The current media hysteria about Central American kids was sparked by photos of the appalling conditions in the detention facilities. Those photos were leaked by members of the Border Patrol to Tea Party activists who wanted to pressure the Obama administration to implement harsher immigration enforcement mechanisms.
They have been quite successful. Obama responded by announcing plans for increased enforcement along the U.S. border.
President Obama has been accused of just opening up the border. Actually, his administration has deported approximately 400,000 people a year. He is spending $18 billion on border enforcement. We now have more than 21,000 Border Patrol agents. That’s double the number of agents since 2005. That’s more than all the other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The prosecutions for “illegal entry” have risen by 130 percent since 2007.
There are 700 miles of walls at the Mexican border backed by sophisticated surveillance towers, cameras and more than 12,000 motion sensors. The agents have drones, Blackhawk helicopters and armed personnel carriers.
The once-thin border around the country and both coasts has been extended 100 miles inland and now covers places where two-thirds of the U.S. population (197.4 million people) live. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls it a “constitution-free zone.”
“Border Patrol checkpoints and roving patrols are the physical world equivalent of the National Security Agency,” says attorney James Lyall of ACLU Arizona. “They involve a massive dragnet and stopping and monitoring of innocent Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing by increasingly abusive and unaccountable federal government agents.”
Almost all of the kids at our border come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They tell interviewers that they are escaping violence and poverty. Many are fleeing to neighboring countries as well. Since 2009, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize jointly documented a 712 percent increase in the number of asylum applications from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The kids are escaping situations U.S. policies helped create. The rural areas were devastated by “free trade.” The North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements encouraged gigantic U.S. corporations to dump corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America, forcing rural families off their lands when they couldn’t compete. This forced many to migrate northward.
Things might be different if the popular democratic movements of the 1970s had succeeded.
That was a time of despair. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying every year in El Salvador and Guatemala from malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. That was a time of hope. There was mass non-violent organizing and protest by workers, peasants, students, priests and academics.
The U.S.-backed military dictatorships of El Salvador and Guatemala responded to the protests with selfnamed “death squads.” Hooded figures in vans would kidnap dissidents and then dump the mutilated bodies by a roadside a few days later. Frequently, the victim had his genitals removed and stuffed in his mouth and his hands cut off. This was quite effective. The popular movements for social change were crushed. Many went into the hills and became guerrillas. The dictatorships responded with ferocious mass murders of civilians (200,000 in Guatemala and 75,000 in El Salvador) enthusiastically supported by President Reagan. Years later, President Clinton would release secret CIA documents revealing U.S. complicity in genocide in Guatemala. He would travel to Guatemala to publicly apologize.
Honduras was the base of U.S. operations in our 1980s dirty wars. Recently in 2009, the Honduran military overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya who had raised the minimum wage, given subsidies to small farmers, and initiated free education. Obama criticized the coup at first, but ended up backing the regime.
The Honduran state security forces have engaged in a bloody campaign of political and social persecution. Opposition politicians, journalists, gays, campesinos, indigenous protesters and human rights activists seem to be the victims of quite a few targeted killings. In May, 108 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to pressure Honduras to protect human rights, ensure the rule of law and not give any more money to the security forces.
If we examine this perverse history, you can’t avoid concluding that we have a special moral responsibility to help those kids.