On the Origins of the Current Immigration “Crisis” at the Border

Photo by Master Steve Rapport | CC BY 2.0

In the summer of 2018, the world and many people in the United States are horrified and shocked by US immigration policy of separating and detaining children as they cross the Southern border with their parents. Some mainstream media coverage, following the Trump narrative, implies that the United States had no choice but to separate children and detain their parents; that somehow the US is a “victim” in this situation. Such a narrative requires historical amnesia as well as a basic lack of understanding of US  foreign and domestic policy.

In order to understand why so many families embark on dangerous journeys that lead to crossing the border without documentation, we need to focus on some underlying causes.  Since the mid-twentieth century, the US as the dominant hegemonic power in Central America has created the conditions for the present economic, social and political realities of the region.  In the 1950s the CIA fostered a coup in Guatemala, resulting in the deaths of at least 200,000 Guatemalans over 5 decades. (1) From the late 1970s to 1992, the US conducted a war against the people of El Salvador, resulting in the deaths of over 75,000 men, women and children. (2)

From 1979 -1990, the US conducted a Contra war against the people of Nicaragua that killed over 50,000 people. The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador occurred after decades of US- imposed dictators, since the 1930s.  The numbers of people killed doesn’t reflect those who were injured and those whose lives were destroyed or impacted economically and socially. They not only killed thousands; they created the conditions that generated large numbers of refugees. The US wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua occurred under both political parties; they also destabilized the government of Honduras.  The interventions by the US are all well-documented historical facts that are not contested by knowledgeable people. (3)

A basic premise of our common humanity is that people have a right to stay where they are. They also have a right to migrate when conditions become too dangerous or oppressive to support life.  The current situation is related to conditions in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) where conditions have become so bad that people are forced to flee. It is impossible for them to exercise their right to stay, and now the United States, whose imperial policies helped create the crisis, is denying them their right to migrate.  Many of the immigrants are refugees and asylum seekers–the moral equivalents of Syrians and Africans who are currently seeking refuge in Europe; and of Jewish refugees (including Anne Frank) who were denied entry to the US (often at the US’s very doorstep) as they were escaping death and persecution in Europe during WWII. As a recent report by Amnesty International documents, the Trump administration’s denial of entry to refugees at the border violates both international and US domestic laws, (see: USA: Routine separation of asylum-seeking families violates international law.” (4)

While the mainstream media displays historical amnesia, there are other reports with smaller circulation that have the historical record correct.  One should read articles such as Ipek S. Burnett’s “Immigration and the Politics of Moral Corruption” inwww.counterpunch.org (June 28, 2016). (5)  James Thindwa’s “The Root Cause of the Immigration Crisis: The West’s Legacy of the Violent Conquest” is especially useful in www.inthesetimes.com (June 28, 2018). (6)  Also relevant is Mark Tseng-Putterman’s “A Century of US Intervention Created the Immigration Crisis”.  Tseng-Putterman’s article has a detailed timeline of US intervention in various countries. (7)  Other sources are listed below. (8)

In 2016, I was part of a Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) delegation to El Salvador.  This was my eighth trip there over the past 30 years.  Our delegation met with many popular groups in civil society. We also met with Salvadoran government officials, US embassy officials and Guatemalan officials inside Guatemala, who were involved with trying to stop migration from the Northern Triangle through Guatemala into Mexico and finally to the United States. One major goal of the delegation’s research was to examine the causes of migration in general, and especially the youth migration of 2014.  Our delegation wrote an unpublished report of our trip and our findings, including a presentation by Father Mauro Verzeletti of the Pastoral Center for Migrants.  In our report, we discussed the stresses faced by urban areas within El Salvador that are being forced to absorb migrants from rural areas. Some rural workers have found employment in the maquila sector, working for low wages, while others have joined the informal economy which is estimated to make up 60% of El Salvador’s total economy. We wrote,

Given that most Salvadorans cannot afford the $400 “basic basket” of food and goods for family subsistence, many remain in dire poverty. Fr. Mauro links this contemporary crisis to the heritage of colonial exploitation of the resources, land, and people of Latin America.  The recent history of US-supported neoliberal reforms reflects this connection. The result has been a loss of social safety nets, displacement of people from the countryside, and lack of job opportunities that allow families to cover the cost of their basic needs…It is precisely these issues of economic inequality that have pressured many individuals, and whole families to flee north.

Our report also addressed the increase in numbers of unaccompanied youth emigrating from Central America to the US. It pointed out that in response to the so-called “child migrant crisis,” the United States had intensified its efforts to “curtail and repress migration throughout Mexico and Central America.” We wrote,

These projects have encouraged a border enforcement crackdown, not only at the US-Mexico border, but also in Mexico’s southern border region…The efforts to curb migration throw obstacles in the paths of people seeking refuge in Mexico or the US, who may face grave risks, or even death, upon deportation…United States efforts to “deter” Central Americans from coming to the US are beginning to extend even further southward through a renewed push for neoliberal economic reforms and support for the militarization of the regional borders in Central America.  (2018 Note: This was confirmed to us by the Guatemalan Government officials with whom we met.)

The report concludes, “we are concerned that these US interventions will only serve to worsen the poverty and violence that people in Central America are fleeing.” (9)

When some public officials in the US assert that many of the migrants are only “economic” migrants, they are trying to make the case that migrants only want to better their lives with better jobs.  Actually these “economic” migrants’ primary goal is not to “better” their lives but to have any life at all.  Most people in El Salvador and those of the Northern Triangle are desperately poor.  Those who come to the US border are trying to stay alive. Because the US government bears responsibility for creating the conditions for their poverty, the US also has a responsibility to help create the conditions where their “right to stay” could be properly exercised.  Past administrations have done a poor job of doing this also, but this particular administration’s denial of any responsibility to utilize its resources is especially cruel.  When the Trump administration, as a matter of policy, kidnaps children, denies entry to battered spouses and those who are being persecuted and murdered by US-created gangs the actions of the administration—as policy—take on the aura of Evil.


One of President Trump’s most egregious lies and slanders has been to call immigrants “animals,” and then try to amend his comment later by saying that he was referring to MS-13, a gang with Salvadoran connections.  As the ultra-establishment Council on Foreign Relations notes, MS-13 was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadorans who fled the US-financed and directed civil war and were subsequently deported back to El Salvador.  (See the Washington Postarticle from July 20, 2017 “Deporting people made Central American gangs. More deportations won’t help.” (10) Human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury has noted that drug cartels and gangs are not the people who are fleeing Central America for the US; rather, those at the border are refugees fleeing the very cartels, gangs and economic conditions that are a direct result of past and current US policies. The culture of gangs and how to solve that problem is an important topic, but Trump’s insistence that the current immigration policies are meant to keep the US safe and secure from drug cartels and gangs is a lie based on fear mongering and racism. (11)


Some have argued that all who enter the US without documentation are by definition “illegal aliens” and therefore criminals.  This is only true in the same sense that enslaved African Americans who escaped from their “owners” were “illegal” runaways or fugitives who were depriving their “owners” of their “rightful” property.  From the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship to free whites, US immigration laws have been based on racist intent, implementation, and impact. (see Justin Chacon and Mike Davis’s NoOne is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the US-Mexico Border and David Bacon’s Illegal People. (12)


To sum up: the US government helped to set up dictatorships in Central America; it undermines all attempts at establishing democracies in those countries, including through wars and economic sabotage, and it created the conditions for blowback from the US in the form of cartels and gangs.  Then the US denies entry to legitimate refugees and asylum seekers, even to the extent of kidnapping their children,as they attempt to find safe haven in the US. It is time to turn the corner. This means not just acknowledging the truth of our shared history, but radically changing its direction with the goal not just of making amends, but preventing these types of actions in the future.


An example of policies that will undoubtedly create more refugees in the near future is the 2018 push to privatize the water supply of El Salvador.  The dominant right-wing ARENA party has introduced legislation to do just that, with the help of the US government’s second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact.  If water is privatized, desperate water refugees would seek to come to the US.  Under current immigration policy they will be labelled “economic migrants” who would not be worthy of admission.  One way to prevent this form of forced migration would be for the US to stop supporting the privatization of water and other public goods.  This would be beneficial for both the people of El Salvador and the US (13).


Another ongoing and future event that may dramatically impact future migration is Climate Change, which the Trump administration does not recognize but appears to be doing everything in its power to exacerbate.  There is a good deal of literature analyzing the growing connection between climate change and migration from Latin American. (14)  It is in our national interest to anticipate and mitigate the impact of climate change refugees in the next few decades.  The best way to stop refugees in the future is NOT to impose draconian policies at the border, but to help to create policies that will eliminate the conditions which force people to migrate.  We do not need to spend our resources militarizing the border in the US and at the Northern Triangle, but rather should be spending those resources to mitigate the impact of climate change without repressive policies. This, of course, would be helped if we had a government that even recognized that science and climate change are real, but that is not going to happen in the immediate future without extreme pressure from the general population.  We appear to have a current administration that is impervious to reason, logic or shame, but the general population can and must act now and in the future, literally for the sake of the children.

Recommendations for Actions

(1) Demand the end to detaining families at the border and demand that children be immediately reunited with their parents.

(2) Demand that all refugees, as required by law, be given a “credible fear interview” to establish their eligibility for refugee status.

(3) Refugee status, as required by international and national law, should be granted to those fleeing a credible threat based on ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugee status should also be granted to those fleeing gender violence, domestic violence, persecution because of LGBTQ status, war violence or gang violence.

(4) Reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to the January 1, 2017 levels.

Work with the governments and members of civil society of sending nations to recognize that people have a right to stay in their own countries (But NOT be forced to stay). Support popularly controlled community based economic development (not neoliberal policies) to maximize the possibility of utilizing the right to stay.  Assess how much money has been spent over the past 40 years to destabilize these societies and begin to invest at least an equivalent amount to rebuild them. Allocate funding from 10% of the U.S. Military Budget (aka “Defense”). This should be defined as a National Security issue just as the National Defense Student Loans and the Interstate Highway System were defined in the 1950s and 1960s.

See Bernie Sanders policy proposals: “A Fair and Humane Immigration Policy”


Sanders’ plans cover ending for-profit detention centers, ending family detentions, a path toward citizenship, reducing border deaths, ending militarization of borders, protecting women from discrimination, establishing fair trade policies, etc.

See CISPES statements on Immigration issues. Among them are:



Articles about CISPES work and Sanctuary: http://inthesetimes.com/article/19928/a-demand-for-sanctuary-el-salvador-central-america-solidarity-trump

The American Friends Service Committee has developed “A New Path”


To support or get involved with immigrant rights work:

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (https://www.nwirp.org/)

Mijente (https://mijente.net/)

Colectivo Legal (https://colectivalegal.org/)

One America (https://weareoneamerica.org/)

American Civil Liberties Union (https://www.aclu.org/)

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (http://www.nnirr.org/drupal/)

Northwest Detention Center Resistance (https://www.nwdcresistance.org/)

Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN: https://waimmigrantsolidaritynetwork.org/)

Strengthening Sanctuary: (olympia.sanctuary@gmail.com)

Aid Northwest (http://aidnw.org/about/)

10. See Article on A List of Organizations Dedicated to Helping Immigrants and Refugees That Need Your Support



(1) Stephan Schlesinger and Stephan Kinzer, (2005), Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, (revised edition), Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Cambridge, MA; Greg Grandin, (2006), Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (American Empire Project), Holt, 2007.

(2)  Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, (1999),El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, South End Press, Boston; Tommy Sue Montgomery, (1994) Revolution In El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace, Second Edition, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

(3) See, among others, Walter LaFeber, (1993), Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America(second edition), W. W. Norton & Company, New York; Eduardo Galeano, (1997), Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,Monthly Review Press, New York.; Juan Gonzales, (2011), Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Penguin Books, New York.Also see Mark Danner, (1994) The Massacre at El Mozote,Vintage, New York; William LeoGrande, (2000) Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.  Also see many articles over the years at North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) at https://nacla.org/and articles and information at CISPES at www.cispes.org.

(4) Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/usa-routine-separation-of-asylum-seeking-families-violates-international-law/

For relevant U.S. Law see: https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees.

For international law see https://ijrcenter.org/refugee-law/.

(5) https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/28/immigration-and-the-politics-of-moral-corruption/

(6) http://inthesetimes.com/article/21244/immigration-donald-trump-racism-slavery-pillaging-corporations

(7) Mark Tseng-Putterman, “A Century of U.S. Intervention Created Immigration Crisis”, https://medium.com/s/story/timeline-us-intervention-central-america-a9bea9ebc148

(8) For background information see: Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), https://www.wola.org/analysis/five-facts-about-migration-from-central-americas-northern-triangle/.

Migration Policy Institute (MPI), https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-american-immigrants-united-states

(9) Joint multiple authored unpublished report of CISPES delegation to El Salvador in July 2016 on “Understanding Migration From El Salvador: The Impact of US Policy.”

(10) Council on Foreign Relations, “Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle,” June 26, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-violent-northern-triangle.

(11) Washington Postarticle, July 20, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/07/20/deporting-people-made-central-americas-gangs-more-deportation-wont-help/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3c58867948e1

(12) See “Jennifer Harbury: Today’s Refugee Crisis is Blowback from U.S. Dirty Wars in Central America,” Democracy Now, June 28, 2018, https://www.democracynow.org/2018/6/28/jennifer_harbury_todays_refugee_crisis_is

(13) Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis, (2018), No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S. Mexico Border(second edition), Haymarket Books, Chicago. David Bacon, (2009) Illegal People, How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigration, Beacon Press, Boston, MA. Also see David Bacon, (2013), The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

(14) “El Salvador Social Movement Resist Water Privatization,” CISPES featured article, July 9, 2018, http://cispes.org/article/el-salvador-social-movements-resist-water-privatization

(15) If one examines “climate change and migration” in a Google search, one will discover literally hundreds of thousands of citations. When one does that same search in Google Scholar, one will still find thousands of academic studies.  This is an issue that we ignore at our own peril.