The US Must Take Responsibility for Asylum Seekers and the History That Drives Them

Most people are capable of holding two or more conflicting ideas on any given issue. Immigration is no exception.

A large segment of the US public was horrified in May and June when they saw the Trump administration snatching toddlers away from Central American mothers who arrived at the US border seeking asylum. Many would still be appalled if they knew that the White House is seeking to continue the practice in a different form. Most undoubtedly feel genuine sympathy for young people trying to escape violent gangs or abusive partners. Still, a lot of these same sympathetic Americans don’t actually want the asylum seekers to come here.

Some may be influenced by administration efforts to induce panic about immigrants “invading” the US — for instance, President Trump’s decision to send troops to counter the latest migrant caravan, even though US Army planners have concluded that “only a small percentage of the migrants will likely reach the border.”

But others look around at failing schools, collapsing infrastructure, neighbors dying of drug overdoses or going without affordable medical care, and they ask themselves whether the United States can really spare any of its limited resources to help people from somewhere south of the border. When they hear Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham saying, “It’s not our problem,” and President Trump at the United Nations telling migrants to stay home and “[m]ake their countries great again,” they tend to nod in agreement.

These are real concerns. One of the most important questions before immigrant rights activists today is whether we’re going to take these concerns seriously and make a sincere effort to address them.

Burning Your Neighbor’s House

Anyone who has followed the history of US involvement in Latin America and the Caribbean knows that the current crises in the region are absolutely “our problem.”

The US government and US companies have dominated much of this hemisphere politically, economically and militarily for more than a century. There’s no shortage of studies and articles describing how US-backed policies and regimes have driven migration here over the decades, especially from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn summed the case up forcefully on Democracy Now! in 2016. Many of the undocumented Guatemalans now living in the United States fled a genocidal campaign that a US-backed military regime carried out against their country’s Indigenous population in the 1980s, explained Nairn, who reported from the country at the time. “And then Americans complain,” he continued. “Well, you know, if you go and burn down your neighbor’s house, don’t complain when, as they run from the flames, they come on to your lawn.”

But a decently large segment of the US population knows nothing about their government’s role in spurring immigration. On the contrary, people misguidedly think of US foreign policy as humanitarian, characterized by much too generous giveaways to ungrateful foreigners. After all, they rarely hear anything to the contrary, since US foreign policy is basically bipartisan. Establishment Republicans and Democrats hold the same views on most of the issues, and the corporate media follow their lead.

The US relationship with Honduras provides a textbook example. In June 2009, the Honduran military overthrew the country’s relatively progressive president, Manuel Zelaya Rosales. President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave de facto support to the coup’s organizers, who solidified their position five months later with a highly suspect presidential election. In 2017, another questionable election further consolidated the coup regime by handing right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández a second term. Trump endorsed the election results.

Crime increased significantly after the coup, with the homicide rate jumping from an already high 60.8 per 100,000 in 2008, to 81.8 in 2010 and 91.4 in 2011. But most US political and media actors ignored the correlation between the right-wing takeover in Honduras and the rising violence that sent asylum seekers fleeing to the United States.

The Responsibility to Engage

So what can immigrant rights activists do to break through the silence about the link between immigration and US policies?

We could encourage the corporate media to provide more nuanced coverage. Many reporters on the immigration beat understand migration’s root causes, but in the absence of pressure from the other side, they end up giving into more conservative editors, or else just reflecting the environment in which they work. Still, it’s unrealistic to expect the media to do all our work for us.

Fortunately, many groups are already working to provide context for migration to the US. For instance, Witness for Peace, founded in 1983 by faith-based peace activists in response to US funding of the right-wing contra rebels in Nicaragua, recently concluded a Northwestern speaking tour with journalist Jennifer Ávila addressing threats to the free press in Honduras. When reporters are kept from investigating, Ávila noted, the government is free to continue the corruption and repression that drives people in her country to undertake dangerous journeys to the US border.

Meanwhile, María Luisa Rosal, an organizer for School of the Americas (SOA) Watch, was touring campuses in the Midwest and California to promote her organization’s upcoming annual November gathering at the US-Mexico border, which will bring US and Latin American activists together for rallies, panels and workshops on such topics as organizing for “the right to stay.” This is a term Mexican activists coined for people’s right not to have policies imposed on them that force them to leave their homes. SOA Watch was started in 1990 to draw attention to the role of the US Army School of the Americas military training program (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001) in producing Latin American human rights abusers. SOA Watch activists say their focus is currently on raising public awareness of “militarized US foreign policy as a principal root cause of migration.”

Efforts like these need broader support. Grassroots education is hard work, but it pays off. Right now, we have an important opportunity to end, once and for all, the delusion that the US government is acting as the world’s benevolent big brother.

We don’t lack examples of US-supported regimes giving people reasons to flee; each week seems to bring new ones. On October 21, the Guardian reported that the trial for the March 2016 murder of Honduran environmental and Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres was now “in chaos.” Cáceres — one of the best known and most popular grassroots leaders in Honduras, and a 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient — was killed while leading a struggle by the Indigenous Lenca against an internationally financed hydroelectric project. The accused include a manager from the Honduran company owning the dam and three active or former military officers; two of the officers received training from US military programs. Irregularities in the trial suggest that the defendants may get off with acquittal or a light prison sentence.

The US political class isn’t paying much attention to these developments; it’s too busy obsessing over the migrant caravan, which in fact, originated in Honduras. But the Cáceres case points to the sort of treatment Hondurans and other Central Americans can expect when they try to “make their countries great again.”