David Bacon :
How U.S. policies helped create the current immigration crisis

Six reasons why U.S. trade and immigration policies — not ‘lax immigration enforcement’ — have caused migration from Central America.

Protest Against Detention and Deportation of Young Immigrants

Young people from immigrant youth groups protest outside the Oakland Federal Building against the detention and deportation of young migrants and families on the U.S. border, and especially against President Obama’s decision to increase border enforcement and deport them more quickly. Photos by David Bacon.

By David Bacon | The Rag Blog | July 14, 2014

David Bacon will be Thorne Dreyer‘s guest on Rag Radio Friday, July 18, 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed live here. They will discuss the border immigration crisis and its causes, especially the role played by U.S. policies. For more about Rag Radio, including additional outlets and times, and links to earlier podcasts, go here.

The mass migration of children from Central America has been at the center of a political firestorm over the past few weeks. The mainstream media has run dozens of stories blaming families, especially mothers, for sending or bringing their children north from Central America.

The president himself lectured them, as though they were simply bad parents. “Do not send your children to the borders,” Obama said last week. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.”

Meanwhile, the story is being manipulated by the Tea Party and conservative Republicans to attack Obama’s executive action deferring the deportation of young people, along with any possibility he might expand it — the demand of many immigrant rights advocates. More broadly, the Right wants to shut down any immigration reform that includes legalization, and instead is gunning for harsher enforcement measures.

Even Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, has sought to frame migration as a national security threat, calling it a “crime-terror convergence,” and describing it as “an incredibly efficient network along which anything — hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children — can travel, so long as they can pay the fare.”

This push for greater enforcement ignores the real reasons families take the desperate measure of leaving home and trying to cross the border. Media coverage focuses on gang violence in Central America, as though it was spontaneous and unrelated to a history of U.S.-promoted wars and a policy of mass deportations.

U.S. foreign and immigration policy is responsible for much of the pressure causing this flow of people from Central America. These eight facts, ignored by the mainstream press and the president, document that culpability, and point out the need for change.

1. There is no “lax enforcement” on the U.S./Mexico border. There are over 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. Now more than 350,000 people spend some time in an immigrant detention center every year. The U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than all other enforcement activities of the federal government combined, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The growing numbers of people in detention — young people as well as families and adults — is being used as a pretext by the anti-immigrant lobby in Washington, including the Tea Party and the Border Patrol itself, for demanding increases in the budget for enforcement. The Obama administration has given way before this pressure.

2. The migration of children and families didn’t just start recently. It has been going on for a long time, although the numbers are increasing. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the U.S. promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change. Two million Salvadorans alone came to the U.S. during the late 1970s and 80s, to say nothing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that some day they’d be reunited.

3. The recent increase in the numbers of migrants is not just a response to gang violence, although this is virtually the only reason given in U.S. media coverage. Growing migration is as much or more a consequence of the increasing economic crisis for rural people in Central America and Mexico, as well as the failure of those economies to produce jobs. People are leaving because they can’t survive where they are.

4. The failure of Central America’s economies is mostly due to the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and their accompanying economic changes, including privatization of businesses, the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects, and cuts in the social budget. The treaties allowed huge U.S. corporations to dump corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America, forcing rural families off their lands when they could not compete.

5. When governments or people have resisted NAFTA and CAFTA, the United States has threatened reprisals. Right-wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) put forward a measure in 2004 to cut off the flow of remittances (money sent back to Salvadoran families from family members working in the U.S.) if people voted for a left-wing party, the FMLN, in El Salvador’s national elections. Otto Reich, a violently anti-communist Cuban who was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. government was “concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory could have on the commercial, economic, and migration-related relations of the U.S. with El Salvador.”Salvadoran papers were full of the threat, especially those on the right, and the FMLN lost.

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 a de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the U.S.

6. Gang violence in Central America has a U.S. origin. Over the past two decades, young people from Central America have arrived in L.A. and big U.S. cities, where many were recruited into gangs, a story eloquently told by photographer Donna De Cesare in the recent book Unsettled/Desasociego. 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 responded to the rise of gang activity here with a huge program of deportations. Most of the kids in gangs in Central America were originally deportees from the U.S. The U.S. has been deporting 400,000 people per year, more than any other period since the Cold War.

7. And in Central America, U.S. policy has led to the growth of gang violence. 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 U.S. almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment.

El Salvador, with a left-wing FMLN government, at least has a commitment to a policy of jobs and economic development to take young people off the street, and to provide an alternative to migration. Even there, conservative police and military forces continue to support heavy enforcement. In Guatemala and Honduras, the U.S. is supporting very right-wing governments who only use a heavy enforcement approach. While punishing deportees and condemning migration, these two governments actually use the migration of people to the U.S. as a source of remittances to keep their economies afloat.

8. Kids looking for families here are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis. The separation of families is a cause of much of the current migration of young people. Young people fleeing the violence are reacting to the consequences of policies for which the U.S. government is largely responsible, in the only way open to them.

Protest Against Detention and Deportation of Young Immigrants

Young people in Oakland protest the detention of children and families from Central America.

Two and three years ago we were hearing from the Pew Hispanic Trust and other sources that migration had “leveled off.” No one is bothering to claim that anymore. Migration hasn’t stopped because the forces causing it are more powerful than ever.

More enforcement will not deal with the causes of the migration from Central America. In fact, the deportation of more people back to their countries of origin will increase joblessness and economic desperation. This 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 a law passed in 2008, which requires minors to be transferred out of detention to centers where they can locate family members to care for them. He instead proposes to deport them more rapidly. Both ideas will cause more pain, violate basic rights and moral principles, and fail completely to stop migration.

New York Times writer Carl Hulse writes that the law transferring minors out of detention centers “is at the root of the potentially calamitous flow of unaccompanied minors to the nation’s southern border.” This report and others like it not only ignore history and paint a false picture of the reasons for migration, but provide the rationale for increased enforcement.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez picked up the cue, declaring “we must attack this problem from a foreign policy perspective, a humanitarian perspective, a criminal perspective, immigration perspective, and a national security perspective.” He called for increasing funding for the U.S. military’s Southern Command and the State Department’s Central American Regional Security Initiative. Giving millions of dollars to some of the most violent and right-wing militaries in the western hemisphere, however, is a step back towards the military intervention policy that set the wave of forced migration into motion to begin with.

Instead, we need to help families reunite, treat immigrants with respect, and change the policies the U.S. has implemented 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 these children and families are fleeing.

This article was first published in the web edition of In These Times and was cross-posted to The Rag Blog by the author.

[David Bacon, a former union organizer, is a California-based writer and photographer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. His photographs and stories can be found at dbacon.igc.org. Read more of David Bacon’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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6 Responses to David Bacon :
How U.S. policies helped create the current immigration crisis

  1. Extremist2theDHS says:

    Here is how we address this problem. Take the $3.8B that President “NothingIsEverMyFault ..Ever” has proposed to spend on the invasion from the South and give it to militias. They can use the money to provide housing, weapons and operational and tactical support for their members to patrol the border and turn back the invaders. Message delivered .. problem solved.

    – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS

  2. richard jehn says:

    Great idea, extremist: expand the non-solution we already have that isn’t working! I’m impressed with your ability to shirk responsibility for the damage already wrought for “free trade” (which really is euphemistic for “trade advantage, US”). As long as we continue believing that violence is the solution for virtually everything, we will continue to be a failed society.

    • Extremist2theDHS says:

      Nice to hear from you Richard. I was beginning to think you had been unavoidable detained again.

      Please don’t generalize. I never suggested violence at all. And certainly not as a solution to everything, or even most things. In general, I am a live and let live kinda guy.

      I happen to think that sovereignty and borders are worth defending through activism, diligence and if required, civil disobedience. Actions that would not be necessary if our government performed its very basic job of securing our borders. The government seems far more concerned with obliterating borders in Iraq or Ukraine and rounding up stray cattle on Nevada ranches.

      You must admit that my suggestion is a very simple solution. Perception is reality. The perception and reality now is that the border is open and those who cross will be provided education, medical care, food and shelter. Changing that perception would be easy and effective. I consider it common sense. If the leaders in Washington wont defend the country with their Trillion dollar “security” budgets , then that task should fall to the states and their citizens.

      – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS

      • David Hamilton says:

        Extremist, That border you regard a sacred was determined by the defeat of Mexico in a war the US instigated for the purpose of seizing Mexican land. The California Gold Rush started the next year. Rightists love to deny their responsibilities.

        • Extremist2theDHS says:

          David, Your home, where ever it is, is built on land taken from someone else, probably by force. I dont think you give a crap about who used to live on that plot of land hundreds of years ago.

          You have a door on your home and doors on your car. And I am pretty sure that you lock them both at times. Not because you are anti social. But because you want to be in charge of who comes in your home and who drives your car. That doesnt make you racist or hateful, (though you may be, I dont know). It does make you realistic.

          I will make you the same offer I have made to others on here when they began spewing about the beauty of open borders.

          Give me your address.

          I will bring over to you some people in need. Some from this county, some illegally here. You let them eat your food, sleep in your bed, drive your car, wash their clothes and spend your money for the next few years. If you take me up on that, you will be the first on here to be a person of principle. Otherwise please stop advocating that the government force on me and mine, something that you wont tolerate your self. It just makes you seem so …. hypocritical.

          – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS

  3. Ian Monoe says:

    If there’s a “crisis” it’s a US manufactured one, since a few policy changes (foreign and domestic) could easily alleviate the problem. This particular one appears tailored to the racist/yahoo constituency in preparation for an election year. Although alienating the Latino vote won’t do the republicrats much good in either the short or long term. I don’t think they thought this through correctly. On the other hand, it apparently plays better on TV than climate change or the clusterfuck in the Middle East.

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