US Policies Drive Migration From Central America

    Immigration Control and Enforcement detention center.   

The mass migration of children from Central America has been at the center of a political firestorm in the United States. Both migration and deportation increased again in late 2015, causing the mainstream media to run even more stories blaming families, especially mothers, for sending or bringing their children north. President Barack Obama himself lectured them, as though they were simply bad parents. “Do not send your children to the borders,” he said recently.

The Tea Party and conservative Republicans are using this issue to attack Obama’s executive action in 2009 deferring the deportation of young people, along with his proposal to expand it to include family members of legal residents and citizens. More broadly, the right wants to shut down any immigration reform that includes legalization and is gunning for harsher enforcement measures. Marine Corps general John Kelly, former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, calls migration a “crime-terror convergence.”

This push for greater enforcement and a conflation of migrants with terrorists ignores the real reasons families leave home. Media coverage focuses on gang violence in Central America, as though it were unrelated to a history of U.S.-promoted wars and a policy of mass deportations. In fact, U.S. foreign and immigration policy is responsible for much of the pressure causing this flow of people from Central America.

There is no “lax enforcement” on the U.S. – Mexico border. The United States spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other enforcement activities of the federal government combined. There are more than 20,000 members of the Border Patrol, the largest number in history. We have walls and a system of detention centers that didn’t exist just 15 years ago. More than 350,000 people spend some time in an immigrant detention center every year. Yet the Tea Party and the Border Patrol demand increases in the budget for enforcement, and the Obama administration bends before this pressure.

The migration of children and families didn’t start recently. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the United States promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces most opposed to progressive social change. Two million Salvadorans alone came to the United States during the late 1970s and ‘80s, as did Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that someday they would be reunited.

The recent increase in the numbers of migrants is not just a response to gang violence, although this seems to be the only reason given in U.S. media coverage. Growing migration is a consequence of the increasing economic crisis for rural people in Central America and Mexico. People are leaving because they can’t survive where they are.

The North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and structural adjustment policies required privatization of businesses, the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects, and cuts in social budgets. Huge U.S. corporations dumped corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America at low prices, forcing rural families off their lands when they could not compete.

When governments or people have resisted NAFTA and CAFTA, the United States has threatened reprisals. In 2004, Otto Reich, a virulently anticommunist Cuban refugee who was an envoy to Latin America reporting to the National Security Council, threatened to cut off the flow of remittances (money sent back home from family members working in the United States) if people voted for the FMLN, the left-wing party, in the Salvadoran elections. The FMLN lost, and the following year a right-wing government signed CAFTA. In 2009, a tiny wealthy elite in Honduras overthrew President Manuel Zelaya because he raised the minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates, and instituted free education. The Obama administration gave de facto approval to the coup regime that followed.

   A poor barrio in San Pedro Sula,                       Honduras.   

Gang violence in Central America has its origins in the United States. Over the past two decades, young people from Central America arrived in Los Angeles and major U.S. cities, where many were recruited into gangs. The Maratrucha Salvadoreña gang, which today’s newspaper stories hold responsible for the violence driving people from El Salvador, was organized in Los Angeles, not in Central America. U.S. law enforcement and immigration authorities targeted Central American youth with a huge program of deportations. The United States has been deporting 400,000 people per year, more than any other period since the Cold War.

U.S. policy has led to the growth of gang violence in Central America. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, U.S. law enforcement assistance pressured local law enforcement to adopt a “mano dura” or hardline approach to gang members, leading to the incarceration of many young people deported from the United States almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment. El Salvador’s current left-wing FMLN government is committed to a policy of jobs and economic development to provide an alternative to migration. But in Guatemala and Honduras, the United States is supporting very right-wing governments that employ a heavy enforcement approach.

New Jersey Democratic senator Bob Menendez calls for increasing funding for the U.S. military’s Southern Command and the State Department’s Central American Security Initiative. Giving millions of dollars to some of the most violent and right-wing militaries in the Western hemisphere is a step back toward the military intervention policy that set off the wave of forced migration.

  The home of a dockworker in Puerto      Cortez, the port of San Pedro Sula.  

The separation of families is a cause of much of the current migration of young people. Unaccompanied minors who come north are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis. Young people fleeing the violence are reacting to the consequences of policies for which the U.S. government is largely responsible.

Migration hasn’t stopped, because the forces causing it are more powerful than ever. The deportation of more people back to their countries of origin will only increase joblessness and economic desperation. This desperation is the largest factor causing people to leave. Violence, which feeds on that desperation, will increase as well.

President Obama has proposed increasing the enforcement budget by $3.7 billion. He has called for suspending the 2008 law that requires minors to be transferred out of detention to centers where they can locate family members to care for them. Instead, he wants to deport them more rapidly. Two new prisons have been built in Texas to hold Central American families, despite an order by U.S. District Court judge Dolly Gee to release the children.

In December 2015, the administration announced that it would begin deportations and picked up 121 Central American migrants who had arrived since May 2014 and had lost appeals before immigration judges. These measures cause more pain, violate basic rights and moral principles, and fail completely to stop migration.

Instead, the U.S. government must help families reunite, treat immigrants with respect, and change the policies in Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere that have led to massive, forced migration. The two most effective measures would be ending the administration’s mass detention and deportation program and ending the free trade economic and interventionist military policies that are causing such desperation in the countries from which these children and families are fleeing.

David Bacon is an immigrant rights activist and former labor organizer. His latest book is The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2014). 

All photos in the post are by David Bacon 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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