A refugee crisis for Fortress America

September 30, 2015

Hannah Fleury remembers how the U.S. government treated Central American children fleeing to the U.S. last summer--and set a cruel precedent for Europe today.

IN SEPTEMBER, the haunting picture of Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish beach humanized the plight of Syrian refugees making the desperate journey to Europe to escape violence, repression and poverty at home. The image helped propel a tide of sympathy and solidarity that even found expression among some U.S. political leaders.

But the previous summer, there were gut-wrenching pictures of another refugee crisis, and Washington had a different reaction--because the desperate refugees were Central American children jammed into overcrowded detention centers along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Today, EU governments are defying the popular sentiment that the refugees be helped--and instead ordering police to crackd own and local authorities to construct border walls.

When the Central American children showed up at the U.S. border, the wall was already built along long stretches--but the U.S. government, while formally expressing sympathy, was even more insistent about returning those who came to the U.S. to their country of origin.

Children packed into cages at an immigration detention center in Texas
Children packed into cages at an immigration detention center in Texas

Throughout 2014, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children, primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, were detained as they tried to cross the border. According to a report released by the Migrant Policy Institute, which calculated deportations from both the U.S. and Mexico:

In addition to the more than 9,000 unaccompanied minors that both the United States and Mexico deported in 2014, Mexico deported an additional 8,000 accompanied children, bringing the total number of deported children to more than 17,000. Overall, 43,000 child migrants were deported to the Northern Triangle between 2010 and 2014. Of these, about 18,000 were returned to Honduras, 17,000 to Guatemala and 8,000 to El Salvador. In this period, deportations of minors to Guatemala doubled; they tripled to El Salvador and quadrupled to Honduras.

AS IN Europe today, the crisis at the border exposed the true character of political leaders.

Naturally, Republicans went on the offensive and demanded summary deportations. Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry--his fantasies about becoming president still alive back then--sent 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the border to "protect" it. In Murrietta, California, a racist mob descended on buses carrying migrants to a local detention center to demand their immediate deportation.

The sickening behavior of Republicans and right-wingers obscured just how little the Democrats--supposedly the party that defends immigrants and other vulnerable populations--did for the refugees.

Although Obama initially spoke of assisting the Central American children, that generosity dissipated. Prominent Democrats took the opportunity to compete with Republicans to show their toughness on border issues. Obama asked for $3.7 billion to handle the "crisis," which led to a political stalemate when Republicans refused to release any funds until the border was "secured."

In fact, Obama's proposal was much tougher than the Republican rhetoric made it seem. Of the $3.7 billion, at least one-third was designated to go to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), particularly to "secure" the border and to accelerate the speed of hearings and subsequent deportations.

Obama's message to Central America was clear: "Don't send your children here. If they do make it, they'll get sent back."

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, already in presidential campaign mode, told a town hall meeting hosted by CNN: "They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are. We have to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border doesn't mean your child gets to stay. We don't want to send a message contrary to our laws or encourage more to come."

Those words echoed back from 14 months ago when German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent the same "clear message" in a televised encounter with a weeping Palestinian teenager: "[I]f we say, 'You can all come here, you can all come over from Africa,' we can't cope with that."

REACTIONS LIKE these are particularly heartless coming from political leaders who bear significant responsibility for the exodus of refugees in the first place.

In Europe today, the refugees are fleeing violence and repression in the Middle East and Africa, which the European governments helped to stoke with their overwhelming support for U.S. imperialism's wars and occupations, and their backing dictatorships and tyrannies in regions that were once the colonial possessions of the European powers.

Likewise, the U.S. deserves much of the blame for conditions so dire in Latin American that parents make the traumatic decision to send their children unaccompanied on a journey of thousands of miles.

When the border crisis erupted a year ago in the U.S., political leaders were careful to call it a "migrant crisis," implying that the people fleeing Latin America had primarily economic motivations--as opposed to refugees escaping political violence and repression, who have more rights under international law to seek asylum.

Of course, socialists believe all people should have the right to move freely across borders, for whatever reason. But even on its face, the insistence in the U.S. that the exodus from Central America was of migrants downplayed the political factors that led tens of thousands of children to risk their lives to get to the U.S. border.

Consider one example involving Hillary Clinton herself: As Secretary of State under Obama, she led the U.S. government's policy of support for the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted the democratically elected and popular President Manuel Zelaya. Later, Washington helped engineer unfair elections that ensured Zelaya would be kept out of power. The ensuing instability contributed directly to increased violence and poverty.

The Honduran coup was only one of many devastating U.S. interventions into Central American politics over many years.

In the 1980s, the U.S. gave billions of dollars and unfettered CIA support to military dictatorships known for using death squads and torture to maintain control in Central America--all to protect the interests of U.S. business. Needless to say, these countries were socially and economically devastated during this period--poverty rose to 60 percent by 1990, with half or more of the poor in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras living in extreme poverty.

These military regimes, like their less openly repressive civilian counterparts, embraced neoliberal economic reforms pushed by the U.S. The first "export processing zones"--regions where U.S.-based companies could set up so-called "maquiladoras" and enjoy tax advantages and relaxed regulations--were established in Mexico and Central America in the 1980s. As Justin Akers Chacón explained at SocialistWorker.org last year:

In exchange for foreign investment and aid, right-wing governments, especially in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, suppressed unions, jailed or disappeared human rights activists and used other measures to guarantee the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions that have made the maquiladora sector highly profitable, at the expense of regional under-development.

One culmination of this trend was the establishment of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which advanced the whole neoliberal agenda, ensuring further impoverishment of the many to serve the profits of U.S. and local businesses. In fact, the ousted Honduran President Zelaya was threatening to leave the CAFTA and enter in a trade bloc led by Venezuela when he was overthrown.

THEN THERE is the drug war--the disastrous bipartisan policy of the U.S. government that has led to the racist system of mass incarceration at home and militarization and violence in Mexico and Central America. Rather than stopping drugs from being produced and sold, the war on drugs' main "success" has been to escalate violence in Mexico and more recently Central America.

Honduras, already a dangerous place in 2007 with a homicide rate of about 50 per 100,000 people, saw that rate nearly double to 90 per 100,000 by 2012. Honduras is also home to San Pedro Sula, the "murder capital of the world," with a homicide rate of 187 murders per 100,000 people. Compare that to New York City's murder rate of 5.1 per 100,000 people--or, for that matter, Afghanistan's 7 murder victims per 100,000 people.

Poverty rates remain extremely high, with 53.5 percent of Guatemalans, 52 percent of Hondurans and 42.7 percent of Salvadorans living on less than $4 a day. With left-wing movements repressed and defeated during the 1980s and after, many residents of these countries found they had few options but to turn to organized crime for employment and security--or migrate.

The violence faced by poverty and murder rates don't give these migrants access to the rights that refugees of war are traditionally granted. Even if migrants can make the case that they need asylum from political persecution, the federal government is adept at cutting corners to avoid honoring its responsibilities.

In a world where instability and conflict is the norm, we can expect to see more mass waves of human displacement around the globe. The UN refugee agency reports that in 2014, 59.5 million people were displaced from their homes due to violence, conflict and persecution--a record high.

Socialists must defend the rights of asylum seekers and pressure our government to accept refugees--but also recognize that most migrants are leaving their homes for reasons that don't qualify them for legal protection, including economic conditions that have become intolerable.

Here in the U.S., we need to hold the federal government accountable for the damage its foreign policy and wars have created, in Central America and throughout the globe--and join people throughout the world in demanding that the borders be opened.

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