As the shutdown of parts of the federal government continues over a lack of agreement regarding the construction of a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, with, according to Donald Trump, the potential to last for “months or even years,” we might as well pause to consider the events that have led to the situation that we have today.
That situation, as viewed by right wingers, is that we, the United States, are being invaded by not just criminals and drug dealers from Latin America, but also some 4,000 terrorists of unspecified provenance. As others have observed before, those claims make the assertion that undocumented immigrants are here to take our jobs an interesting one — what job do you do, exactly, if the groups named above are taking it from you? But even if the claims are correct — more on that later — we cannot ignore how we got here.
We have yearned to meddle and conquer territory in Latin America since our earliest days. Thomas Jefferson eyed Florida and Cuba as a means of frustrating the colonial ambitions of Europe, and some unregenerated Confederates had designs on Mexico. And as gets pointed out in discussions about immigrants crossing the border, the Mexican-American War was for the purpose of carrying the border across lots of territory and people.
The Monroe Doctrine, putting Europe on notice that the western hemisphere should henceforth be seen as off limits was more of a declaration that we would like to be the dominating influence. We got much more organized about getting involved and taking over in the vestibule of the twentieth century with the Spanish-American War. The territorial grab from Mexico had been an exercise in expansionism, but it was a case of what we thought of as our natural growth. We hit an inflection point when we decided to intrude into the affairs of the world as a whole.
The results of our military adventurism against Spain are still with us — recall Trump’s surprise that Puerto Rico is our responsibility — though how many Americans remember that the U.S.S. Maine was sent to Cuba to get us into a war is probably closer to sixty-five million than to sixty-two million. Having developed a taste for interference, we soon moved on to separate the territory that went on to be the Republic of Panama from Colombia when the latter decided not to grant us permission to construct a canal — over fears of loss of sovereignty, it ought to be noted. Do I need to remind readers that Manuel Noriega was our guy before he was not?
The definitive and infamous illustration of what we have done wrong in the hemisphere is to be found with the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, the Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence for much of the Eisenhower administration. They had a long history of feeling entitled to remove democratically elected foreign governments or to tolerate tyrants. Relevant to the present discussion, the brothers instigated a revolution in Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company — a client of the law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, that had employed the Dulleses for decades — when the president, Jacobo Arbenz, expressed an interest in nationalizing land for the benefit of Guatemalans that the American corporation held in reserve.
This is by no means the only time that the United States wrecked popular government, even restricting the list to Latin America. When we made a false dichotomy fallacy into foreign policy, we set ourselves on a course of action that has destabilized the region. One such either/or contrast was the opposition of communism and capitalism, a failure to comprehend that mixed economies are possible — an error that continues on social media to this day. Another has been the division between nations that produce naughty drugs and those that consume them. The cost in lives and money are high, but the broader consequence has been consistent with what we did in our anti-communist agenda, the removal of governments that would not sacrifice the interests of their own people to meet our demands and the support of those that would.
With all of this history, why would people in Latin America want to migrate here? We have worked for a while now promoting globalization, and a belief in U.S. exceptionalism is our national religion. Being shocked that anyone would buy into these things is a reasonable response of late, given the demented troll who wants to bring everything to a halt to get his wall, but the dream of a nation made up of immigrants who come to participate in and contribute to opportunity is persistent, and we who are citizens already should be grateful that this is so. As our population ages, we will need younger workers to go to their jobs and pay taxes to support the pension programs that make retirement comfortable, and fertility rates of the native-born population is declining, suggesting that for our own benefit, we should welcome in a lot more than we do now.
But in moral terms, we have to face the fact that the damage that we have done in Latin America creates an obligation to make things right, whether that means accepting people into the blessings that we enjoy here or working out a modern-day Marshall Plan to extend those blessings in a globalization worth having. Given the fears of the Cold War and the desperation of domestic drug abuse, it may be that we could not have acted in a different way — it may be that while many options existed in speculative worlds, what was realistic for us at the time was limited — or perhaps we should just say that we wanted to be in charge. In either case, a border wall to close off our southern frontier is nothing but an attempt to dodge responsibility for what we have done.