Zak Witus: U.S. must stop creating refugees

Sunday, March 13, 2016 - 7:03pm

When we talk about immigration policy in the United States, do we consider how the United States helped to create these immigrants in the first place? The spectrum of acceptable opinions this election cycle includes the extreme right with Donald Trump and his proposed wall along the U.S./Mexico border and deportation of Muslim citizens to the left with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton apparently both agreeing to end Obama’s campaign of detaining and deporting Central American refugees. But these two poles of opinion exclude what I believe to be a vital consideration in formulating immigration policy: the history of U.S. military intervention and subversion in Central America.

For people like me on the Marxist side of being Democrat, liberals are often more frustrating than conservatives. Take the New York Times, for instance: In an editorial earlier this year, the Times denounced the Obama administration’s “shameful round-up of refugees,” referring to the hundreds of immigrants that the Obama administration has detained and/or deported as they arrived in the United States fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Though the Times wrote that solving this problem, which it framed as one of illegal immigration, “requires addressing the root causes of the bloody violence in the region,” the editorial unfortunately didn’t mention what those root causes may be, and thus didn’t propose any solutions addressing them. Instead, the Times suggested “fixing the chaotic, underfunded legal system at the border” and “building routes of escape for families in danger.”

What does this amount to? The Times refuses to even acknowledge the shameful history of the United States that has amounted to undermining democracy, supporting murderous military regimes and perpetuating military coups in Central America. By doing so, the publication fails to meaningfully challenge U.S. power and hegemony. Its proposed palliative solutions aim to help our Central American victims cope with U.S. power, but they don’t really aim to repair the harm we caused, and neither do they aim to prevent the United States from further harming them in the future. The most simple and basic measure the United States could take to help Central America, and in the process mitigate our own immigration problem, is knowing our intertwined histories, because only after that can we address the problem’s root causes.

In 1954, years before he alerted us all to the dangers of the military-industrial complex, President Dwight Eisenhower toppled the first-ever democratic government in Guatemala. Ten years earlier, a revolution led by young officers and middle-class university people had ousted the U.S.-aligned dictator Jorge Ubico. In the name of establishing a genuine capitalist society, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman pushed an agrarian reform bill that expropriated uncultivated land from large plantations and redistributed to the landless peasants.

This measure, accepted by the Guatemalan legislature, seized lands from Arbenz himself as well as the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that traded fruit grown on Central and South American plantations. In the name of defending Central America from communism, and in the interests of the United Fruit Company, Eisenhower ended Guatemala’s brief experiment with democracy and installed Colonel Rodolfo Castillo Armas as the country’s new dictator. Various authoritarian regimes ruled Guatemala with extreme violence and terror in the following decades, most with strong U.S. backing.

Though he is sometimes reputed as one of the most peaceful presidents, Jimmy Carter supported the murderous military junta that overthrew El Salvador’s government in 1979. By the end of May 1980, church sources had reported 1,844 civilian deaths; by year’s end, there were 10,000, almost all of them at the hands of the coup regime.

Among the thousands of uninvestigated and unresolved murders in El Salvador was the brutal rape and murder of four U.S. nuns by Salvadoran National Guardsmen. Though the New York Times and other U.S. media outlets followed the U.S.-Salvadoran propaganda line that the guardsmen acted alone, there was strong evidence of high-level government/military involvement. After a Kafkaesque show trial, the Reagan administration unfroze Salvadoran assets and continued the flow of aid and weapons.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, the highest Catholic Church official in El Salvador, was an outspoken critic of the junta government. He was assassinated by the military junta, probably on orders directly from a Salvadoran general.

When Romero had sent a letter to President Carter opposing the sending of aid as destructive to Salvadoran people’s interest, Carter responded by lobbying the pope to rein Romero in. Carter continued the flow of aid throughout his administration, with brief interludes when it wasn’t strategically necessary, and Reagan followed suit after him, perhaps a little more willing to turn the blind eye.

Lastly, let’s acknowledge that 200 years of U.S. domination of the hemisphere didn’t end with the Obama administration. On June 28, 2009, a military coup ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, yet another democratically elected Central American president who stepped out of line with U.S. interests. Zelaya had supported radical social movements at home and signed cooperation agreements with the official U.S. enemy Venezuela. The United Nations, European Union and the Organization of American States all condemned the coup, but the U.S. government never did. To condemn the coup would’ve been to acknowledge it, and if the U.S. government acknowledged the Honduran coup as such, we would’ve been forced under our own law to stop sending the country aid with the exception of democracy assistance. Instead, despite reports of killings and human rights abuses by increasingly militarized Honduran security forces, and despite the rest of the world’s opposition, the U.S. government has increased military assistance to Honduras.

In August of 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to justify the lack of condemnation by claiming it was unclear whether a coup had actually taken place, promising to investigate further and then reevaluate. But later, a leaked government cable sent to top U.S. officials, including Clinton, revealed she knew very well that there had been a coup and had in fact lied about there being any ambiguity. The subject of the cable was “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup,” and it thoroughly documented the claim that “there is no doubt” that the events of June 28, 2009, “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.”

U.S. military intervention and subversion in Central America is the principal root cause of the present violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The New York Times is right to denounce the Obama administration’s shameful response to the surge in refugees. The Department of Homeland Security has no excuse for indefinitely detaining families it finds to be bona fide asylum seekers. Deporting refugees back to the countries from which they fled is immoral, and bless the New York Times for saying so. But the real underlying problem, even within the frame of illegal immigration, is the United States continually supporting violence and unrest. If we really want to lessen the flow of refugees to the United States, we should stop creating them. If we really want to promote peace and democracy, we should stop undermining it at every turn. That’s my immigration policy.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.