A Border Patrol agent rescues an immigrant woman and her daughter from the Rio Grande River during the border surge. Border Patrol photo
A Border Patrol agent rescues an immigrant woman and her daughter from the Rio Grande River during the border surge. Border Patrol photo

By Everard Meade

The current crush of Central American children crossing the border has re-ignited a smoldering immigration debate.

But, there’s widespread agreement on the immediate response — detaining and deporting children as swiftly as possible, encouraging regional governments to do the same, and publicizing these measures in order to deter others from coming.

If history is any guide, this policy is likely to fail.

The U.S. has used detention, deportation, and interdiction abroad in response to periodic waves of Central American migrants for the last thirty-five years.  These efforts have never substantially reduced regional migration, and they have often exacerbated existing humanitarian crises.

In 1954, in the aftermath of the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, one of the first cables from Washington warned foreign embassies not to shield asylum seekers in order to prevent “dangerous communists and collaborators…from circulating in hemisphere.”

When civil war broke out in Guatemala in 1966, the U.S. asked Mexico “to close” its southern border, the first of many such efforts over the next thirty years. Mexico became the reluctant host to 200,000 Central American refugees. Despite the best efforts of the government and the Church, conditions were deplorable and the refugees were targeted for exploitation, political attacks, and criminal violence.

It’s a similar story in Honduras. Sandwiched between revolutions and brutal U.S.-backed counter-insurgency wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Honduras became a major recipient of both regional refugees and U.S. military aid. Green Berets trained the border security forces, a Contra force larger than the Honduran Army mined the southern border, and refugee camps endured massacres and misery.

Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Photo courtesy USD

Despite these containment efforts, millions of refugees made it to the United States. Unlike Cubans or Nicaraguans, the vast majority of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans were denied refugee status or asylum, and the U.S. government even filed criminal charges against church leaders and activists who tried to provide them sanctuary. A 1991 legal settlement gave some a second chance at asylum, but the majority blended into undocumented America — bounced between aggressive enforcement and humanitarian accommodation, but without any kind of permanent reconciliation.

After peace accords in the 1990s, Central America vanished from U.S. foreign policy. But, refugees remained convenient scapegoats for a lack of post-war reconciliation and reconstruction. Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras carried out mass deportations. Throughout the region, governments passed laws enhancing border security, increasing penalties for trafficking, disqualifying undocumented immigrants from public benefits, and criminalizing gang affiliations. U.S.-led dragnets against street gangs intensified this process.

Deportations spiked, prison populations swelled, and poor people became increasingly dependent upon relatives working in the United States. Migrant remittances account for more than 15 percent of GDP in El Salvador and Honduras, and 10 percent in Guatemala.

More recently, U.S. counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts have included logistical support, training, and funds for regional border enforcement. Mexico’s Plan Sur (and later the Mérida Initiative), Guatemala’s Venceremos 2001, and Honduras’s Article 332 locked down central migration corridors, deported thousands, and sent many more to prison, with U.S. encouragement at every turn.

The results? Migrants are using more remote and dangerous crossing points. Smugglers are making record profits and their trade has been colonized by organized crime. Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have seized territory and political influence. And, the kidnapping, rape, and murder of migrants have reached horrific proportions.

Street gangs are extorting higher quotas. Violence between them and paramilitary forces has increased, and regional governments have used beefed up security forces to suppress political opponents, journalists, and indigenous communities.

And, of course, children are fleeing by the tens of thousands.

Their journey is incredibly perilous. Children risk robbery, kidnapping and rape, dismemberment, death, and murder to get here.  They’ve seen these things with their own eyes. They’ve dealt with criminals and corrupt officials, and they’ve taken on massive debts and doubled them down.

Do we really believe that public-service announcements or gestures of “tough love” from American politicians are going to dissuade them?

Kids are fleeing a broad spectrum of violence — forced recruitment into gangs, the targeting of civilians by organized crime, indiscriminate crackdowns on urban neighborhoods and indigenous communities, etc.

Some take this complexity as evidence that opportunistic migrants are taking advantage a minority of legitimate refugees. But, kids are not fleeing Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, or Haiti by the thousands.  The kids arriving on the border right now are fleeing acute violence in three specific countries, with very specific relationships to the United States.

Those who want to “send a message” need to ask themselves if that message is really one of humanity directed to desperate children and families, or just more red meat for panicked howling about disease, criminality, and cultural decay.

In the last Central American refugee crisis, U.S. policymakers squandered an opportunity to stand with the civilian casualties of a regional conflict and to stand by our commitment to adjudicate each individual according to the merits of their case. We abandoned our moral commitments and the strength of our legal system in a fit of Cold War hysteria and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The real question is not whether we’re going to address the present crisis, but whether we are going to sow the seeds of the next one.  More than any polls or speeches, our answer will determine whether we are truly committed to creating a fair, humane, and realistic immigration policy.

Everard Meade, PhD, is director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

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