by Jason Frerichs
The hits just seem to keep coming regarding the Trump administration’s callous treatment of immigrants from Central America. Many of these immigrants are trying to escape gang violence and striving for a better life. On August 16th, Trump decided to end the parole portion of the Central American Minors Program. The program allowed young people under threat of gang violence to rejoin family members already legally residing in the US. This was a renewable two-year visa which allowed residents to legally work and/or attend school in the United States. For now, the refugee portion of the program is still in place but thousands of applicants who had already been accepted have had their ability to legally enter the US revoked.
Unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America is not a new phenomenon. This started happening at an alarming pace under the Obama administration. This is more than just another symptom of a broken immigration system. The question we have must ask ourselves is, “What caused this to happen?” What chain of events caused such a breakdown in Central American society that it allowed for the proliferation of gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)? Why can’t the central governments of countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras protect their citizens from threats, violence, extortion, and intimidation from criminal organizations? Is it systemic corruption? Are these countries failed states? If so, what are the root causes?
The truth is that the current situation in Central America is largely a result of horrible US foreign policy that has propped up brutal dictatorships and overthrown democratically elected governments that attempted to put in a system of checks and balances to combat US interference. The US did not like that these elected leftist governments were not pro-US and did not want to roll over and be exploited. The most immediate cause can be traced to the former President Ronald Reagan, who funded and deployed right-wing military death squads in El Salvador, which waged a civil war against its own citizens in the name of stopping the spread of communism. The US spent $4 billion on economic and military aid to El Salvador which led to the death of 75,000 people, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. Reagan dumped $1 billion into Nicaragua to fight against the democratically elected Sandinista government. This led to the deaths of 50,000 people. Reagan used Honduras as a base to coordinate military operations against the Nicaraguan government. Multiple US presidents also propped up the brutal Somoza dictatorship in, which led to the deaths of 200,000 people. This got started in 1924 when the US forced the sitting president to resign and installed Adofo Diaz. Eventually, Anastasio Somoza Garcia overthrew Diaz, with the blessing of the US, and held onto power for 43 years.
Gerson Martinez, an El Salvadoran rebel leader in the 1980s, has called Central American street gangs the “grandchildren” or Reagan’s policies. He said the migration created by US-backed paramilitaries was the cause of large numbers of people migrating to the United States. He also stated that the many of the gang members are people who fled the war and learned gang culture in cities like Los Angeles and New York City. After deportation, they brought the gang violence home, creating the “region’s most critical security issue.”
The US history of meddling in Central America goes back much further than the 1980s. In 1954, the US deposed Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz and installed a puppet dictatorship that was more in line with the interests of the United Fruit Company, which coincidently had ties to brothers Allen and John Foster Dulles, the CIA director and Secretary of State respectively. Che Guevara was living in Guatemala at the time and blamed Guatemala’s “open society” for the situation that led to a coup. He convinced Fidel Castro of this. Castro was able to fend off many attempts on his life but the cost of this was a free Cuba. Cases of US interference in Latin America can be traced back as early as 1780. To write about all them would require writing a novel.
The most recent example of US interference happened in Honduras June 28th, 2009, when democratically elected president Jose Manuel Zelaya was deposed. The American support for the dictatorship of Porfirio Lobo has been a foreign policy disaster. The US media likes to blame the drug trafficking gangs for the explosion of violence that has caused the country to have the world’s highest murder rate, but that is an incorrect and simplistic way to view the situation. The coup of Zelaya caused a large increase in drug trafficking, violence, and a wave of state-sponsored oppression. Honduras meets the criteria to be considered a failed state. Lobo won an election in November 2009 that was run by the same people who caused the coup. President Obama recognized him when most of Latin America would not. Members of the press have been assassinated, as have 43 land activists. Nevertheless, Obama praised Lobo for “restoring democracy.” Eighty-seven members of Congress signed a letter imploring then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to block military and police aid to Honduras.
New York Times writer Dana Frank wrote,
“Why has the State Department thrown itself behind the Lobo administration despite brutal evidence of the regime’s corruption? In part, because it has caved to the Cuban-American constituency of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and her allies. They have been ferocious about Honduras as a first domino with which to push back against the line of center-left and leftist governments that have won elections in Latin America in the past 15 years. With its American air base, Honduras is also crucial to the United States’ military strategy in Latin America.”
Trump has tried to point the finger at President Obama, claiming his “weak” immigration policies are what caused the proliferation of MS-13, but well known “liberal rag” Business Insider proves that this could not be further from the truth. According to their article on the subject, gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 were established in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In the 1990s, migrants started moving to the east coast in search new job opportunities. Unfortunately, gang culture moved with them, helping spread this violent ideology. Even the fact sheet released by the Department of Justice on April 18th, 2017, shows that MS-13 has been operating in the US since the 1980s. MS-13 gang activity has been documented in 42 different states, including Iowa. While it can be argued that Obama was extremely weak on this issue, the conditions that led to the current situation were in place long before Obama was even a state senator.
Many different presidential administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, have caused a great deal of harm in Central America. These efforts particularly ramped during the Cold War period, in a paranoid attempt to limit Soviet influence in the region. This is a problem we caused so we have an obligation to do what we can to fix it. Immigration hardliners like to blame the “moral failings” of the immigrants who come here to escape crushing poverty, gang violence, and an extremely high rate of unemployment. They fail to consider the history of US imperialism and oppression because that would force them to view immigrants/refugees as human beings. It would go against their view that the US is the “greatest nation on earth.” America, we built this. It’s our responsibility to fix it.
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus