one of the most infamous gangs in the world, MS-13. The country suffers from one of the highest murder rates in the world, and its capital, San Salvador, has earned the moniker “murder capital of the world”. There’s little wonder why men and women of this small Central American state would risk the harrowing journey north and seek better lives in the United States.
The plight of immigrants leaving Guatemala and Honduras is of a similar degree, but for differing reasons. The civil wars that racked Central America in the second half of the twentieth centuries created the potential for instability, but did not directly cause it. The effect on Honduras was more severe than Guatemala, as the U.S. established a military presence in the country in the 1980’s to support their efforts in Central America. This support wasn’t of benign nature. In Honduras the C.I.A. provided support to local groups assassinating and torturing political opponents of the U.S.-backed government.
This interference caused major political turmoil in Honduras, but it was a national disaster that truly created the immigration crisis seen today. In 1998, category 5 Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, killing over 7,000 and causing an estimated $3.8 billion in damage. 70-80% of transportation infrastructure was destroyed, as was nearly 70% of the year’s crop output. To put that in perspective, Honduras’ GDP today is $45 billion. If we were to scale that destruction to the American economy today, its costs would total $1.9 trillion dollars.
Honduras could not catch a break either, as the growing presence of drug cartels due to the change in smuggling routes created even more economic instability. In 2009, a coup d’etat opened the doors to further drug violence and instability. A coup which the Obama administration unofficially endorsed with its recognition of the fraudulent election of Porfirio Lobo.
The country’s murder rate skyrocketed to the highest in the world in 2011 at 86.5 people per 100,000. It has since decreased to around 60 per 100,000 by 2016, a number that is still of significant concern. As with El Salvador, it’s easy to see why the risky trip to the United States seems worth it.
Guatemala’s political turmoil is difficult to explain in short-form, as it began in 1956 with a coup d’etat that led to a civil war that lasted from 1960-1996. The war quickly became a proxy war between communist forces and the United States, and only ended after a UN brokered peace process.
The government has seen more stability in recent decades. However, a corruption scandal rocked the country in 2015 and 2016, forcing the resignation of President Perez Molina. The corruption was of such a level that the United Nations described the administration as akin to an organized crime syndicate.
Instead of helping these countries recover from their wounds, as Reagan or either of the Bushes would advocate, President Trump has demonized and advocated for an attempt at blanket separation from the problems with a wall. Estimates range widely on the cost of a wall, with the minimum being $21 billion not including maintenance, and up to $70 billion. There is also the issue of taking the land needed for the wall, much of it private. This would either cost a significant amount of money, or face significant court challenges for violation of third amendment rights.
The money, even $21 billion of it, would see a far better return in assisting refugees and funding economic development in Central America.
There is, unfortunately, a stumbling block to a debate on such a program. The rabid dehumanization of immigrants, particularly those of color, has returned with a fervor not seen in this country for decades. There has always been racism in American society, of that there is no doubt, but the recent decade has seen an incredibly concerning rise of it. So much so that our national debate has been significantly affected by it, as fringe movements on the right wing have fully entered the nation’s political discourse.
If any movement is going to be made on the immigration crisis currently affecting this country, where the Trump administration is unaware of how many children they put in cages, there needs to be a great stirring of moral courage from Republicans not retiring from Congress. Democrats have been firm in their desire to see immigrants and refugees treated humanely and properly, but the same commitment to human rights has been wanting from Republican members in Congress.
If the United States is to remain the leader of the free world and a guarantor for individual and human rights, as Republicans love to champion, they must act. This is not a situation that can be avoided or waffled on, children have already died in American captivity. The time for action is now.