The Trump administration’s open embrace of violent tactics against Central American migrants has prompted a fierce national debate over U.S. border policy. While Trump supporters have reveled in the carnivalesque cruelty of family separation and tear-gassing children, critics have preached compassion, Christian values, and welcoming asylum seekers with open arms.
As the debate oscillates between the limited options of cruelty and mercy, however, it inevitably depicts Americans as humble bystanders to violence in Central America. What this narrative ignores is that the United States has played a dominant role in creating that violence.
In the late 1800s, as enslaving African-Americans became more legally challenging and labor movements raised wages and standards in the United States, wealthy American industrialists exported abusive labor and land practices south of the border to a place where the workers, the land, and the politics could be more easily manipulated: Central America.
As Spanish influence waned, these men took over the colonial structure, bribing the remaining European-descended elites to help them seize land for banana plantations and force local people into abusive and deadly work conditions. To maintain control, they gave a cut of the profits to local elites and crafted highly-paid corporate boards of American politicians who could be called on to help suppress dissent.
For the next several decades, this alliance of business interests maintained control of the political system by organizing, funding, and green-lighting a series of coup-d’etats. To further suppress dissent and democracy, dictators received training through the U.S. School of the Americas and funds and weapons to carry out torture, assassinations, and campaigns of ethnic cleansing against local leaders, union organizers, teachers, and anyone who interfered with the efficient extraction of resources.
In the 90s, economic “restructuring” opened these countries to even more exploitation through predatory policies. In the name of development, the U.S. and the World Bank helped extractive industries gain exploitative contracts for mines and hydroelectric dams that usurped even more land and then pushed free trade policies that put small farmers out of business and led to a malnutrition crisis.
Today, transnational companies running dams, mines, and agribusinesses continue to send their products and profits abroad to wealthier foreign consumers and investors while displacing subsistence farmers and destroying the local environment. Efforts to change the system are stymied by a tradition of corruption and violence, and activists who challenge this system are frequently threatened and assassinated. As a result, migrants today face a terrible choice: take a risk migrating to the U.S. or stay in a region broken by a legacy of corruption and violence.
This is the legacy of a century of American policy and interventions. Our history has been a constant struggle between our aspirational values of democracy and human rights and a system designed to help wealthy white men make a profit at any cost. In our relationship with Central America, the latter has won out for the past century.
What conservatives fail to understand is that no amount of violence at the border will deter migrants because it was our violent policies in their homes that pushed them to migrate in the first place. But calls for Christian values are little better: vague appeals to compassion at this moment are like slapping a bandaid on a burn victim after setting fire to the victim’s home. It is not only insultingly inadequate, but it also allows us to assuage our guilt while we ignore the root problem.
As Americans, we need to demand justice not only for the latest acts of cruelty at the border but for an entire century of U.S. policy and interventions. To do this, we need to start by committing to a long-term process of truth and reconciliation. This means learning about, acknowledging, and taking responsibility for what was done in our name and with our tax dollars, both the things we were never told and the things we chose to ignore, from our trade policy to the food we eat.
We can start by listening to the stories and testimony of both migrants and activists still in the region. Central Americans have been living through and challenging these policies for years. They have a wealth of knowledge to share if we are willing to listen.
Reconciling with these ugly historical truths requires discomfort and tough questions. But it also presents an opportunity to craft a new path forward. As we grapple with our past, we can also embrace the opportunity to envision a new relationship between our countries. If we confront our past and truly listening to the people affected by it, we can begin to imagine what a U.S. foreign policy by the people, for the people would look like and how it might advance justice both here and abroad.