Immigration policy and the border with Mexico has dominated recent news. Curiously missing is any discussion of the role of the U.S. in precipitating this crisis.
Any fair reading of history shows that U.S. policies have contributed to the grinding poverty and the failure of governance which in turn have driven so many people to flee in the hopes of a better life — or even simple survival. Only when we honestly grapple with our own contribution can we devise a fair and honorable solution to the immigration problem — a solution that acknowledges our own responsibility by providing material assistance.
Most (but not all) of the migrants at the Mexico border come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — countries wracked by violent crime, and lacking basic features of civil society. According to the World Economic Forum two of these countries are among the five most violent in the world.
The history of U.S. policy toward this region began 200 years ago when President James Monroe proclaimed that North and South America were the United States’ exclusive domain, setting the stage for decades of conquest and imperialism. The legacy includes the religion-infused credo of Manifest Destiny with its attempted moral justification of atrocities carried out in the name of expanding U.S. power and influence, most pointedly in Latin America.
Under the guise of U.S. policy, the National Security Archives shows how the CIA worked to overthrow a democratically elected president in Guatemala who supported land reforms. The Nation has reported how U.S. arms and money supported forces in El Salvador who killed thousands of civilians in the 1980s. One especially egregious illustration is the 1982 coup in which Efraín Ríos Montt became president of Guatemala and then allowed the systematic rape, torture and murder of the indigenous population. Montt, who died last year, enjoyed the support of the Reagan administration, was later tried for genocide and crimes against humanity, as reported in his obituary.
For generations, U.S. policy in the region favored military strongmen, while facilitating the suppression of indigenous populations, students, union workers, and peasants. Human rights and economic self-sufficiency rarely received even an afterthought. Along the way, thousands of civilians lost their lives, disappeared, or were denied any chance of a livelihood.
Often while deceiving our fellow citizens, both Democratic and Republican administrations backed these policies, which left a deep and lasting mark on the region. The consequences reverberate today in the form of social and political instability, a vacuum of authority, and a dearth of economic opportunity.
There is enough blame to go around. Some anti-U.S. forces in the region routinely ignored basic civil rights and democratic norms while engaging in violence against their own people. Some have responded to the United States’ abusive policies by embracing radical Marxism.
U.S. policy was highly effective in promoting and protecting business interests, but we failed to foster democracy, economic opportunity, or basic humanity. A different policy toward the region might have led to prosperity and stronger democratic institutions while preventing the desperate circumstances that now prompt mass migration. More prosperous neighbors also would have contributed to the hemisphere’s economic growth to the benefit of the U.S. and other countries.
Our country bears moral responsibility for the predictable consequences of our policy. For that reason alone, we should approach the current wave of migration with humility, understanding, and compassion. While we can’t erase the legacy created in our name, at least we can mitigate some of its worst effects.
Opening our arms — and our pocketbooks — to Central American immigrants and others with similar stories would be a good start.
John Brautigam is an attorney in Falmouth and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Maine.