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8 Reasons u.s. Trade and Immigration Policies--Not "Lax Immigration Enforcement"--Have Caused Migration from Central America

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The mass migration of children from Central America has been at the center of a political firestorm over the past few weeks. The mainstream media has run dozens of stories blaming families, especially mothers, for sending or bringing their children north from Central America. The president himself lectured them, as though they were simply bad parents. "Do not send your children to the borders," Obama said last week. "If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it."

Meanwhile, the story is being manipulated by the Tea Party and conservative Republicans to attack Obama's executive action deferring the deportation of young people, along with any possibility he might expand it╤the demand of many immigrant rights advocates.  More broadly, the Right wants to shut down any immigration reform that includes legalization, and instead is gunning for harsher enforcement measures. Even Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, has sought to frame migration as a national security threat, calling it a "crime-terror convergence," and describing it as "an incredibly efficient network along which anything - hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children - can travel, so long as they can pay the fare."

This push for greater enforcement ignores the real reasons families take the desperate measure of leaving home and trying to cross the border.  Media coverage focuses on gang violence in Central America, as though it was spontaneous and unrelated to a history of U.S.-promoted wars and a policy of mass deportations.

U.S. foreign and immigration policy is responsible for much of the pressure causing this flow of people from Central America. These eight facts, ignored by the mainstream press and the president, document that culpability, and point out the need for change.

1. There is no "lax enforcement" on the U.S./Mexico border. There are over 20,000 members of the Border Patrol, the largest number in history. We have walls and a system of detention centers that didn't exist just 15 years ago. Now more than 350,000 people spend some time in an immigrant detention center every year. The U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than all other enforcement activities of the federal government combined, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The growing numbers of people in detention╤young people as well as families and adults╤ is being used as a pretext by the anti-immigrant lobby in Washington, including the Tea Party and the Border Patrol itself, for demanding increases in the budget for enforcement. The Obama administration has given way before this pressure.

2. The migration of children and families didn╒t just start recently. It has been going on for a long time, although the numbers are increasing. The tide of migration from Central America goes back to wars that the U.S. promoted in the 1980s, in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change. Two million Salvadorans alone came to the U.S. during the late 1970s and 80s, to say nothing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that some day they'd be reunited.

3. The recent increase in the numbers of migrants is not just a response to gang violence, although this is virtually the only reason given in U.S. media coverage. Growing migration is as much or more a consequence of the increasing economic crisis for rural people in Central America and Mexico, as well as the failure of those economies to produce jobs. People are leaving because they can't survive where they are.

4. The failure of Central America's economies is mostly due to the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and their accompanying economic changes, including privatization of businesses, the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and cuts in the social budget. The treaties allowed huge U.S. corporations to dump corn and other agricultural products in Mexico and Central America, forcing rural families off their lands when they could not compete.

5. When governments or people have resisted NAFTA and CAFTA, the United States has threatened reprisals. Right-wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) put forward a measure in 2004 to cut off the flow of remittances (money sent back to Salvadoran families from family members working in the U.S.) if people voted for a leftwing party, the FMLN, in El Salvador's national elections. Otto Reich, a violently anti-communist Cuban who was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. government was "concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory could have on the commercial, economic, and migration-related relations of the U.S. with El Salvador." Salvadoran papers were full of the threat, especially those on the right, and the FMLN lost.  In 2009 a tiny wealthy elite in Honduras overthrew President Manuel Zelaya because he raised the minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates and instituted free education.  The Obama administration gave a de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the U.S.    


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