How Trump’s migration policies are linked to a violent national legacy

Mark Engler argues that US foreign policy historically has helped give rise to the current administration's migration policies

Children and family members take part in a sit-in following a march to mark the court-ordered deadline for the Trump Administration to reunify thousands of families separated at the border, in Washington, US, 26 July, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

Small children have been pulled from the arms of their parents and locked in far-flung facilities. When they will return to their families remains uncertain.

With President Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy of separating families detained while trying to cross the US border, the world witnessed a pageant of shocking cruelty. Certainly, callous inhumanity is not new to the nation’s immigration system. As conservatives and radicals alike have noted, President Obama furthered policies that militarized the border, criminalized immigrants and unjustly detained families.

Yet the Trump administration’s policy amounted to an unusually blunt endorsement of torture: attempt to enter the country without papers, the threat held, and we will abduct your children.

While others tried to deny this implication, White House chief of staff John Kelly admitted to it – publicly hoping that the policy would serve as a ‘tough deterrent’ for desperate migrants.

Facing widespread backlash, Trump was forced in June to partially roll back his family separation policy. But his administration’s brutish treatment of émigrés is central to its appeal to its hardcore nativist base. As one appalled Republican strategist put it, these supporters want to deport ‘anyone who’s darker than a latte’.

Such conservatives see immigrants as undeserving leeches who have come for a simple reason: because the US is awesome and they want a free ride.

For them, immigration is a domestic concern – a matter of protecting the borders from invading hordes. However, their lack of internationalist vision blinds them to the root causes of the issue, which are bound up in US foreign policy.

Immigrants come because life in their home countries has become unlivable. Why? The not-so-awesome parts of US history have much to do with it. In the words of author and journalist Juan González, immigration is the ‘harvest of empire’.

Recall that, in the name of halting the spread of communism, the Reagan administration sent billions of dollars to death-squad governments in El Salvador. As former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner writes: ‘In the early 1980s, El Salvador was receiving more such aid than any country except for Egypt and Israel, and the embassy staff was nearly as large as that in New Delhi.’ The US likewise waged a brutal Contra War in Nicaragua and sponsored a genocide in Guatemala, during which some 200,000 people – largely Mayan campesinos – disappeared along with their villages.

In 1980, roughly 350,000 immigrants from Central America were living in the US. By the early 1990s, owing to a flood of residents fleeing the region’s dirty wars, that number had quadrupled.

Neoliberal US trade policy didn’t help either. Immigration from Mexico doubled after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which drove many small farmers off their land – flooding their country with heavily subsidized corn.

We live with the consequences of interventions three decades ago, as war criminals we armed went on to form the organized crime syndicates that now spur new waves of refugees. Nor have we stopped intervening: witness the US decision to ultimately condone the 2009 rightwing coup in Honduras, which increased economic misery, spread corruption and led to repression of trade unionists and community activists.

In the 1980s, solidarity movements worked to raise awareness of the human cost of US actions in Central America. Today, even among those morally outraged by the sight of kids in detention centres begging for their parents, there is far less understanding of how, in a fundamental sense, these are children of intervention.

Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, the ongoing humanitarian tragedy at the border is, in no small part, the fruit of this rotten legacy.