This essay was originally published on March 26 2019.
On October 18, 2018 President Donald J. Trump continued his detrimental practice of using Twitter to fuel the already hot immigration debate. He said, in part, “I am watching the Democrat Party led (because they want Open Borders and existing weak laws) assault on our country by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, whose leaders are doing little to stop this large flow of people. INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to U.S..”. President Trump’s tweet is wrong. While it is true that citizens of those nations are coming to the United States, it is important to understand both their reasons for doing so and how those reasons have been shaped by the long trend of American meddling in the internal affairs of the nations from which they come. If we, as a nation, understood the greater context of the situation, its history and how American policies have shaped that history, we could have more productive discussions about how this immigration “crisis” might be addressed.
The United States has been regulating and restricting immigration for generations, continuously shifting who was or was not a desirable immigrant and implementing measures, such as literacy tests, to further limit who could enter. Such regulations paved the way for the immigration laws and restrictions that are under debate today; especially when it comes to refugees. Despite the president’s incessant crisis rhetoric, America is in fact facing below average refugee levels. Today, the refugees seeking legal asylum through entry points along the Mexico-U.S. border are, in the main, not criminals but those in search of political and religious freedom. These are people who desire better lives for themselves and their families, and safety from the violence they are subjected to in their own nation’s. Much of what has caused these conditions can best be understood by looking at the history of U.S.-Central American relations.
For individuals seeking asylum in the United States, an official border crossing entry point is not a requirement as stated in Title 8 of the U.S. Code, which is a compilation of all public laws and federal statutes of the United States. Title 8 clearly states that those seeking asylum can arrive in the US “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.” In other words, refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. need not enter through a specific checkpoint, rather they must demonstrate that they meet the requirement that “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion” is the cause of their persecution. It is this statute that President Trump challenged in his November 2018 interim rule, which would prevent refugees from being considered for asylum if they entered the U.S. via anything but an official entry point along the southern border. Whether or not this will take effect remains to be seen due to current litigation.
Most people traveling from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border are fleeing from threats to their life, threats that are directed at them particularly because of their race, religion, or nationality. Historically, asylum seekers come to the United States because of destabilization within their home country and in the Central American region. Yet past U.S. policies have contributed to this destabilization by aiding corrupt governments and concentrating military power within authoritarian regimes. This has often indirectly benefited drug lords and criminal enterprises which operate with complete disregard for human life. In turn, many citizens see flight as their only method of survival. Nor is this intervention, or the refugee problems it causes, something new.
The long road of covert and overt U.S. interventions in Latin America began with affirming the principles of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which warned European governments to cease colonizing Latin America and suggested that the United States had aspirations towards intervention in the region. Yet it was not until the Spanish-American War of 1898 that the U.S. fully asserted its dominance in the western hemisphere. To prevent European powers from weakening it both economically and militarily, the United States enhanced the Monroe Doctrine with the Theodore Roosevelt Corollary. Together these doctrines reiterated American dominance and influence in the region, effectively making all of Latin America a client state by 1904.
During the 20th century, the United States repeatedly caused democracy to falter and violence to flourish in Central America. According to CARSI (the Central America Regional Security Initiative), in some areas of the “Northern Triangle” which consists of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as many as 95% of crimes go unpunished. This lack of accountability leaves the local populations with little trust in either their local and national security forces or the judicial system. Much of this violence stems from U.S. supported coups and civil wars, tactics generally pursued under the guise of protecting U.S. national security and business interests. During the 1983, 1984, and 1985 fiscal years, for example, the United States made on average $103 million in foreign military sales to El Salvador, $43.5 million to Honduras, and significantly less to the relatively stable Guatemala. These numbers begin to tell the story of how U.S. intervention over the course of the 20th century has destabilized the democracies within the Northern Triangle. If we want to understand the current refugee “crisis” then we must begin understanding why these countries are politically unstable.
Evidence of U.S. involvement in the region goes beyond aid and military sales. Early in 20th century Honduras, for example, the United States government and military supported U.S. based businesses above local democracy. U.S. troops were regularly stationed on Honduran soil, including during the Nicaraguan civil war in the 1980s. In addition to supporting U.S. security interests, these troops propped up military regimes that gave a whisper of economic stability, even when those regimes’ policies led to increased migration. Finally, in 2009, the U.S. accepted the results of a coup which overthrew the democratically elected Honduran president – leading to further instability in Honduras. Following the coup, the extreme poverty rate in the country grew by 26.3 percent, and the unemployment rate grew from 6.8 percent just prior to the coup to 14.1 percent four years later. As David Kilcullen notes inOut of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, this situation was further inflamed when, in 2012, the U.S. deported more than 32,000 Hondurans – many of whom had been detained after involvement with gang activity – to Honduras’ largest city, which was ill-equipped to deal with such an influx of people. While these deportations were justified using a rhetoric of preserving U.S. security, the reality is that Honduras lacks the infrastructure necessary to prosecute and imprison a group of criminals this large. The predictable result has been that those criminals have breathed new life into Honduran street gangs. The instability provoked by these gangs has, in turn, led to tens of thousands of ordinary citizens fleeing the country in an effort to find safety from violence and extortion.
The situation has been similar elsewhere in Central America. In Nicaragua, for instance, U.S. involvement in that country’s political and economic affairs dates back to 1912. Throughout the 20th century, the United States jumped in and out of Nicaragua, gaining control of important economic enterprises, stifling the development of a middle class, and supporting dictatorships in order to maintain political stability and support for U.S. policies. When the rampant corruption of the Somoza dictatorship finally led to a popular revolution in which the Sandinistas overthrew him, the United States threw its support behind the counterrevolutionaries (the contras) due to concerns that the Sandinistas were communists. The result was roughly a decade of warfare which led to the deaths of countless civilians and destabilized the entire region. As people sought to escape the violence, they often looked north, hoping they might find a better life in the very nation which was providing the materials and support necessary for the war to continue on such a large scale.
Though the United States has often claimed it wants to be a “good neighbor” to Latin America, as we have seen with the cases of Honduras and Nicaragua, the reality of US policy has been a series of broken promises and near constant meddling. Nor is the situation any different in the third country that forms the Northern Triangle: Guatemala. In 1954 the U.S. supported the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, whom the Eisenhower administration identified as a communist. Doing so interrupted democratic governmental development in Guatemala, and in the aftermath the nation saw the rise of repeated military dictatorships, occasional elected governments, and a long and violent civil war which led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of whom were indigenous.
Rather than investing in those most fit to govern the countries of the Northern Triangle, over the past century the United States government has supplied military equipment and training to those whose ideological views match U.S. interests. Even as nations have returned to democracy, the proliferation of U.S. weapons in the region has facilitated the giving way of regional militaries to paramilitary groups and international gangs – all with devastating results for civilians. As of 2000, in the small country of El Salvador alone there were still some 360,000 military style weapons unaccounted for. Nor have weapon collection efforts born much fruit. In Nicaragua, for example, although 91,000 combatants reintegrated into society, only 17,000 firearms were collected. Simply put, the very weapons that once backed US policies are now in the hands of those who practice extortion, destabilizing the local civilian populace by forcing parents to spend money they do not have to pay bribes that they are told will preserve their children’s safety.
In no place are the tragic results of several decades of interventions more evident than along the U.S./Mexico border. The majority of refugees attempting to enter the United States are fleeing the Northern Triangle. While young men from these nations have regularly migrated to the U.S. over the last several decades in search of economic opportunity, those at the border today have arrived under different circumstances. Many are mothers and fathers fleeing daily violence accompanied by their young children whom they wish to shield from neighborhood gangs. Thus, even as the overall number of immigrants to the United States falls, largely a result of less economic migrants coming to the U.S. from Latin America, the number of those being forced to migrate due to violence has increased tremendously. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the number of people who have fled the Northern Triangle has increased by 2,249 percent due to increased gang violence. Gangs also extort money from families leaving those that pay with little to no income, but a hope that their family will be safe. While no family situation is identical, the fear of violence, gang recruitment, and extortion often leaves families no choice but to leave their home country and make the long, dangerous journey north to the United States border.
Recent tactics by the relatively young governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to crack down on their nations’ violence and crime include employing police and military forces. These forces are often given wide latitude to use violence themselves, and in so doing often catch innocent civilians in their crosshairs. This conflict has only heightened the number of people fleeing the only life they have known in order to seek safety and refuge. If the United States wishes to resolve the problem of mass migration from Central America, discussion and cooperation are needed, rather than tweets. The U.S. needs to partner with nations in the Northern Triangle to address systemic structural and economic challenges – many of which the U.S. had a direct hand in creating.
In El Salvador, a new government may offer an opportunity for President Trump to do just that. Nayib Bukele, the nation’s president-elect, ran on an anti-corruption platform and proposed crime prevention programs. But fulfilling these ambitions will take both time and resources. If the Trump administration wants to reduce immigration to the United States, as well as increase stability in the Northern Triangle, the first step could be providing long term assistance for programs such as those in El Salvador and elsewhere in the region.
Michelle Mayhew-Shears, Baker Peace Fellow and PhD Candidate Ohio University , studies 20th century US foreign policy with a regional focus on Latin America.
Heather M. Salazar, a PhD Candidate, Ohio University, studies 20th century US military history with a focus on US interventions in Central America and the Caribbean.