Immigration has been at the center of the political and social agenda in the United States for centuries, but over the last 30 years, the amount of Immigrants that have fled Latin American countries and sought refuge in the States has grown exponentially.
As the years have passed the institutions that control immigration (ICE) and many presidential administrations have narrowed the options to obtain citizenship or some way of legal status once a refugee or a migrant arrives to the land of the free.
In recent years we have seen that the ways that people choose to migrate have changed as well. From North Korea to Europe to the United States, people’s way to escape poverty, violence, dictatorial regimes, and overall inhumane ways of living have evolved in horrifying ways.
We have heard of the lifeboats making crusades across the sea, the underground tunnels to escape fierce border guards, and have heard of Migrant Caravans. To understand why people choose the latter option as a path for a better life we need to go back to the basics, and (literally) step by step think about how humans can turn to this decision while seeking a better life.
What is a Migrant Caravan?
A Caravan is a new term that has emerged to describe the groups of people that reunite in large groups and across various international borders on foot. In recent years (as back as 2018) these have become very common to originate in the central American region of the American continent and their route usually starts in either Ecuador or Honduras, as people go they start to pick up different groups across countries until they reach the Mexican border with the States.
Why are people traveling on foot?
To understand this we need to put ourselves in the shoes of these people who need in many cases to save their lives and their families. Central America has been in a very hard struggle for political, social, and economic stability ever since (on average) the 1970’s, these societies have been exposed and have also created a very hostile environment for its people, mainly their most vulnerable people which are statistically women and children of lower socioeconomic classes. The hostility of these societies, neighborhoods, and regions that these people want to run away from forces them to flee with the basics, what they can carry on themselves, and in the best cases some money and documentation. These people travel by foot to avoid being tracked, both by the people who may hurt them, human trafficking groups, cartels, and governments who might deport them back to their natal countries along the way to the US and put these people in a more complicated position. Traveling in big groups is crucially and especially safe, again, most of these people are vulnerable women and children; in retrospective, to other ways of migrating (like on cargo buses, trains that cross the border) a whole community is there to protect you, and if it would come to the worst situation to take care of your loved ones if you were not to make it.
Why are they coming here?
We have to come back again once more to the detail of the geography and geopolitical details of this phenomenon. This exodus from Central America is not happening by mere chance. The migrant waves that have been arriving at the states have been growing in numbers for years, as countries like Nicaragua Honduras, El Salvador, and Ecuador have struggled to build formidable economies and therefore their politics and cultures have never really had centralized power of their nations.
What’s happening in Nicaragua?
Nicaragua and the United States go way back, we might not be aware of how conflictual these Central American Nations are because of past interventions of the US in their territory, What does intervention mean? It can be a physical intervention in the country or a political one, where opposition groups are backed and supplied by the US to overthrow or go against a given administration in an election or while they are in office.
In Nicaragua, the United States first intervened in 1909 to support conservative forces against the president at the time President Zelaya, the main reason for this intervenience was justified mainly with the US’s interest in the proposition of a Nicaragua Canal, a proposition that would later become the Panama Canal. In November of that year, ships were sent from the US to persecute 500 anti-imperialist revolutionaries claiming to be sent to protect American business, property, and lives. Under Zelaya’s orders, the revolutionaries were executed.
Fast forward to 1912, Adolfo Diaz is president of Nicaragua and he fears an insurrection since US intervention and military presence in civilian life has become current. The event that triggered the US 21 year occupation occurred when Luis Mena, Diaz’s secretary of war, fled the capital city of Managua with his brother who happened to be the chief of Managua’s police to start their own insurrection against Diaz and his imperialist supporting government, along with revolutionaries and civilian armed forces (guerillas) they managed to capture steamers that belonged to an American company. The US delegation on Nicaragua asked president Diaz to guarantee that American lives and business wouldn’t perish during the insurrection, Diaz said he couldn’t do that and formally asked the US to intervene in the conflict.
The United States Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, consulting with the Office of the Historian (U.S. Department of State) website they used the word “station” to describe this military intervention, remarking a nine-month period from 1925 to 1926 where military forces were absent.
The 21-year occupation would transform Nicaragua’s situation into a neo-colonial one. The United States decided that Nicaragua couldn’t govern itself and that it was headed to be a failed state, the occupation made disasters in the economy and to this day Nicaragua is still in debt with American banks because of it. The occupants excuse themselves for being on foreign soil so that they can guarantee the payment of loans their people (the military with Nicaraguan commanders) take. The United States brought a protectionist program to the country with the supervision of customs, banks, border security and created the first military trained by the Marines called “La Guardia Nacional”. By 1926 armed resistance began to organize against the US in the country, led by Augusto Cesar Sandino. The resistance gained support quickly with working classes and farmers as well as the overall support from governments all over Latin America, the anti-imperialist resistance gave a good fight until 1934 when Sandino was killed. The States formally announced the departure from the country in 1931, yet didn’t officially retire until 1933. In 1936 Anastasio Somoza, chief of “La Guardia Nacional ” during the occupation staged a coup against constitutional President Sacasa. Somoza came to power with The United States’ support and started a 40-year-old dictatorship in Nicaragua ending in 1979, right after the revolution the US-funded a contra civil war which left the country institutionally destroyed, and politically discredited. Daniel Ortega, a socialist revolutionary leader in the 1979 revolution, was positioned as President from 1985 to 1990. He was as well as the leader of the opposition during a 16 year period of non-Sandinista governments in power. Ortega has been in power since 2006 and re-elected in 2011 and 2016, he was able to run for a third term after re-writing the constitution. Ortega’s administration over the years has become somewhat of the norm for Central American countries with socialist parties that become radicalized when they get to power; his government has become authoritarian, state centralized, and overwhelmingly in debt.
Some recent events that have triggered the migrations from the country have to do with the slash of social security benefits and astronomical rise in taxes which lead to multiple days of protests in 2018 that demanded Ortega’s resignation. The crowds were met by paramilitary forces which left hundreds injured and 273 dead, later on, in September of 2018 demonstrations against the president were declared illegal. Up until 2019, the protests had killed 325 people, becoming the deadliest public incident since the Revolution. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Nicaragua in one of its main economic structures which is tourism, the workforce has gone down a 10%, and investors in tourist hot spots have pulled out as much a 1 million dollars out of projects, whilst the country has not applied severe lockdown restrictions it has been claimed by Human Rights watch groups that the spread of cases is much higher than the official rates and that death tolls are double of what the government recognizes. Ortega has refused to back down to accusations of authoritarianism and the various demonstrations that continue to happen to ask for his resignation. This year, 2021, Nicaragua will celebrate presidential elections and many speculate that Ortega will nominate his wife Rosaria Murillo as a proxy ruler.
What’s the situation in Ecuador?
Ecuador has a long history of military coups, democratic elected administrations in fact are rare and often don’t get to finish their term in office because of the social and economic unrest.
Ecuadorian political history usually starts to “develop” after World War II. Before 1945 Ecuador’s history is tightly involved with The United States “Big Stick Policy” and the early 20th-century phenomenon that the “Banana Republics” were; basically economic dependent countries that relied upon the exportation of a limited-resource product, such as bananas, cacao, coffee or minerals by U.S. corporations, mainly the United Fruit Company. After WWII no Political Class nor Party had or could take control of Politics, over 58 years of democracy there have only been 36 presidents, the country has only enjoyed three full periods during which an elected president successfully completed a term in office and peacefully transferred power to another candidate.
Their most significant and recent crisis came on September 30, 2010, when President Rafel Correa was kidnapped by police officers and military troops. Took control of airports and attacked the National Assembly building. The rage and hostile political context in Ecuador come in high with Correa’s predecessors being 10 different heads of state in 10 years. The main reason for this political coup is centered on the government’s decisions to repress and shut down social movements over its neo-extractivist policies. These popular movements have struggled for decades to push the political social agenda to the left, to be more inclusive, without bolstering a conservative oligarch outrage. Another heavyweight to the social pressure pot that is Ecuador comes to the rage of multiple indigenous-led movements with wide popular support that have going on since 2019; among other claims, the demonstration was largely because of the unwelcoming sentiment to new IMF restrictions and the austerity package that it sought to apply to the country, the government’s response was so brutal to this demonstration that it shot down the country for 11 days.
Lenin Moreno, Ecuador’s acting president was backed by the US to act strongly against protestors, some were reported missing by local police and have yet not been found. To this complex paradigm, we add the Covid Pandemic where Ecuador’s poor capability to organize its institutions has become evident, especially when it comes to protecting frontline workers and working-class people who have lost their jobs or stopped receiving their salaries during the pandemic. At least 29% of households have had a member of their families fired, the pandemic has also hit education hard, as 2% of students (from all education levels up to university) have had to move out of private schools and approximately 3% have dropped out of school altogether. During the Pandemic Moreno has given in to the IMF demands for billions of dollars in loan repayments and enacted neoliberal laws whilst the whole country has stopped its full capacity of the workforce.
El Salvador & Honduras
El Salvador and Honduras are neighboring countries that have as similar as complex but yet different history, so far we can observe how US involvement in the region, directly or indirectly has deepened the crisis of these fragile and unstable political systems that migrants seek to escape.
Starting with El Salvador we have to go back to the early years of the 20th century. Authoritarian governments ruled El Salvador from 1930 until the 1970s, these “administrations” ruled with ruthless repression of free speech, the basics of democracy, and bloody military forces by their side. As early as in 1960 the National Conciliation Party backed by strong neoliberal forces in the rest of the region as well as the US kept the power of the country with 3 military generals as acting presidents Gen. Fidel Sánchez Hernández (1967 to 1972), Colonel Arturo A. Molina (1972 to 1977) and General Carlos Humberto Romero( 1977 to 1979). In 1979 after scandals of money laundry the military regime was overthrown by revolutionaries with an armed insurrection.
A reformist revolutionary government took control of the nation then, but both the extreme right and the left couldn’t get started on a clear path to democratic reforms, and the political disagreements rolled far enough to become a civil war.
In 1992 The Chapultepec Peace Accords marked the end of the war. According to the peace agreements, the constitution was amended to prohibit the military from playing an internal security role except under special circumstances. The military, the national guard, and the police were abolished. It’s important to mention as well, like many other Latin countries after the 70’s authoritarian regimes, the peace accords declared an amnesty to the military heads responsible for the crimes committed during the war. No one has been or can be convicted. The FMLN ( Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) participated in the 1994 presidential election and Armando Calderon Sol, their opponent won the election. During his administration, Calderón Sol implemented a plan of privatization of several large state enterprises and other neoliberal policies.
Nearly 20 years later El Salvador struggles to keep its political and security integrity, gangs and cartels have become the predominant form of a violent constant presence in the country, setting up large networks of underage children to run and transport, guns, drugs and carry out other illegal businesses (like organ-human trafficking and prostitution) among the region where military and security forces are not present. These groups are known as Maras, the government has tried to run “hard on crime” programs but has substantially failed against the enormous presence of impunity in the region.
In 2009 Mauricio Funes of the FMLN claimed victory, and as a former guerrilla group leader, he took power for the first time. The country answered this election radically dividing itself economically and politically. Fast forward 10 years in 2019, another candidate takes the presidency, for the first time in the country’s history a member of a third political country won the election. Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez, El Salvador’s acting president is a businessman and a politician with the center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). Many analysts from around the region as well as local experts have pinned him as a populist and an authoritarian ruler in regard to his usual response to protest and his strict COVID restrictions. In regard to the covid pandemic, El Salvador has had one of the most strict lockdowns in the region, at the start of the pandemic everything was shut down except for essential food stores, and no one was allowed outside apart from essential workers, the restrictions were meant to last 30 days but in the end, they were lifted after 3 months. A highlight of this take on the pandemic is that people were sent into detention centers if they were found breaking the “essential only” mandate, besides the social collateral damage The economic toll was catastrophic on the country besides the government’s best efforts to fight the economic shock.
What’s the deal with Honduras?
The deal with Honduras, as we have seen across these different countries, is that it has known no stability since the beginning of time, and has had a close yet tumultuous relationship with the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century. The US landed with the Marines in Honduras on the 11 of September 1911 with the promise of free elections a financial advisor assigned to the Honduras government as well as a New York police lieutenant to organize the police forces in the country. The then head of the military General López Gutiérrez won easily in a manipulated election, and in October 1920 he assumed the presidency. The US advisors pushed for overall economical and military reform. From 1919 to 1924, the Honduran government expended US$7.2 million beyond the amount covered by the regular budgets for military operations, causing various revolutionary uprisings and a heated anti-imperialist sentiment since inflation started to take a toll on the country. From 1920 to 1923, seventeen uprisings made the military presence of the US stronger as a response to overall political unrest not only in the country but in the region. The time period of the late ’20s and early ’30s was dominated by proxy rulers imposed by the States who continued perpetuating neoliberal reforms to a ver much poor country and economy, from 1932 to 1949 the country was under the right-wing National Party of Honduras (PNH) dictatorship led by General Tiburcio Carias Andino. The 1950s became somewhat of a more tranquil period after the dictatorship, yet many big businesses like the united fruit company got favorable treatment by the government with decreases in taxes, subsidies to pay salaries, and overall total freedom over natural resources in the country. The next period from the 1970’s to the year 1999 is no different, during this time Honduras experienced; border tensions with El Salvador, and xenophobic comments made by Honduras president over Salvatorian migrants living in Honduras lead to social distress and a “Football war” where El Salvador met Honduras for a three-round football elimination match preliminary to the World Cup. To later escalate to the point where the Salvatorian army invaded Honduras in 1969, even though it wasn’t very long since a ceasefire was called a few weeks later, tensions still remain to this day.
As well as a take of power by Colonel Juan Alberto Melgar Castro in 1975, a coup led by General Policarpo Paz Garcia followed in 1977. Just in 1981 did Nicaragua had a civilian government lead by the centrist liberal party of Honduras and directed by Roberto Suazo Cordova, nevertheless is important to point out that the military in the country still holds a considerable amount of power during this time and training US camps are set up. during Cordova’s time in office. In ‘82 the government and military trained by US forces launched operations to fight the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and expel revolutionaries from Honduran territory, it’s only in 1984 that armed forces take a step down from both sides when the US training base in Honduras was shut down, yet US presence doesn’t leave the country and still has a grip on military and political decisions as at the time the country was receiving economical aid from the US.
The ’90s brought in not only death squads fighting guerrillas on the streets but also natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch that hit Honduras in ‘98 destroying around 70–80% of the country’s infrastructure. To this day Honduras remains a barely stable country and one of the poorest in Latin America. Honduras is like many other Latin countries, its own worst enemy, with a growing population and a very limited job market, especially for younger generations, and an agricultural-based economy that cant keep up with the feeding necessities of its people.
During 2020 Honduras was not only hit hard with the pandemic, which with corruption involved double the catastrophes and loss of jobs in the country were but also suffered as hurricanes Eta and Iota in November, destroyed people’s homes and left them with very little access to the basics against the pandemic which is clean water and hospital resources.
All of these countries have many common denominators that explain their situation; political instability, external countries that proxy control this region and have for decades and even centuries, economies tied and conditioned to be kept as agricultural based with little to no possibility for industrialization and violence. When we want to know why these people are fleeing their countries and why they won’t stop coming to the US we have to look deeply into the factors that have destroyed every possibility of a dignified living in Central America. Undeniably the combination of bad, corrupt leadership and United States strong intervention has played and still plays an essential role in this story and it’s important that we take a step back when reading them to analyze why this is America’s problem as well. From institutionalized racism to an immigration system that was built to be exclusive, to xenophobia and corporate greed of natural resources, if we want to go forward with this conversation and “stop the flows from coming”, we need to look over our shoulder and think about the damage the imperialist system and “freedom” notions that they often times stand by has backfired and produced a contrary effect. These people are not fleeing free countries, in fact, they are fleeing because it very much might be their last real free choice in their lives.
Back to the caravans, what is the history of Migrant caravans in the US?
This methodology of migrating is very common in different countries of Latin America, and even traditional in-between countries since colonial times.
Migrant families and children climb the banks of the Rio Grande River into the United States as smugglers on rafts prepare to return to Mexico in Penitas, Texas, U.S., March 5, 2021. (Reuters)
In Modern Times, and especially since late 2017- early 2018 when migrant caravans started to be a recurrent phenomenon, heads of state have disposed of their militaries to control and detain migrants on transcontinental paths like the Panamerican highway or borderline highways in Latin America way before they reach the Mexican border with the US. In fact, the US has encouraged this and given public support. Guatemala and Mexico have an agreement with the US to stop migrants, back in January Guatemala declared a state of emergency regarding immigration and has allowed their local police to use force if it becomes necessary, most people have entered Guatemala through the “El Florido” crossing, but have only made it 43 km in before they were stopped by armed forces, so far they have sent back at least 4,517 Hondurans, 111 Salvadorans, and five Nicaraguans.
Up in Mexico police have checkpoints where they ask for identification documents along the highway, many migrants are sent back if they don’t have travel visas or travel permits for their underage children. Police forces have a clear mission, to stop as many people as possible, clear the highway and disband the caravans.
Coincidentally with Trump’s administration caravans have become somewhat of an annual thing, at least 2 caravans have arrived to the United States per year since 2017 and the pandemic has not stopped this people’s will of running away from danger. Back in 2016 Trump continually referred to migrants as aliens, rapists, and “bad hombres”. The debate over immigration has radically become front and center during these last years, yet, in regards to the people who have arrived at the border and put in camps, there is a bold questioning in these people’s reasons to leave their countries, the debate has moved away from “why are they coming here?” to “are their reasons good enough to stay?” We shouldn’t question why are they coming the question we need to be asking is “how do we help them?”
If the problem is in Central America why is the US not helping to avoid people fleeing their countries?
Actually, the US is kind of helping. But not in a functional way that can help these structural problems and very much similar difficulties that these nations from Latin America have; International Cooperation has been for years the go-to tool that the government has elected to use when things in America’s backyard get heated. Yet so far, they have caused more damage than good and just keep the formalities of diplomacy clean.
In recent cooperation efforts, Trump pressured Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2019 to stop the migration flows and organization efforts by threatening economic sanctions, raising tariffs on trade, and stopping American aid. Aid comes in many shapes and forms, the most feared by Latin people is the IMB who lends out money and structures very rigid and sometimes also fictitious payback plans for these impoverished nations.
What does the US have to do with this? Well, the IMB does not lend money to risk- investment countries, so many times when Latin politicians are friendly with US administrations the president tends to put in a good word for them and secure oil deals for American companies in contract clauses of these loans.
The Inter-American Development Bank is also a big player not only in the Central America region but also on the whole continent, this bank is the main financial support of international trading in the American continent. Things like sanctions, economic deals, and aid packages must go through the IADB (a note to keep in mind) for the first time since its founding in 1959 a nonlatino president Mauricio Claver-Carone it’s at its charge who has been hand-picked by former President Trump. These entities do as much for the people who lend them money and gives them control of the rise or fall of an entire nation as little for the people who pay the loans, aid usually is seen as a conditional for Latin countries and experience has shown that sometimes asking for this “help” deteriorates the situation rather than it calms the waters.
What has the government done with these immigrants, what does Biden plan to do?
Massive deportations, detainee camps, and inhumane treatment of migrants on the border shouldn’t come as a surprise, yet, it can’t be normalized nor undermined. Separating children from their parents is not only inhumane but also straight out cruel, diapering people when they come seeking refuge is criminal and every ICE agent and politician involved should be punished for it. Again, this is not an uncommon practice, unfortunately, Latinos are very much and have been for decades familiarized with this horrifying process, but neither Americans nor younger generations should downplay it nor normalize this. This is not a social phenomenon, it’s a humanitarian crisis.
So far the Biden administration has been quick to put out statements about immigrant reform laws, including a discussion to put out a more viable path to citizenship for people living in the states illegally. This administration’s posture has also changed radically from Trump’s, as soon as Biden arrived at the WH the construction of the wall on the border was stopped, quick deportations were put on hold, and separation of families ceased. Biden has also warned that his administration could take the rest of the year to figure out how to humanize the policies to help these people in the best way possible. For the moment, one of the most radical decisions has been that people have been stopped from being sent to wait in Mexico while each individual situation on asylum applications is reviewed by border officials.
All the way over in congress, democrats have been fighting for reforms for the dreamers and a negotiating bid that seeks to shorten the path to citizenship and trying to avoid the 13-year-old residency required by the current legislation in the future. Many have pointed out that as the migrants continue to come, that the president hurries to visit the border to check on the migrant detention centers and the conditions that they are holding people in.
Migrants won’t stop coming, if they need to they shouldn’t stop coming.
Anyone from a foreign country can seek asylum if they have to flee their country out of fear of persecution over race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group, and this is guaranteed under federal law.
The existing problems in their countries are structural, created inherently by the US, and bad political leadership in central American countries. These combos have created the perfect environment for cyclic crises to become constant crises that affect people on all levels of their lives; socially, politically, economically, and culturally. The United States has been built by immigrants, this century and the problematics that we go through shouldn’t shake the foundation on what the United States, besides the adversities, represents opportunity, diversity, and progress. Hopefully, no side of the aisle forgets this when writing down in ink the future of these brave migrants that have left their home countries to find a better future.
If you feel that you can help, here are some organizations working to alleviate the crisis left by the hurricanes throughout the region.
The International Red Cross is coordinating its humanitarian response with regional authorities to provide aid like food, water, and shelter to those affected by the hurricane. Donate here
Save the Children has already dispatched front-line workers to more than 20 communities that were severely impacted by Hurricane Eta, and will extend its reach to support victims of Iota. The organization is working to meet “the basic needs of children and their families,” as well as preventing the spread of COVID-19. Donate here.
- This GoFundMe campaign is collecting funds to support hurricane victims in Nicaragua’s Afro-Indigenous region of Moskitia, where coastal villages “already in the throes of the COVID-19 outbreak” were “flattened” by Hurricane Eta. Donate here.
- ANF’s Hurricane Relief Fund is distributing emergency aid, including first aid kids, food, water filters and agricultural support to Nicaraguans who lost their livelihoods in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Donate here.
- The Honduras Solidarity Network distributes donations to local, community-based organizations, including Afro-Indigenous and women’s grassroots groups, that are responding to the “humanitarian crises” spurred by the hurricanes. That includes the funding of a community kitchen and food bank, as well as rescue and evacuation efforts. Donate here.
- The Humanity and Hope United Foundation works specifically in three Honduran communities, two of which were hit particularly hard by Hurricane Eta. The organization is providing those who lost their homes with food, clothing, and medical support, among other necessities. Donate now.
- This GoFundMe campaign is collecting funds to support Maya Ixil communities in the municipality of Cotzal in the department El Quiché. Even after the passage of both storms last week, rains and floods continued to plague the community until Monday night. Donate here.
- Donations collected by this GoFundMe campaign will support the neighboring municipality of Nebaj. Ancestral authorities there are working to distribute aid despite ongoing landslides and overflowing rivers that have made some key routes impassable. Donate here.
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