“The mass migration of children from Central America has been at the center of a political firestorm over the past few weeks,” writes David Bacon today in In These Times. “All of this ignores the real reasons families take the desperate measure of leaving home and trying to cross the border.”
The mainstream media has run dozens of stories blaming families, especially mothers, for sending or bringing their children north. The president himself has lectured them, as though they were simply bad parents … Meanwhile, the story is being manipulated by the Tea Party and conservative Republicans to attack Obama’s executive action deferring the deportation of young people, along with any possibility that he might expand it—the demand of many immigrant rights advocates. More broadly, the far Right wants to shut down any immigration reform that includes legalization, and instead is gunning for harsher enforcement measures.
Bacon provides talking points that all of us — in every movement sector — can use to speak up in this urgent moment:
1. There is no “lax enforcement” on the U.S./Mexico border. There are over 20,000 Border Patrol Agents; that number was as low as 9,800 in 2001. We have walls and a system of large, centralized detention centers that didn’t exist just 15 years ago.
2. The migration of children and families didn’t just start recently. It has been going on for a long time, although the numbers have recently surged. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the U.S. promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change.
3. The recent increase in the numbers of child migrants is not just a response to gang violence, although this is the most-cited cause in U.S. media coverage. Migration is as much or more a consequence of the increasing economic crisis for rural people in Central America and Mexico, as well as the failure of those economies to produce jobs. People are leaving because they can’t survive where they are.
4. The failure of Central America’s economies is largely due to the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and their accompanying economic changes, including privatization of businesses, the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and cuts in the social budget. The treaties allowed huge U.S. corporations to dump corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America, forcing rural families off their lands when they could not compete.
5. When governments or people have resisted NAFTA and CAFTA, the United States has threatened reprisal. Right-wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) put forward a measure to cut off the flow of remittances (money sent back to Salvadoran families from family members working in the U.S.) if the leftwing party, the FMLN, won the 2004 presidential election. His bill did not pass, but the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador admitted that it had intervened. In 2009, the Honduran army overthrew President Manuel Zelaya after he raised the minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates and instituted free education. The Obama administration gave a de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the U.S.
6. Gang violence in Central America has a U.S. origin. Over the past two decades, young people from Central America have arrived in L.A. and big U.S. cities, where many were recruited into gangs, a story eloquently told by photographer Donna DeCesare in the recent book Unsettled/Desasociego: Children in the World of Gangs.
7. U.S. foreign policy in Central America has actively led to the growth of gang violence there. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, U.S. law enforcement assistance pressured local law enforcement to adopt a mano dura, or hardline, approach to gang members, leading to the incarceration of many young people deported from the U.S. almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment.
8. Kids looking for families here are looking for those who were already displaced by war and economic crisis. The separation of families is a cause of much of the current migration of young people. Young people fleeing the violence are reacting to the consequences of policies for which the U.S. government is largely responsible, in the only way open to them.
Armed with these facts, concludes Bacon, we “need to help families reunite, treat immigrants with respect, and change the policies the U.S. has implemented in Central America, Mexico and elsewhere that have led to massive migration. The two most effective measures would be ending the administration’s mass detention and deportation program, and ending the free trade economic and interventionist military policies that are causing such desperation in the countries these children and families are fleeing.”