“Refugees are not terrorists. They are often the first victims of terrorism.”
— António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres
A caravan of impoverished and exhausted Central American emigrants is approaching our border with Mexico. What will happen when they are met by thousands of armed U.S. troops? As I see reports of them walking into clouds of teargas and potentially worse violence, I wonder what dangers these refugees are fleeing. Who are they and why are they coming?
Thanks to the work of local author Lauren Markham, I got an intimate look at the plight of two young men fleeing death threats from the gangs in El Salvador in the book The Far Away Brothers. These two teenagers get in trouble with an uncle and his sons who become powerful gang leaders. When the uncle’s tree is chopped down, one of the twin brothers is accused and threatened with death. (Death threats are terrifyingly real: in that year there were 59 homicides in the nearby town with a population of 70,000, and an estimated loss of 7% of the population of the country to gang violence.)
Fearing for his life, the family borrows money to send the accused boy north with an expensive guide called a coyote; then realizes his identical twin is equally at risk. They go into further debt, at the risk of losing their land (hence their livelihood), to send the second twin after the first. The boys meet up in Mexico and survive the frightening trip across the border, only to be picked up by ICE in the desert. As unaccompanied minors they are some of the lucky ones, for they have an older brother who comes for them in spite of his own fear of deportation. Together they fly to California where the twins end up in high school classes and restaurant jobs in Oakland. Their classes are difficult — they know no English, and their jobs exhausting — they work late into the night but do not earn enough to send money home for the debt. But they are survivors, and through their struggles we feel their heartbreaks and their triumphs.
Markham is the right person to tell this story, as she got to know the boys while working in their high school. (She wrote the book with their cooperation and permissions.) She gives detailed insights, such as her description of the first time she met the twins: “The twins stood in my office like living statues of fear: fixed eyes, sharp cheekbones, lips strained beneath identical flat noses.” (p. 114) In addition, as a journalist she has extensively covered the plight of young migrants. So besides describing the harrowing challenges of the twins’ journey as well as the difficulties of making a life far from home, Markham incorporates pieces of her on-the-scene reporting on subjects such as
-a distraught mother waiting at the Policia Nacional Civil in San Salvador, where her son and other youths are detained for congregating
-a family resting outside a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, after walking 25 miles the day before to cross the Mexican-Guatemalan border
-a break in the border wall along the Rio Grande where animals are allowed to reach the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and where the immigrant humans are hunted relentlessly by the border patrol.
-the scene at the immigration courthouse in Harlingen, TX, as unaccompanied “alien” children are required to appear
-the profits made by Geo, the company that manages many private jails, including the Mesa Verde Detention Center outside of Bakersfield CA.
These additions provide context for the twins’ story, reminding us of how many Central Americans have been uprooted and how they are being treated at our borders, as well as how US business interests back these repressive policies.
Last summer the Trump administration decreed that gang violence along with domestic violence would no longer be acceptable reasons to grant asylum. This unconstitutional ruling is especially upsetting because the US is responsible for creating the historic rise in gang violence. When Salvadoran gang members were deported from Los Angeles they brought their deadly rivalry back to their country, keeping the names MS-13 and Barrio 18 from their streets in LA. For years gang members have been able to roam the countryside with loaded guns and terrorize young and old alike. Photojournalist Juan Carlos, who himself emigrated from El Salvador (www.juancarlosphotos.com), told Mother Jones, “[the gangs] have more power than the authorities. If you want to have a business, you pay them. They infiltrate the police… They have the power to stop people from doing the simplest things — like going to work — to make demands on the government. Pretty much they’re in charge.” https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/03/el-salvador-gang-truce-juan-carlos-tumblr/
The responsibilities of the US do not stop there. Root causes of the miseries of Central Americans include the decades-long wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, for which death squads were trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. After the wars US policy controlled the economic development of the region to promote exports and favor US corporations, creating more poverty and economic hardship. The US has also meddled in elections in El Salvador, as well as Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, supporting right wing politicians and dictators while undermining progressive developments.
Recognizing that our country is largely responsible for the misery and violence the refugees are fleeing obliges us to act. We each can support refugees, border justice and immigrant rights by signing petitions, contacting our representatives, sending donations, even traveling to the border. We can access the many groups working to end militarization of the border, to end mass detention of asylum seekers, and to normalize the standing of current immigrants without papers. For example, Mijente (https://mijente.net/take-action/) has a campaign to expand sanctuary, a petition to Amazon to end their contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, and other campaigns. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (www.nnirr.org), which advocates for the human rights, safety and dignity of all migrants and refugees, provides educational resources. United We Dream (https://unitedwedream.org/), the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country, works to support DACA recipients. To directly support lawyers and aid workers now meeting the caravan of refugees, donations are welcome at https://www.gofundme.com/help-charlene-and-refugee-caravan for legal aid and (https://www.paypal.me/charitysack) for aid including diapers, socks, shoes, warm sweatshirts, gloves, hats, tents, backpacks and strollers.
*More photos of the caravan at https://www.facebook.com/charitysackmann/media_set?set=a.10214796113389085&type=3