Irony is often lost on me…but in the case of immigration and more specifically the current immigration of young Central Americans to the United States…not only do I understand the irony all too well, I am utterly disgusted. Let me explain.
Since the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States has maintained the practice of opposing European power when it interfered with independent nations in Latin American. The policy could be summed up succinctly as—America for the Americas. While the United States challenged European powers who meddled in the affairs of Latin American independent countries, the United States, even then as a burgeoning nation, interfered, manipulated, and controlled the outcome of the politics and the economy of many of the independent states in the Caribbean and Central and South America. During the cold war, U.S. presidents acted under the perceived threat of communist expansion or perhaps at the very least the fear of another U.S. loss like those in Vietnam and Cuba. For example, Ronald Reagan supported the Contras in Nicaragua by providing them money and weapons as they fought what he perceived to be a communist government, the Sandinistas. In what is now a very well documented time in history, the Contras (and the U.S. military) used Honduras as a staging area, some claiming that the U.S. was inciting war between Nicaragua and Honduras. The decades long war in Nicaragua between the Contras and the Sandinistas devastated not only Nicaragua but also Honduras. In approximately the same time period, internal war also devastated both El Salvador and Guatemala. In all cases, the U.S. intervened both directly and indirectly in these countries or created conditions that led to the wars themselves.
During the Reagan administration, Central Americans fled their countries because of the violence and political instability and escaped to the U.S. in search of refugee status. Unlike their Cuban counterparts, Nicaraguan, El Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan migrants were overwhelmingly refused entrance as political refugees. As a result, religious organizations throughout the United States opened up their sanctuaries as safe havens for these Central American refugees. Several of the religious leaders did, indeed, face federal prosecution as a result.
Fast forward to 2018.
Last week I visited a group of women (about 10) named Las Patronas in the state of Veracruz, Mexico outside the small town of Amatlan de los Reyes. In February 1995, they began to pass out food and water to Central American migrants who were riding atop the freight train called La Bestia, the beast, as they travelled north to the U.S. Depending on the trains, this journey can take more than 20 days. During the summer months, the heat is excruciating and during the cooler months, the temperatures can drop to freezing. Hundreds of thousands of migrants travel on La Bestia every year facing all sorts of dangers–including the beast itself. Many migrants fall off or get parts of their bodies trapped, crushed or severed. All face extreme sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst and violence from gangs and others who seek to take advantage of them. For every passing train, Las Patronas prepare 20 kilos of rice and copious amounts of beans, and tortillas to distribute in the 10 minute opportunity they have as the train passes less than half a block from their center. Sometimes the conductor slows and more food and water can be distributed. Other times the train stops for 20 minutes or so. And still other times, the conductor speeds through. Unless the train stops they do not have the opportunity to feed everyone. Often the migrants who have been injured or are facing extreme hunger, thirst or exhaustion find their way to Las Patronas to stay in one of about 10 beds they have for migrants. When there are more than 10 migrants at one time, they pull out foam pads and everyone sleeps on the patio. No one goes hungry and everyone is safe. Las Patronas do all of this through donations only. When a migrant is injured on the journey, Las Patronas not only seek healthcare for the individual but also strive to secure the individual a visa for Mexico. Mexican law favors injured migrants and with a visa they are able to work in Mexico and/or take safe passage to the U.S. border.
The day I visited, there were about 8 young men all from Honduras living with Las Patronas. All of the young men had been injured. I spoke with one young man, aged 24, whose ribs and internal organs had been damaged on his journey. Speaking with his mouth half-covered, yet with piercing eyes, he told of the violence and lack of economic opportunity in his home country, the family he left behind, including a wife and one daughter, and his hopes for reaching the U.S. He was recuperating and anticipating a Mexican visa so that his passage to the U.S. would be more secure and less traumatic than the more than 7 days he had left on La Bestia. As we sat together, the irony fell on me with all the weight of the racist, imperialistic legacy that is the United States.
First, I am not permitted by law as a U.S. citizen to help this young man within the borders of my own country. Yet, here I am in Mexico volunteering with Las Patronas.
Second, this young man is the same age as the number of years Las Patronas have been giving food, water and shelter to migrants as they travel on La Bestia. Though to be clear, at various times more migrants come from different countries than at others. And to also be clear migrants from Central America have been travelling through Mexico for more than 24 years and have also been using trains and other means for their passage. It is safe to say, though, that this young man has only known his country as violent and in economic ruin where people seek refuge beyond its borders.
Third, if this young man, as many migrants do, was travelling with his daughter he may in fact be separated from her upon reaching the U.S., as the more than 1,900 migrant children in the U.S. have been in the last six weeks.
Fourth, the U.S. has no understanding of the political and economic mess it created, sustained and then left in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Rather, U.S. policy makers and law enforcement personnel use a victim blaming stance that seeks to punish the migrants for the conditions that lead them to undertake an enormously dangerous, life-threatening 20 day journey across Mexico. In other words, leaving their home, undertaking a hazardous journey, facing an uncertain and precarious life as an undocumented immigrant or political refugee in the U.S. is better than remaining in their home country. Many leave, quite frankly, because there is nothing left to lose—because staying is worse than the chances one must take as a migrant. Yet, U.S. policies punish the migrant turned refugee or immigrant rather than examine the causes and the U.S.’s role in what leads thousands of people a year to choose this journey rather than remain in their homes.
Fifth, the U.S. has already played this immigrant nightmarish policy for Central Americans, Mexicans, Dominicans and other Latin Americans during my lifetime and it didn’t work; so, I am not really sure why it will work today. Is it, once again, up to religious groups and other human rights organizations to protect and give sanctuary to immigrants and refugee seekers while politicians use humans as hostages in their game of power?