By Henry A. J. Ramos & Frank de Jesús Acosta
Recent, disturbing scenes of violence at the nation’s southern border directed at crowds of Central American asylum seekers — a large number of them women and children — underscore a sad and dangerous retreat from the best of American values and traditions.
Since its incipiency, the U.S. has embraced its status as a nation of immigrants, as well as a nation of laws. Certainly there have been ugly aspects of our past history that reveal racist and xenophobic anti-foreigner currents in our national culture — the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s, the nation’s refusal to admit Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the mass deportations of Mexican and many Mexican American workers during the 1950s (through programs like the dubiously-named “Operation Wetback”) all come to mind as examples.
Still, on balance, over its now nearly 250 year history, the U.S. has benefitted mightily from its progressive approach to admitting and acculturating newcomers to our shores. Today, too many Americans whose families began in this country in circumstances hardly different than contemporary immigrants and refugees have conveniently forgotten the advantages our nation has gleaned from its historical openness to persons fleeing persecution and hardship in their native lands.
Playing on that hard reality, conservative political leaders, buoyed by Donald Trump’s bombastic inclinations to outright racial bigotry, want to change the essential nature of American policy, literally to build new walls between diverse groups and cultures. It is an inclination that is doomed to the trash bin of history; though, for the time being, it is sadly almost now a guarantee that Trumpism’s newfound call to anti-immigrant sentiment will engage the nation’s focus and resources in highly counterproductive ways for at least the balance of his divisive presidency.
In fact, the border problem is one largely of the Trump Administration’s own making. By aggressively misrepresenting facts about the nation’s recent immigration patterns since commencing his presidential run (we have actually now seen a full decade of stark declinesin undocumented border crossings), and by accusing the refugees in the current so-called Caravan from Central America of being affiliated with drug lords, terrorists, and allied criminal gangs, Trump and his followers have largely invented this so-called crisis. They have demonized impoverished families whose only chance for a livable future was to leave their countries of origin for a more safe and secure reality.
In doing so they have revved up the most vitriolic and nativist of Trump supporters to the point where rational thought has been eclipsed by raw and uninformed emotion. As a result, according to the Pentagon, by the end of 2018, over $200 million of taxpayer money is expected to be spent on the mere appearance of an expanded military force along the border.
Ultimately, Trump’s “solution” is simply to demand that Mexico (a nation he has insulted over and over again throughout his political career) manage the growing influx of refugees from a Central American region that has never recovered from the ravages of U.S. military interventions dating back to the 1950s nor the socioeconomic effects of being now longtime centers of illicit drug trade (most of it driven by U.S. consumer demand). In these connections, Trump’s approach to border policy has been anything but thoughtful, honest, or practical.
What is needed in place of what Trumpism has produced along the U.S-Mexico border is a wholly new and different approach. What is needed is a massive, long term, multilateral investment in Central America’s economic renewal and democratic reform so that circumstances in the region can stabilize and incent more people to remain in their countries of origin under far more safe and supportive circumstances than presently exist.
Such an approach, recently proposed by Mexico’s newly-elected president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, would go along way as well to advance U.S. interests. Not only would it enable Central American nations and Mexico to thrive in ways that would positively mitigate migration pressures across the hemisphere, but it would also create vast new opportunities for U.S. companies and investors to co-profit with their Central American counterparts in the process.
With incentives to build a more green and inclusive economy that promises expanded prosperity sharing across much of Latin America, the benefits of such a massive change in course relative to our relations across the Americas would be substantial. Moreover, ensuring in this context that Central American and Mexican workers gain renewed access to the U.S. through sensible guest worker accords and new pathways to citizenship will also be essential.
America has always been a more enriched and stronger nation as a result of its inclusion of immigrants and refugees from abroad whose hearts and hands have helped to build our society and democracy from the ground up. We need to heed the lessons of history in this connection and find more practical, humane, and mutually agreeable solutions to balance our standing as a nation of laws against the even more compelling reality that we are and will fundamentally remain a nation of immigrants.
Henry A. J. Ramosis author of the forthcoming book Democracy & The Next American Economy: Where Prosperity Meets Justice, to be published in early 2019 by the University of Houston-based Arte Público Press.
Frank de Jesús Acosta, is the author of various publications on youth and community justice issues, a principal consultant at Acosta & Associates, and a former Executive Director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.