The Trump administration’s focus on the “migrant caravan” approaching the border feels like the next reiteration of their consistently misguided approach to immigration. Like the controversial family separation policy, which purposefully sought to deter asylum seekers by separating children from their parents, Trump is attempting to send a message to migrants at the border and around the world thinking of coming to the U.S.: you’re not welcome here.
Yet, Trump’s approach to immigration is not unique. The American public in general holds negative attitudes about migrants escaping violence in their home countries. The fear that migrants south of the border are bringing their problems with them — crime, drug trafficking, lawlessness — in part fueled Trump’s rise to the presidency. It is also echoed in our unwillingness to show sympathy for refugees fleeing war-torn countries like Syria.
As a consequence, no matter how dire the situation is for those coming to the U.S. seeking a place for safety and opportunity, our solution is to pass on responsibility to others. We see the problems migrants face as tragic and unfortunate but not something the country should concern itself with.
But our negligence towards migrants comes at the expense of ignoring history. Unsurprisingly, the migrants coming to the border aren’t here because they felt like taking a thousand-mile trip to the Mexican border. Rather, they are escaping structural violence and corruption in a state that became dangerous to live in — something the United States played a significant part in causing in the first place.
The late 80s marks a key period of history for the families of migrants coming to the border. It was a time of brutal civil wars in places like El Salvador, left-wing insurgencies in Honduras and destabilizing coups in Guatemala. In all instances, the U.S. played a pivotal role in these crises.
For instance, President Reagan meddled in El Salvador’s affairs when he helped fund the train the military government during the civil war against leftist rebel groups like the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The battalions trained by the U.S. would often commit gross human rights abuses, including the massacre of a village in El Mozote in 1981, which killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, many of which were women and children. The United Nations Truth Commission determined that by the end of the war, the paramilitary forces, death squads and army forces built and funded by with the help of the U.S. were responsible.
Though this was several decades ago, our intervention didn’t end there. Since then, we’ve dominated the country’s ability to control their exports and freedom in the market through unfair trade agreements like CAFTA.
As the government collapsed after the end of the civil war, drug cartels and underground economies emerged, stripping away the rule of law and taking away most opportunities for stable jobs. The result is a state ridden with crime and violence.
The U.S. has a penchant for helping fund and train deadly, anti-democratic forces across Latin America. We’ve sent arms to anti-Sandinistas in Argentina, helped the military overthrow Brazil’s President Joao Goulart and lent guns to political dissidents planning to assassinate Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
If we didn’t fund the forces that overthrew the governments we didn’t like, we took them out ourselves. Fear over Guatemala’s agrarian reforms, President Eisenhower sent the CIA to overthrow President Jacobo Árbenz, who was democratically-elected by the people of Guatemala 10 years prior.
The list doesn’t end there. Dozens of propaganda campaigns, military interventions and covert weapons programs have helped undermine democratically-elected governments and propped up vicious right-wing dictatorships.
Of course, all of these interventions resulted in instability that contributed to their respective current state of affairs. Governments that change hands every decade are less likely to form institutions that protect people from violence, provide economic opportunities and lift people out of poverty.
The thousands of migrants who endure treacherous conditions, leave the homes they loved and grew up in and experience discrimination in the countries they arrive in are not criminals coming to corrupt the United States. They are mothers. They are children. They are hard working families who want what our parents’ parents’ parents’ wanted when they migrated to this country: a chance to experience a decent quality of life.
But most importantly: they are coming because of us. We helped destroy their homes and have a duty to give them new ones.
At the very least, we cannot justify firing tear gas at them when they come to the border asking for our help. If our nation cannot be defined by inhumanity and cruelty, neither can our immigration system.