The recent focus on the rising number of Central American asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border could have one positive result: it creates an opening that activists can use to promote a progressive foreign and domestic agenda.
The two parties are split over how to slow the current rise in migration. Republicans favor the sort of harsh measures that the Trump administration inflicted on migrants; centrist Democrats also support deterrence, but they propose moderating it slightly and spending a few billion dollars to address Central American migration’s root causes. Vice President Kamala Harris’s statements during her June 7-8 trip to Guatemala and Mexico were typical. “Do not come,” she warned potential migrants from Guatemala, while proposing U.S. aid for an anti-corruption task force and more training for the Guatemalan police.
These approaches have never worked.
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Deterrence has regularly failed to stop recurring spikes in Central American migration. President Obama’s “kids in cages,” the Trump administration’s family separations, and the current use of Title 42 of the health code to exclude border crossers have all been equally unsuccessful. As for the Biden administration’s plan to help Central Americans with $1 billion in aid each year, this is basically an expansion of Obama-era policies that did nothing to change migration patterns, and may actually have made conditions worse in the countries.
Progressives don’t share the politicians’ obsession with reducing the number of Central American asylum seekers, but a progressive agenda would in fact do exactly that.
Creating “Bad Governance”
Mainstream analysts generally understand that most Central American asylum seekers don’t want to come to the United States, that they would be happy to stay home if they could. They’re being driven out of their own countries by forces beyond their control: corrupt and repressive governments, pervasive violence and major disruptions of regional climate.
What the analysts usually overlook is the role of U.S. policies in creating these conditions.
Honduras is a good example. U.S. prosecutors say its current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, has accepted more than a million dollars in bribes from drug cartels, including the notorious “El Chapo.” Hernández’s own brother is now serving a life sentence in the United States for narcotrafficking and associated crimes. Honduras has become, in effect, a “narco state.”
But the U.S. government has never brought charges against the Honduran president. On the contrary: Successive U.S. administrations enabled his rise to power and have helped him stay in office. The Obama White House gave de facto support to the 2009 coup that brought Hernández’s faction of Honduras’s National Party to power, while the Trump administration backed his unconstitutional and probably fraudulent reelection in 2017.
There’s nothing new in this. The United States has played kingmaker in Central America for more than a century, with methods ranging from the “gunboat diplomacy” of the early years to the coups, massacres and death squads of the 1980s, and the somewhat more subtle methods of control used now. “Bad governance” in Central America is largely the result of interventionist policies in the United States.
Fueling the Violence
Victims of violence become reluctant to involve the police; they may be linked to the perpetrators, and sometimes are the perpetrators themselves. This adds to the high level of violence in much of Central America — a level which is also largely the result of U.S. policies.
The U.S. government’s “war on drugs,” now 50 years old, has done little to stop narcotrafficking from Latin America. Instead, it has spread much of the trade, along with its associated violence, from the Andean countries to Mexico and Central America. Homicide rates rose in El Salvador and Honduras as the drug war extended into those countries. In 2012, Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate; El Salvador’s rate was even higher three years later.
But violence like this would be impossible without weapons. Lax U.S. gun laws make it relatively easy for straw buyers to purchase powerful firearms here and send them across the southwestern border. An estimated 200,000 U.S.-manufactured guns flow into Mexico each year in what author Ioan Grillo calls an “iron river.” Many end up in Central America; nearly half the firearms recovered by Honduran and Salvadoran police from 2014 to 2016 originated in the United States.
As if this wasn’t enough, Central Americans now also face the effects of climate change, projected to “displace up to 3.9 million people across Mexico and Central America by 2050,” according to a report published this April by a coalition of university-based human rights groups.
“As one of the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States has disproportionately contributed to the world’s climate crisis,” the authors note.
This crisis is already driving migration from the region. It’s likely to have caused or exacerbated the two hurricanes that devastated the region last fall, and it’s a major factor in droughts and crop failures that have led to famine-like conditions in Guatemala. As of March, Guatemalans accounted for the largest number of unaccompanied children encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Starting the Conversation
A progressive program would address all these push factors by rejecting U.S. interventionism, by ending the drug war, by properly regulating U.S. firearm sales, and by implementing the Green New Deal. People in both Central America and the United States would benefit — Central Americans by being free to stay home and people here by no longer having to pay for foreign interventions and no longer losing their loved ones to the domestic drug war, to the proliferation of weapons, and to the weather disasters created by climate change.
Many people are already working on these issues. Antiwar groups have protested U.S. interventions for decades; some, like CODEPINK, include a focus on Latin America. A broad range of organizations call for ending the drug war, while Congress continues to consider legislation that would slow gun smuggling by requiring universal background checks and restricting the sale of “ghost guns.” Fighting climate change is a major priority for progressive politicians as well as grassroots activists.
But the public is generally unaware of the connection between these issues and migration patterns.
This isn’t to say that progressives should view their program as primarily an answer to the supposed “border crisis.” After all, there’s no reason to fear migration: The United States has a smaller share of the foreign-born than many other wealthy nations, and undocumented immigrants — the subject of so much attention from the right wing — account for just 3 percent of the country’s inhabitants. But the occasional spikes in border crossings give progressives an opportunity to go on the offensive, to describe the ways that their program would improve the lives of working people both at home and abroad.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) provided an example when she was asked about immigration in March. “It’s not a border crisis,” Ocasio-Cortez told viewers in an Instagram Live session. “It’s an imperialism crisis. It’s a climate crisis. It’s a trade crisis.” The “solutions need to be rooted in foreign policy, because our interventionist history in foreign policy and history over decades of destabilizing regions drive people to migrate …. But people don’t want to have this conversation.”
Ocasio-Cortez raised the point again on June 7 in response to Vice President Harris’s remarks in Guatemala: “We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing,” she wrote. Acknowledging the U.S.’s role in the past would “help us change US foreign policy, trade policy, climate policy, & carceral border policy to address causes of mass displacement & migration.”