Guest Post from Dr. Jan L. Flora and Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz
Our chickens are coming home to roost with the large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children making the life-threatening journey from Central America through Mexico and across our southern border. Perhaps a better metaphor would be to say that we fail to recognize our collective paternity of the children undertaking this dangerous trip.
Some readers may remember the Contra War under Reagan, but the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala by the Eisenhower Administration is little known here. The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Arbenz’ elected Guatemalan government in 1954 and replaced him with Col. Castillo Armas. Arbenz had sought to peacefully change the extremely unequal land ownership patterns in that country. Our support of right-wing governments triggered a 36-year insurgency. When indigenous peasants joined the fight a quarter century later, General Rios Montt’s regime (1982-83), according to Amnesty International, massacred 70,000 civilian women, children, and men. Although the U.S. wrung its hands at these grizzly human rights violations, military aid continued to flow to Rios Montt. The current president Otto Pérez Molina was the general in charge of the army unit in El Quiche responsible for genocide in that area. Currently, Guatemalan communities opposing mega projects (e.g., mining, hydroelectric dams) are being repressed when they opt instead for local and sustainable development.
U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorships in Nicaragua (1932-1979) and right wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras led to insurgencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and pervasive human rights abuses in Honduras. Only Costa Rica, which never had such unequal landholdings and which had a mild-mannered revolution in 1948 which resulted in the elimination of its military and regular democratic alternations in power of competing political parties to the present day. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua came to power in 1979, prompting our fomenting of a bloody civil war there to forestall another Cuba in our hemisphere, though neither the Soviet Union nor China provided support to the guerrillas in any of the three countries.
Once the U.S. and its rightist Central American allies brought the insurgent groups to the table to negotiate a peace agreement in 1996, our development aid plummeted. Our narrowly defined interests had prevailed, which somehow absolved our government of any need to build more just societies. Formal democracy returned and has been unbroken in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, but the four Central American countries we “aided” in the 1980s are as impoverished as ever. Absent significant economic development, right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras offered an ideal setting for narco-traffickers to operate. El Salvador, after a series of right wing governments, has finally elected progressive governments twice in a row, but inequality remains great. The deportation of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles has strengthened gang violence in that country. President Obama, to his credit, ultimately decided not to block the election of a former FMLN guerrilla leader and his party to the Salvadoran Presidency earlier this year.
Honduras, from which the U.S. coordinated its Central American anti-guerrilla operations in the 1980s, had an abysmal human rights record. As a member of a Central American human rights task force of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in 1986, the first author visited Honduras with two other LASA scholars. We verified the Honduran government’s human rights shortcomings and corroborated U.S. knowledge of those violations. Missionary friends recently returned and currently in Honduras indicate that that record remains problematic. In 2006, Manuel Zelaya was elected President. He came to be modestly progressive, raising the minimum wage, aiding small farmers, and offering free public education. The U.S., in contrast to most Latin American countries, ultimately gave its blessing to a bloodless coup in 2009, which stopped progressive government action. Add the gang activities and it is not so surprising that child migration from Central America (especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) is on the upswing. This year, 75% of the unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border are from these three countries; most of the rest are from Mexico. The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showing that thegreatest number of unaccompanied children come from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, where the homicide rate is 38 times that of New York City!
The UN refugee commissioner (UNHCR) recently interviewed a representative sample of 400 Central American and Mexican unaccompanied children ages 12-17 apprehended in the U.S. Forty-eight percent of the youth recounted being personally affected by organized violence from drug cartels, gangs, or state law enforcement personnel. Twenty-two percent indicated having experienced abuse or violence by their caretakers at home. The UNHCR estimates that some 58% of the unaccompanied youth merit protection from returning home. The DHS examined the origins of unaccompanied Central American children who came during the first 4 ½ months of 2014. They concluded that “…many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US. Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of travelling along to the US preferable to remaining at home.” The Center for American Progress shows that lax border enforcement (the mantra of Sen. Grassley and Rep. King is “secure the border first”) is not a factor, since the amount spent on border interdiction has increased along with numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended. The numbers of such minors doubled from 2011 to 2013 and likely will double again from 2013 to 2014. Border Patrol agents doubled between 2002 and 2013. The $18 billion we spend annually on immigration enforcement dwarfs what we spend on health and development assistance ($198 million in FY2014) in all of Central America.
We provide military aid to Central America ostensibly to fight the drug wars. A failed U.S. drug policy (failed because it has neither slowed drugs from south of the border nor reduced demand in the U.S.) strengthens the Honduran National Police with a suspect human rights record. The Los Angeles Times on July 9 reported that an elite unit of the Honduran national police trained by the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit to interdict drugs and arms, is currently assigned to keep Honduran children and families from crossing the border into Guatemala on their way to the U.S. This immigrant interdiction program, “Operation Rescue Angels,” and has been in effect since VP Biden’s trip to Central America. This aid is part of the $642 million spent since 2008 on security assistance to all seven Central American countries. $176 million was proposed for FY2014.
How have our public officials responded to child migration? Not well. President Obama seeks additional funds for Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied minors, but proposes to change the 2008 law that prevents summary deportation of unaccompanied children all countries but Mexico. The Administration is now working on a proposal to grant refugee status to a limited number of Honduran children and youth in Tegucigalpa, but that is not likely to stem the tide of unaccompanied child immigration. The Administration seems to be as embarrassed by the appearance of these refugees as Republicans should be for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the single most important factor in unauthorized migration to this country. Reps. Latham and King and Sen. Grassley have stood up for “strict” adherence to immigration law, while blocking comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would diminish problems generated by and for the youthful sojourners who risk life and limb to escape an intolerable social situation in their countries of origin and/or to be reunited with parents they may have not seen for many years. It does appear that – in the short term — the Pharisees speak louder than those who embrace the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Governor Branstad has steadfastly refused to collaborate with other Iowans in helping Iowa’s share of these brave, ragged children to be housed here while it is sorted out which have relatives where in the U.S., which should be eligible for asylum, and which could safely be deported back to their home countries. Governor Branstad seems determined to take an anti-Obama stance, when he should be taking a pro-Governor Ray stance – welcoming refugees from troubled parts of the world. Governor Branstad distinguishes the child refugees from Central America and those who came to Iowa from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, by saying that the latter came legally. That is a distinction without a difference. The bill proposed by the Senators from Arizona to allow a modest number of child refugees from Central America, also proposes to immediately turn back all those who would continue to arrive at our borders. The irony of the anti-immigrant hysteria among certain of our political leaders is that immigrants who have arrived in Iowa since the 1990s, first mainly from Mexico, now increasingly from Central America and other war zones around the world, have enriched our culture, stabilized the population of certain declining rural counties, and expanded Iowa’s youthful population as Iowans of European descent continue to age. Those of us who will one day qualify for social security should be thankful for the young families – and indeed the unaccompanied children – that have migrated to our country and will pay the taxes that keep us healthy and happy in our retirement.
What to do? The most humane way of dealing with these unaccompanied children is for the U.S. to “harmonize its immigration law with domestic child welfare and international law by … requiring U.S. officials to consider the best interests of the child as primary in all … decisions regarding immigrant children.” (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense 2014). The study, A Treacherous Journey, financed by the McArthur Foundation, further recommends:
- No child should appear in immigration proceedings without legal representation; the Attorney General should appoint counsel skilled in child immigration matters.
- An independent child advocate should be appointed for all children wanting to stay in the U.S.
- A new form of immigrant relief should be enacted to prevent children from being deported when returning home opposes their best interests.
Our government over the years has helped create conditions that make these children refugees – by supporting the right-wing dictators who fought savagely (often with weapons paid for by us — U.S. taxpayers) to maintain the privileges of the military and the landowning class over and against another group of children, women, and men who committed the profound error of being born into a system that was rigged against them. Should we not demonstrate Iowa values once again in welcoming the stranger as we did in the aftermath of the Vietnam War? Come on, Governor Branstad, have a heart. After all, THEY ARE CHILDREN!
Dr. Flora is Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University. He worked for the Ford Foundation in Spanish-speaking South America and in Nicaragua from 1978 through 1980. He published a paper on “Roots of insurgency in Central America” (1987) and a book on the same topic. Rev. Alfaro-Santiz a U.S. resident, is the Immigration Specialist for the Central District of Iowa United Methodist Church and a Pastor of Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community. He is a native of Guatemala. References used in the paper are available from the first author (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Jan L. Flora
1902 George Allen Ave.
Ames, IA 50010
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Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community 1548 8th St Des Moines, IA 50311
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