Children locked in dog kennels, crying by the sides of roads at night, wrapped in glittering Mylar blankets on the floors of Border Patrol processing centers, stowed away in an abandoned Walmart, flown thousands of miles from their parents. The sounds of their wails an “orchestra” to the ears of a border guard, who is heard quipping in audio captured at a child detention center that all that is “missing is a conductor.”
But there is a conductor.
He sits in a leather chair in the Oval Office, his arms crossed in a gesture not unlike that of a petulant toddler on time-out. He blames his political opponents for the nightmare troubling America’s conscience — 2,300 children, including infants, separated from their parents since April, when he instituted a “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute parents on criminal charges for attempting to enter the United States at its southern border.
“God has ordained the government for his purposes,” says his attorney general, citing Romans 13, a Bible verse used in the past to justify slavery.
“Womp-womp,” says the president’s former campaign manager, imitating the “Debbie Downer” sound effect.
“I don’t care, do u?” asks the all-capitalized lettering on the jacket cloaking the First Lady.
It turns out people care a lot. Yet despite the heightened scrutiny the detention of migrant children has received in recent weeks, little effort has been made to explain the origins of the crisis.
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The drama playing out right now is not just about detained families and their fate. It’s about what kind of society we want to be.
When the media stops to explain why Central American refugees are pouring over the border, it notes that Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — where most of the refugees hail from — are poor, politically unstable and plagued by some of the highest murder rates in the world. This begs the question, why are things so bad there? What chain of events has caused parents to flee at great risk to themselves, only to see their children ripped from them and tossed into cages?
Not that the right wing wants to hear it. When Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Fox News talk about people who flee their homes and travel thousands of miles to try and enter the United States, they don’t see people in need. They see an “invasion” by hordes of criminals who will burden the rest of us with their lawlessness and demands for public services.
This is a smear against immigrants as an entire group, who studies repeatedly show are less likely to commit crimes, and who contribute far more in taxes than they receive back in public services. As for the “invasion,” what if the real invasion began more than a century ago (if not five centuries ago) and continues to this day? And what if it has come not from the South to the North but the other way around — an invasion by a powerful northern neighbor intent on extracting as much wealth and resources as it can from smaller, weaker nations and ready to bend their governments to its will?
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Banana republic. The phrase conjures up images of a languid tropical locale where the government is corrupt and unstable and the economy functions at the whim of a few powerful interests. O. Henry first used it in a 1904 novel based on the time he spent on the Atlantic coast of Honduras, where the United Fruit Company was muscling its way into the country.
Next door in Guatemala, United Fruit would become the country’s largest landholder in the first decades of the 20th century, with much of that land lying idle to keep it out of the hands of potential competitors. It also controlled the sole railroad in the country, the sole facilities capable of producing electricity, and the main port facilities on the country’s Atlantic coast, while ruling its labor force with an iron fist.
El Salvador also became a full-fledged banana republic in the late 19th century, though its rugged terrain made coffee, not bananas, the main export crop for international markets. Coffee exports increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1880 and 1914. The large profits fueled the rapid concentration of land ownership and the rise of an oligarchy known as the Fourteen Families. This process was aided by pro-free market governments that abolished communal landholdings and passed anti-vagrancy laws that ensured peasants and other rural people would work on coffee plantations. In 1912, the hated National Guard was established as a rural police force that suppressed any sign of dissent.
Cycles of revolt and repression would follow across the region, with the United States invariably backing monstrous dictators straight out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
A 1932 peasant revolt in El Salvador was crushed, and 30,000 people were butchered over 10 days, in what became known as La Matanza, The Massacre. In nearby Nicaragua, rebel leader Augusto Sandino was captured and executed in 1934 after attending peace talks with the government. His movement was subsequently wiped out, as U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza seized power.
In 1944, progressive army officers in Guatemala helped topple a brutal dictator and usher in a decade of health, education and labor reforms. However, when the government of Jacobo Arbenz moved to redistribute some of United Fruit’s unused estates to landless peasants, Arbenz was swept aside in 1954 in a CIA-backed coup. The usual reign of terror followed for decades.
So what does all this distant history have to do with today’s immigration battles?
In the late 1970s, pent-up demands for change in Central America erupted. In Nicaragua, the Somoza family dictatorship was toppled by the Sandinistas, a leftist rebel group that took its name and inspiration from the original Sandino. Revolutionary movements surged in El Salvador and Guatemala as well.
For the United States, it was a moment of reckoning. Our government could have embraced the Central American people’s demands for freedom and a better life, something we all want for ourselves. Instead, the United States doubled down in support of its regional anti-communist allies and their butchery when President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981. He had promised, in as many words, to make America great again after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam six years earlier.
Reagan staffed his administration with right-wing ideologues such as U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, Elliot Abrams and John Bolton. They saw their battle against Central America’s revolutionary movements as an existential struggle between good and evil, capitalist democracy and totalitarian communism, in which the end justifies any means. The price for their holy war would be paid with the blood of others.
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In El Salvador, right-wing death squads ran wild, killing thousands of trade unionists, student activists and others — dumping their disfigured bodies for anyone to see. As Joan Didion wrote in Salvador, her 1983 account of the country’s torment:
“The dead and the pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie. Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body. A knot of children on the streets suggests the presence of a body. Bodies turn up in the brush of vacant lots, in garbage thrown down ravines in he richest districts, in public rest rooms, in bus stations. Some are dropped in Lake Ilopango, a few miles to the east of the city, and wash up near the lakeside cottages and clubs frequented by what remains in San Salvador of the sporting bourgeoisie.”
As the surviving activists fled to the mountains to join a burgeoning guerrilla movement, $5 billion in U.S. arms and assistance would flow into El Salvador over the next decade to prop up the government. More massacres followed. In one of the war’s most infamous episodes, the U.S.-trained and equipped Atlacatl Battalion massacred more than 800 peasants in the village of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets that were thought to harbor rebel sympathizes. As narrated in Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote, Salvadoran soldiers first killed all the adults and then took young women and girls as young as 10 to nearby hillsides to gang rape before finishing them off. Finally, El Mozote’s surviving “tender-age” children were led to a church building where they were killed by gunfire, bayonets, and rifle butts to the head.
The massacre’s lone survivor, Rufina Amaya, a mother of four, hid nearby in the thorny brush, unnoticed by soldiers. She heard the children’s cries for help and vowed to share their story with the world. When word got out, the Reagan administration treated the massacre as so much fake news. The New York Timesdemoted Raymond Bonner, the reporter who broke the story. When investigators were finally able to enter El Mozote more than a decade later, they found the remains of 131 children aged 12 or younger.
A similar dynamic unfolded in Guatemala, where urban protests were suppressed mercilessly and the Army unleashed a scorched-earth campaign in the highlands, massacring whole villages of Mayan Indians thought to be in cahoots with leftist rebels. In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration organized Somoza’s former henchmen into a mercenary army known as the Contras, who targeted teachers, doctors and others sent to work in the countryside by the Sandinista government.
Reagan complained that Guatemala’s military dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, was getting a bum rap from his critics. He demanded that Congress continue funding the Contras because the Sandinistas were “just two days driving time from Harlingen, Texas” on the U.S.-Mexico border — as if a nation of 3 million was going to invade a nuclear-armed superpower.
The Central American wars of the 1980s left an estimated 300,000 people dead, the great majority of whom died at the hands of right-wing forces. Hundreds of thousands fled to the United States. As the Cold War wrapped up, peace treaties were signed and the wars wound down, leaving destabilized societies in their wake. The region, no longer a geopolitical flashpoint, was largely forgotten by Washington policymakers, whose attentions were increasingly drawn to fighting bloody new crusades in the Middle East.
Not that the U.S.-backed bloodletting in Central America was entirely forgotten in elite circles. Vice President Dick Cheney, asked in a 2004 campaign debate how the George W. Bush administration would respond to the growing insurgency in Iraq, suggested the “Salvadoran option” would do the trick. Sure enough, over the next several years, U.S.-backed Shi’ite militias unleashed a wave of terror and ethnic cleansing against the country’s Sunni minority, setting the stage for the later rise of ISIS.
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In El Salvador, there was a brief moment of hope after peace accords were signed in 1992 between the government and the FMLN, the leftist rebel group. Under the deal, the FMLN laid down its arms and became a legal political party. The Salvadoran Army was cut in half, and known human-rights abusers were purged. The National Guard was disbanded and replaced with a civilian police force that incorporated some former FMLN combatants.
The FMLN competed for the first time in elections in the spring of 1994. At that time, I was staying in a dusty market town as the guest of a local family, and hitchhiked around the country without incident. Above all, people conveyed to me a feeling of relief tinged with optimism that a conflict that claimed 75,000 lives over a dozen years was finally over.
The conservative ARENA party won the election, and the FMLN finished second. It all went down peacefully. When I returned to visit a year later, the country was seized by fear of a growing crime wave. A sense of menace lurked in the air. The new president vowed on national television to go after the criminals with a mano duro, or heavy hand.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the United States had begun deporting thousands of young Salvadorans with criminal records. The deportees, in many cases, had come with their refugee parents to Los Angeles in the early 1980s as small children and later had joined Salvadoran street gangs.
Instead of the Bloods and the Crips, it was MS-13 and the 18th Street gang. With a weak state, little in the way of jobs or opportunities for the deportees (the U.S. aid spigot dried up once the war was over), and an abundance of demobilized soldiers and ex-guerrilla, El Salvador became a petri dish in which violent crime exploded. MS-13 and 18th Street would soon expand their reach into Guatemala and Honduras, with similarly harrowing results. The three nations in the northern half of Central America became the homicide capital of the world.
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When it was least expected, good news came to Honduras. The country had been spared the worst of the 1980s-era conflicts. Still, it was one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 2006, a timber magnate and cattle rancher named Manuel “Mel” Zelaya became president with little fanfare. To everyone’s surprise, Zelaya moved rapidly to the left. During his three and a half years in office, free education for all children was introduced along with free school meals for poor children; the minimum wage was boosted by 80 percent; and domestic employees became covered by the social security system for the first time. Zelaya also established friendly relations with Cuba and struck an alliance with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela which helped bankroll his increased social spending.
For once in its long, oligarchical history, Honduras had a president that was doing something for the people. Honduran elites and U.S. hawks found Zelaya intolerable. In June 2009, he was overthrown in a coup with the tacit support of the Obama administration, and was spirited into exile in the middle of the night.
Massive protests followed, but the new regime clung to power. Both common crime and politically motivated assassinations soared. The presidential elections in 2013 and 2017 were marred by claims of fraud and saw anti-government protesters killed by police. Amid the chaos, refugees began streaming north to the U.S. in 2014. After a lull, the number of asylum-seeking refugees from Central America is growing again. Barack Obama, the cool and detached deporter-in-chief, oversaw the removal of three million immigrants during his eight years in office, only to be replaced by Donald Trump with his naked, unabashed racism.
While the courts will have their say on questions of law, people around the country are leading the way with acts of solidarity. Here are a few examples.
Rio Grande Valley — In this normally sleep corner of Texas, waves of protesters from around the country have descended on the detention sites where child refugees have been warehoused.
New York City — On the night of June 20, hundreds of New Yorkers turned out at LaGuardia Airport to greet children separated from their parents being flown into the New York area on commercial airlines.
San Diego — Religious leaders marched June 23 to the Otay Mesa Detention Center and chanted “No estás solo” (You are not alone). When the detainees heard them, they cheered loudly.
Portland — On June 17, protesters blockaded the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters and established an occupation outside the building that over the next 10 days morphed into a mini-city with 90 tents, a hydration station, a medical tent and a children’s tent. As The Indy goes to press, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is refusing to dismantle the encampment. Similar occupations have since popped up outside ICE headquarters in other cities.
The drama playing out right now is not just about detained families and their fate. It’s about what kind of society we want to be. Amid wars, so-called failed states and above all climate change, the 21st century will be a century of unprecedented human migration. How will we respond?
From the time he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential candidacy, Donald Trump has appealed to the racist paranoia of his Make America White Again followers. Now that the cruelty of his policies has ignited widespread revulsion, another more inclusive vision of who we can be is being advanced.
Welcoming the Central American refugees is the smart thing to do. In time they will contribute much to our society. More important, it’s the right thing to do. It also gives us a chance to reckon with the history that brought them here and begin to take responsibility for it. When we embrace the refugee, we embrace the best in ourselves. Love trumps hate, as the saying goes. But only if we make it happen.