Central American Migrant Children: Unworthy Victims and Imperialist Dictums


Map of Central America (source: Congressional Research Service)

August 26, 2014

Immigration is renowned for its current position in American political ideology. Usually invoked to trick millions of Americans into blaming society’s ills on those without the power to shape it, immigrants have little hope in the current political system. Rarely is there ever an “immigration” debate sparked without this unexpressed intent. In response to such exploits, there are those that would have us consider our high-minded adherence to humanitarian values and progress to stake out an alternate persuasion. Unthinkable, however, is the idea that the United States might have a moral responsibility beyond the “Good Samaritan”: a direct responsibility of the United States to redress wrongdoings committed by the United States. A recent child migrant crisis highlights the necessity of this final consideration.

Since October 1st, 2013, the U.S. has experienced an influx of some 62,998 unaccompanied children from south of the border. Far and away the largest source — over 75% — is Central America’s “Northern Triangle” composed of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Comparing the numbers for the year-long period starting on October 1st, 2009 with October 1st, 2013 through July 31st, 2014, there has been an increase in Northern Triangle migrant children of well over 1000%! Of the Northern Triangle nations, Honduras represents the single largest source of migrant children, in spite of having little more than 50% of the population of Guatemala.

Much of the “debate” concerning these migrant children involves the labeling. Do we narrowly treat this as an issue about “immigration” or do we heed the advice of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and “recognize that this is a refugee situation, which implies that they shouldn’t be automatically sent to their home countries but rather receive international protection”? The designation is much more than a semantic debate; the difference is part of a larger debate that determines how we react to the crisis. To answer this question, we need to know more about the situation these children face in their home countries.

Widely discusses in the media is the pervasive violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries – some of the poorest in the hemisphere. Homicide rates average about 57 per 100,000 members of the population, reaching an apex of over 90 per 100,000 in Honduras; compare this with the relatively benign — though still completely off the scale in relation to Europe – rate in the United States of roughly 5 per 100,000. As a result, the Northern Triangle is now the most violent region in the world outside of war zones. What has led to such a dire situation in these countries? As it turns out it’s the same force that fundamentally links these countries to the United States. The route these children take has been paved by American policy.

In her book, “They Take Our Jobs” and 20 Other Myths about Immigration, Aviva Chomsky points out the key role “long-standing relationships” – colonialism, imperialism, and expansionism – play in unleashing the flow of migrants. More than just “poverty, lack of opportunity, and danger” – though all are important and manifestly evident in the Northern Triangle countries – Aviva supports the link that “empire spawns migration.” “It’s the economic ties created by colonial and neocolonial economies [and] economic demand in the receiving country… that set the stage for immigration.” Aviva further notes: “Many Latin Americans refer to the current relationship of their countries to the United States as a neocolonial relationship. Although the United States does not directly govern their countries, it exerts economic, political, and military control through indirect means.” Such “neocolonial” relationships destroy local institutions and future prospects for entire societies. Often this leads to epidemics of mass migration such as we see today. It is this “neocolonialism” – newer forms of imperialism — that must be discussed when deliberating on our mass child migrant crisis.

Indeed, there’s a long and relatively modern history of U.S. hegemony in our region of interest. For the past century, the United States has created and supported rightwing “wholesale” terrorist regimes in Central America even as they ripped the region apart (for the details and substantiation of such a claim, see Frederick Gareau’s State Terrorism and the United States.) The U.S. infamously overthrew democratically elected governments in addition to providing financial aid, military aid, military training, diplomatic aid, strategic advice, and military propaganda for many of the most brutal government and non-state actors in the region. At one point there was even a study that correlated U.S. aid with governments that tortured their citizens.

In the case of El Salvador alone, between 1980 and 1991 an estimated 75,000 were killed. The U.N. Truth Commission’s report, From Madness to Hope: the Twelve-Year War in El Salvador, found that the casualties were overwhelmingly caused by state terrorism: 95% of the deaths were caused by the Salvadoran army, the National Guard, and their associated death squads. The U.S. aid was replete before, during, and after the atrocities. Between 1979 and 1992 the government of El Salvador received $6 billion in U.S. aid – approximately $100,000 for each member of the Salvadoran armed forces. Apart from the human cost of the hideous atrocity (some of the testimonies of torture in the U.N. report should be once read – never repeated), all of this devastated the institutional underpinnings of civil society and led to untold economic losses for the region.

All of this was in the name of the national religion — “anti-communism”. Reparations were never made.

Today, the U.S. intervention continues, but with a different pretext: The “War on Drugs”. Currently the most devastating impact on the region, the drug war has led to the widespread deterioration of Latin American civil society. In addition to hundreds of millions of dollars in “aid” from other programs, the remilitarization of Central America comes funded by the State Department’s Central American Regional Security Initiative (C.A.R.S.I.) The stated goal of the program is to “create safer streets, strengthen the rule of law, and protect human rights across Central America”, however the drug war rarely, if ever, accomplishes these goals. Since 2008, C.A.R.S.I. has received a budget of $803.6 million to train, equip, and otherwise aid local security forces as part of the War on Drugs. Most of the funds flow to the Northern Triangle countries; less than 4% of the state-specific funding reaches Nicaragua.

As an unfortunate holdover from the decades of state terror in Central America and subsequent failure to restructure, political and judicial institutions in the region remain extremely weak and corrupted. Thus aid programs like C.A.R.S.I. inevitably lead to unchecked violence and further corruption. Pressured by domestic elites and the United States (using aid conditions among other techniques), the Northern Triangle countries are increasingly reliant on military force to control the population instead of a functioning judicial system. Militarizing the war on drugs is a virtual violence-creating machine with much of the violent crime coming from the state “security” forces themselves. Meanwhile, this reliance on force has had no effect on drug supplies to the United States. Prices for illicit drugs have largely failed to show any signs of interdiction-related price increase.

As a result, even Central American heads of state have expressed to U.S. leaders the need to decrease illicit drug demand in the United States. No amount of militarized enforcement has provided any noticeable effect on the supply of illicit drugs to the U.S. market. It’s clear that this pervasive problem in Central America requires decriminalization and/or legalization here at home.

The specific case of Honduras, the absolute leading source of refugees and by far the most per capita, is of particular importance and showcases the manifold reasons for refugees. On June 28th, 2009 — after raising the minimum wage, subsidizing small farmers, cutting interest rates, and instituting free education — Honduran President Mel Zelaya found himself the victim of a military coup. The United States then dedicated itself to a well-documented series of attempts to “legitimize” the regime change — deeply troubling considering the event’s implications for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic self-governance.


This is what violence looks like when police attack members of Congress (source: HondurasSolidarity.org)

Though briefly suspended after the coup, U.S. aid to Honduras now flows faster than in either of the previous two decades. Meanwhile, the human rights situation, the local economy, and government institutions have all substantially deteriorated. Some wonder which is worse: government corruption or the drug cartels. Numerous reports, including a May 28th, 2014 letter to Secretary of State Kerry from over 100 members of Congress, have demonstrated wide-scale human rights violations by government forces since the coup. Dozens of journalists, lawyers, and activist, and opposition party members have been killed – all very reminiscent to the rightwing atrocities in decades past. Recently, congressional members of the opposition LIBRE Party were even surrounded, beaten, and removed from the National Congress building by military police and military troops! Meanwhile, the economy is reeling. According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (C.E.P.R.), since the coup, significant cuts in social spending have occurred; growth has slowed; poverty and unemployment rates have steadily increased; and inequality in Honduras now leads Latin America. Impunity rates for homicide are gross; an estimated 90% of murders go unchecked. For reference, in 2011 when Chicago solved a mere 30% of its murder cases, Craig DeRouche noted in a New York Times opinion piece that “getting away with murder was easier than finding a job for the unemployed in Chicago.” Routinely in Honduras the military and police forces are implicated in the killings. In light of this, it’s totally outrageous for the United States to continue funding these forces of oppression. It can be no wonder that young people in Honduras find their situation so increasingly desperate.

Another form of neocolonialism has also devastated the region. The Dominican Republic-Central American-United States Free Trade Agreement (D.R.-C.A.F.T.A.) has played its part in reducing the region to an impoverished service role. Although said to be all about “free trade”, these types of framework agreements are well-known to be all about protectionism, monopoly, and corporate subjugation. As subsidized American agricultural goods and other commodities flood foreign markets, local competitors find themselves unable to compete. Exports from the region are limited to low-value-added commodities as “experts” warn of comparative advantage, and as aspiring local enterprises fail to compete with high-value-added imports from large American multinationals – themselves the beneficiaries of previous protectionism, subsidy, etc. The result is a shock to these economies: mass unemployment, limited growth, and a conducive environment for mass migration.

C.A.F.T.A.’s predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (N.A.F.T.A.), has a particularly sordid history in Mexico. According to an analysis by C.E.P.R., in the two decades since N.A.F.T.A., Mexican G.D.P. growth per capita has increased a mere 18.7%; compare this to a 98.7% growth for the twenty years prior. Mass poverty has continued unopposed and unemployment has become a serious issue. All of this led to massive migration to the United States during the relevant period. Expecting different results from C.A.F.T.A. is reckless in the extreme; and considering the ample warnings delivered by development groups like Oxfam to Congressional members during C.A.F.T.A. discussions, one should start to question the “intent” proclaimed by establishment officials to justify these and other “free trade agreements”. Growth needs to be put back on the agenda in these countries; and it’s only going to occur with Industrial Trade policies, not more bad stewardship.

A long history of U.S. intervention has led to anemic judicial and governmental institutions in the Northern Triangle. Impoverished economic situations, immense violence, and untold social hardships are all legacies and ongoing effects of U.S. neocolonialism in the region. With all of this in mind, it’s clear that the new refugee crisis is the result of numerous political decisions – political decisions crafted in large part here in the United States. We can’t see this because these children are “unworthy victims”, victims not of our enemies, but of the insidious reach of our very own system. Were they from Cuba, it would immediately be a result of their political system. We might not get our country to pay reparations for the horrible atrocities of the past century, but let’s at least see to it that we help these refugee children.

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