Given what the U.S. has done to nations such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which has very much contributed to the large-scale migration we are seeing today, the only morally correct position is to have completely open borders to people from these nations, not to mention open borders for Mexicans, considering we stole half their nation in an unjust war to expand slavery.
The flow of migrants trying to cross the border illegally is not all blowback from US foreign policy. Much of the poverty, injustice and murder in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is homegrown, harking back to the age of Spanish conquest. Small criminal elites have long prospered at the expense of the populations.
Experts on the region argue, however, that when politicians or activists have come forward on behalf of its dispossessed, the US has consistently intervened on the side of the powerful and wealthy to help crush them, or looked the other way when they have been slaughtered.
The families in the migrant caravans trudging towards the US border are trying to escape a hell that the US has helped to create.
Sometimes it has been a matter of unintended consequences. Enforcement measures targeting migrants have multiplied the cost of smugglers’ services. Desperate customers take out big loans at high interest in order to pay. The only hope of paying off those loans is to reach the US, so even if they fail at their quest, they have no choice but to try again, and again.
“Where it used to cost around $1,000 to make the journey from Central America, it now costs up to $12,000, making shuttle migration impossible,” said Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor at the centre for Latin American studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The only way for families to stay together is for women and children to migrate.”
More often US intervention in the affairs of these small and weak states has been deliberate, motivated by profit or ideology or both.
“The destabilisation in the 1980s – which was very much part of the US cold war effort – was incredibly important in creating the kind of political and economic conditions that exist in those countries today,” said Christy Thornton, a sociologist focused on Latin America at Johns Hopkins University.
Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquín, who died of septic shock and cardiac arrest in US border patrol custody, came from Alta Verapaz, in the northern Guatemala highlands, where small-scale farmers are being driven off their land to make way for agro-industry producing sugar and biofuels.
It is an example of why it is often hard to distinguish between security and economic reasons for migration. The men behind the land grabs are often active or retired military officers, who are deeply involved in organised crime.
“When communities fight back against land-grabbing, their leaders can be killed. We’ve seen just in the past year almost two dozen community leaders assassinated,” Oglesby said. “There is a legacy of impunity.”
Guatemala’s long civil war can in turn be traced back to a 1954 coup against a democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, which was backed by the US. Washington backed the Guatemalan military, which was responsible for genocide against the native population. An estimated 200,000 people were killed between 1960 and 1996.
“The point was to root out anything that looked like communist subversion, but it was really a scorched earth policy against the indigenous people,” Thornton said.
The issue of impunity for violence remains central to Guatemala’s chronic problems. Jimmy Morales, a former comedian and the country’s president since 2016, has announced he is going to close down the UN-backed International Committee against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig). Cicig has investigated corruption cases against Morales, his family and his political patrons, and links between organised crime and politicians like himself.
In September Cicig headquarters were surrounded by US-donated military jeeps, but there was no complaint from the Trump White House. On Tuesday, the government announced it was withdrawing diplomatic immunity from 11 Cicig workers.
And this is only touching the surface. Between the long histories of U.S. interventions, the nation’s insatiable drug habit, and the guns flowing south, the U.S. holds tremendous responsibility for what is happening. We owe it to these people to open our borders to them entirely without restriction.