On October 31, President Trump tweeted, “Our military is being mobilized at the Southern Border. Many more troops coming. We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!” The migrant caravan to which he refers consists of a group of men, women and children making their way toward the U.S. border to claim asylum, a wholly legal petition under U.S. and international law. The group embarked from Honduras and has been making its way toward the U.S.-Mexico border since October. While it began as a group of about 160 people, according to the International Organization for Migration, it is now estimated to comprise more than 7000 Central American citizens. Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion that the caravan includes “some very bad thugs and gang members,” the majority of participants report they desire to claim asylum based on threats on their own lives or the lives of their children from fleeing gang members in their countries. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have the highest rates of homicide in the world, largely because of gang-related violence. Unfortunately, the U.S. government is one of the major reasons these gangs in Central America are so powerful). Though other factors have certainly contributed to the economic and political instability that facilitated gang influence throughout Central America, U.S. political interference and the ensuing civil wars are one of the main causes of the rise of the powerful Central American gangs M.S.-13 and Barrio 18 and the violence that accompanies them. So while the president may assert that the approaching migrant caravan is a threat to the U.S., we must recognize that our nation’s part in inciting the violence in Central America obligates us to offer refuge to those who have fled in search of a better life. The denial of asylum to the migrant caravan is not only an act of blatant racism, but hypocrisy as well.
U.S. political intervention in Central America
In the mid-20th century, with the U.S. locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, one of the U.S.’s central concerns was the rise of socialism. Government leaders who perceived this ideology as a threat to democracy consistently sought to squelch socialist thought and action. The promises of socialism appealed to many in Latin America, which prompted intervention from a concerned U.S. government. For example, the democratically-elected Guatemalan leader Jacobo Árbenz, a self-described “spiritual socialist,” was ousted by a C.I.A.-backed military coup in 1954, sparking a civil war that lasted for the next three decades. The U.S. also offered money and military training to regimes in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, inspiring similar civil wars within those countries. These wars led to a lack of trust between Central American citizens and their governments, and the violence of the military regimes that reigned during the civil wars inspired many to flee to the U.S. for refuge (sound familiar?).
Gang formation in the U.S. and resulting deportation
Many Central American migrants arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s seeking refuge from the violence perpetrated by leftist-opposing regimes in their countries (which in many cases had been financially supported by the U.S. itself). Upon arrival, they found themselves in urban settings without access to money, homes, or jobs. As a result of the lack of resources and community, many affiliated themselves with gangs already existing in their cities, such as in the Los Angeles area, where many migrants had settled. Others formed new ones—including MS-13 and Barrio 18. As illegal immigration became a focus of law enforcement for the Reagan administration and others afterward, the U.S. passed laws, such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility law, that eased deportation of people convicted of specific crimes—particularly gang activity. Many who had been driven to join gangs in the first place because of U.S. political intervention in their home countries were again forced to return, bringing their gang connections back home with them. The relative political instability and rampant corruption of the post-civil war governments in Central America meant that MS-13 and Barrio 18, among other gangs, were able to establish power and control. Rivalry between these gangs has escalated to the point of extreme violence throughout Central America, forcing Central Americans to once again seek asylum in the U.S.
The caravan’s journey so far and difficult road ahead
Several reporters have traveled with the caravan to record their stories and prevent the spread of false information (for example, the president himself asserted that the caravan included “unknown Middle Easterners” in a tweet, though he later admitted that this claim was unproven). Many migrants have stated that they left because they had to—there was simply no way to continue living in the violence and difficulty of their countries. Many of the parents are traveling with young children, hoping to spare them a life of poverty and gang violence. One man remarked to the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow, “My hope is someday to build a house, for my family to live in peace, to go from sandals to shoes. Not to be rich, but to be in peace.”
The caravan’s arrival on U.S. soil wouldn’t necessarily mean an end to suffering for migrants. Those who are fleeing violence must prove “credible fear” in order to be granted asylum, even if they entered the country illegally. Some have tried to make the requirements for asylum, more stringent, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but for many traveling with the caravan, the possibility of being turned away is worth the risk if they can permanently vacate their home countries.
The road for these migrants has not been easy. Food, water, and amenities are scarce; travelers often sleep on the ground; people are at risk of being abducted and trafficked; and, despite what some news stories have reported, the migrants have been mostly walking, not taking trains or buses. Given the extreme difficulty of the journey, it can be assumed that all these hardships are preferable to the prospect of staying in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala and facing the poverty and gang violence.
In the dialogue about immigration that has taken center stage in U.S. politics for the last few years, many have mentioned the fact that the U.S. is itself a country of migrants. Early settlers fled religious persecution and found refuge in a new country (although the land itself was not exactly free for the taking). During the World Wars, the U.S. welcomed immigrants fleeing violence in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, offering the hope of the American Dream to those who sought it. Now, when those who pursue this dream do so as a result of our country’s actions, the decision to turn them away demonstrates a deep hypocrisy and bigotry. The stereotype of latinx people as rapists, thieves, and murderers that the current administration has used to secure votes and support is clearly racist and undermines the assertion that the U.S. is “one Nation…with liberty and justice for all.” If we say we espouse liberty and justice for all, then surely that must include those who are victims of the U.S. government’s past political and militaristic interventions, which were largely based in self-interest.
Certainly, it would be unfair to hold the current administration responsible for the actions of the government over the last half of the century, and yet, the president dismissing the migrant caravan as a group of violent thugs subscribes to a similar mentality: blaming for the past actions of others. The responsibility we take now must be founded in human rights and compassion, not Mosaic justice or selfishness. I echo the words of the president, but direct them to him and those who would deny migrants asylum from violence that our own nation caused: “TURN AROUND!” Turn around to face our political past and take responsibility for those it has hurt.
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