Rare is the occasion that power systems voluntarily expose the true character of their policies. Mountains of disinformation and distortion are critical to keep the prying eyes of the public at bay. President Obama recently broke with this norm on the White House lawn. In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulous he angrily denounced Central American parents for sending their children to the US border. “Don’t send your children to the border … they’ll get sent back,” he inveighed. These words plausibly aroused memories throughout the region of a darker era when the US played a much deadlier role. In her illuminating study They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration historian Aviva Chomsky documents the discrimination Central American migrants faced in the 1980s.
Devastated by Reagan’s terrorist war against the region, thousands of Central Americans traveled north to escape the violence of US-backed death squads. Of the 45,000 Salvadoran refugees that applied for asylum between 1984 and 1990 only 2.6% were approved. Further, of the 9,500 Guatemalan refugees in the same period a mere 1.8% were approved. Striking statistics of this kind, Chomsky observed, reflect the “much more political than humanitarian,” character of US refugee policy. Refugees from “enemy states” like the Soviet Union and Cuba were far more likely to be granted asylum than those migrating from US controlled domains. The hundreds of thousands of corpses generated by these policies serve as gruesome affirmation of this fact. Death toll estimates from the war in El Salvador, where the US backed the murderous Salvadoran military junta, place the number killed at 70,000. Meanwhile, in Guatemala casualties reached a staggering 200,000.
Incidentally, the barriers erected to impede entry of traumatized Guatemalans were significantly relaxed when it came to their torturers. Take the case of Hector Gramajo. As Defense Minister in the Guatemalan army, Gramajo played an integral role in the genocide against the country’s indigenous Mayan population. Not only was he given free entry, but Harvard University granted him a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Such double standards were central to Reagan’s “war on terror” , which unleashed a plague of state-terrorism with effects that linger to this day. It’s worth contemplating whether Obama had this sordid history in mind when he emulated the crimes of Reagan, principally through what researcher Alexander Main has described as the “US Remilitarization of Central America and Mexico.” Military aid to Central America has sharply increased under the Obama administration. Under the pretext of the “war on drugs”, his administration has poured millions of dollars in US arms into the region. Chief among these militarization programs are the Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). In 2012 US arms sales to Guatemala totaled $21.3 million. Moreover, Guatemalan military officers have increasingly replaced the civilian leadership and neighboring Honduras has yet to recover from a US-backed military coup. A wide range of scholars and journalists now concede that the 2009 coup accelerated Honduras’ descent into chaos, triggering the mass migration Washington is working to reverse. Writing in the New York Times, historian Dana Frank harshly condemned the takeover for plunging the country into “a human rights and security abyss,” which was “in good part the State Department’s making.”
Current statistics on unaccompanied youth from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras support Frank’s assessment in more concrete terms. Between October 2008 and September 2009 the total number of child migrants apprehended by US border authorities stood at 19,418. Five years later, this figure skyrocketed to a stunning 46,188. Describing the region as a “corridor of violence”, the International Crisis Group observed “the most dangerous areas in Central America is located along the border of Guatemala with Honduras.” And this imperial assault is not without economic analogues. Converting Latin America into a workshop for US industry has been a long-standing goal of US policy makers. Justifying US ambitions to dominate Cuba, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams described the island’s people as little more than children. Cubans, “forcibly disjoined” from Spanish control, he argued, were “incapable of self-support,” therefore they had to submit to US demands. Contemporary forms of this doctrine can be found in the expanding array of “free trade agreements”, all of which are designed to enrich US-based corporations at the great expense of the poor. Citing a provision in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Obama administration turned to naked coercion by withholding $277 million in economic aid from El Salvador unless they abolished a government-run seed program designed to empower small farmers. Fortunately, Congressional pressure, spurred by a grassroots struggle to overturn the policy, forced the Obama administration to abandon this goal. Nevertheless, the mere attempt is a dramatic indication of where US strategic interests lay.
Considering this long record of US subversion, it takes special talent not to notice this. Even so, the “free press” has not faltered in fulfilling its traditional function as courtiers of power. Consequently, the spectrum of opinion on this topic has been tightly restricted as to exclude any reference to Washington’s role in stimulating the current crisis. Paired with this sanitized presentation of the factual record, is a recurring narrative suffused with racist undertones, conjuring images of brown bodies engulfing the mainland. Routinely, child migrants are portrayed as “flooding”, “surging”, and “rushing” the borders. A simple Google query combining the phrase “Mexican immigrant” and “flood” yields several articles of immigration “crises” whereas the phrase “European immigrant” and “flood” returns only articles about natural disasters. While some may ridicule these observations as an illustration of “political correctness” run amok, its importance has not gone unnoticed in linguistic scholarship. Drawing from extensive analysis of 175,000 articles from 18 British newspapers, Lancaster University linguists Paul Baker and Costas Gabrielatos observe that such words serve as “negative semantic prosodies,” designed to stress the “inordinate number” of refugees more than anything else. It’s therefore unsurprising that commentators across the political spectrum have not missed a step in reinforcing this “siege-like mentality.” President Obama’s stated policy of “aggressive deterrence”, a term more appropriate for conventional warfare, adds to this narrative.
Also ignored is the transparent illegality of the Obama administration’s response. Aside from violating elementary principles of international law–the 1951 Refugee Conventions criminalizes the forcible return of refugees (“refoulement”)–reputable human rights organizations have condemned, in unambiguous terms, the Obama administration’s penchant for “controls and interdiction,” over “public security and violence prevention” as a means for conducting border policy. On July 3, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a press release condemning the detention of asylum seekers as a policy that “causes unnecessary suffering.” Regarding the welfare of children, the commission added, “the effects are particularly serious because of the devastating effect detention can have on their emotional and psychological development , even if they are not separated from their families.” ACLU Director Laura Murphy went considerably beyond this in her critique, writing “the President is mishandling a humanitarian crisis by proposing an inadequate speedy removal process that only further jeopardizes vulnerable children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America.”
Reviewing this litany of horrors, one gains a renewed appreciation for the precarious situation in which Central American youth find themselves, along with a deepened sense of indignation over the actions of a President intent on sealing their fate. International law and basic morality demand that the children of Central America are treated with the care and dignity that they and previous generations have been robbed under several decades of US policy. Achieving this end would require overcoming the convenient myths of power and the culture of indifference in which they take root.
Xavier Best is a writer and independent political critic who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an editor and contributor for The Southern Praxis and maintains a regularly updated blog at xavierobrien.wordpress.com. He can be contacted via Twitter at @Xav711
Bolender, Keith. Voices from the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism against Cuba. London: Pluto, 2010. Print.
Chomsky, Aviva. “They Take Our Jobs!”: And 20 Other Myths about Immigration. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2007. Print.