IT IS AN EXTRAORDINARY thing to leave behind one's loved ones and trek thousands of miles to a place where one will be greeted with disdain and derision. When most people hear the word "alien," they think of extra-terrestrial beings; by applying this word to immigrants, we convey the sense that these people come from another world.
In fact, many come from countries that have been very closely tied to the United States, economically and militarily. Look at the base of Washington, D.C.'s Iwo Jima Marine memorial and you will find a list of the Marines' engagements throughout the world. You might be surprised to learn that the Marines were in Nicaragua in 1912-1913 and 1927-1933, and in the Dominican Republic a half dozen times, including in 1916-1924 and in 1965.
The same corporate and political elites that took us to war in Iraq have intervened incessantly in Latin America to protect their interests, and in the process they've exacerbated the misery of poor Latin Americans, leaving them little choice but to emigrate.
As many of the detainees captured in New Bedford last month are indigenous women from Guatemala, we will use that country to demonstrate the connection between our government's foreign policy and Latin American immigration. Guatemala enjoyed democratically elected governments from 1944 until 1954, when a coup overthrew the regime of Jacobo Arbenz, who was trying to address great socio-economic inequalities while staying free of Soviet influence.
When his efforts to give land to peasants ran afoul of such major U.S. corporations as the United Fruit Co., the CIA organized an invasion under a U.S.-trained Guatemalan military official, Carlos Castillo Armas. The CIA's own records confirm its role as the primary organizer of the invasion. A propaganda campaign convinced Guatemalans that Castillo had invincible forces, and he waltzed into Guatemala City and restored military rule, which would last until 1986. Castillo outlawed political parties and created death squads to deal with those sympathetic to the old democratic government.
Having eliminated Guatemala's young democracy, the United States generally supported the increasingly brutal military governments that succeeded Castillo Armas's, and trained them in counter-insurgency techniques. The repression against indigenous people in the countryside reached genocidal proportions by the 1980s, under the regime of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, whom President Reagan called "a man of great integrity .Ã¢â‚¬â€š.Ã¢â‚¬â€š. totally dedicated to democracy."
Reagan's administration ignored and misconstrued its own intelligence reports of atrocities as it gave military aid to Rios Montt. During this period, it is estimated, more than 100,000 civilians were killed by government violence, mostly indigenous Mayans in the countryside. Whole villages were massacred. Up to a million Mayans were forced out of their homes, and into internment camps or forced to labor for wealthy land barons.
The social fabric was ripped asunder, exacerbating Guatemala's inequality and the extreme poverty of most rural Guatemalans, and hundreds of thousands found themselves with no option but to leave the country. Rios Montt was largely considered the most powerful operative in the country's ruling party until 2003, well after the end of his presidency.
If we want to understand what has driven well over a million Guatemalans to immigrate to the United States, with and without papers, we need look no further than the violent regimes our government has created and sponsored. There are similar stories in most major Latin American source countries for immigration to the United States and Rhode Island.
As in Guatemala, in El Salvador, U.S.-trained government death squads and paramilitary forces killed thousands, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, and devastated rural communities, forcing emigration.
In the Dominican Republic, the United States intervened militarily several times over the 20th Century, the last time to prevent the return to power of the democratically elected Juan Bosch.
In Colombia, the United States has supported bloody regimes with close ties to the paramilitary groups that kill more than 200 union leaders a year — the current government's director of intelligence has been indicted for giving hit lists of union leaders to paramilitary groups.
The U.S.-based Chiquita banana company just confessed to paying one of these paramilitary groups millions of dollars, supposedly to "protect" its Colombian workers. There are U.S. military forces in Colombia, protecting an oil pipeline.
In Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement has benefited corporate elites on both sides of the border, devastated U.S. manufacturing workers, and made it impossible for small farmers in Mexico to compete with U.S. agribusiness, leaving them little choice but to emigrate.
To have an honest debate about immigration, we must recognize that many of the people who come here from Latin America are driven by horrific events in which our government had a hand. Immigrants want the same things most Americans do: decent jobs, basic rights, and a life free of violence and coercion.
Unfortunately, our government has helped make that impossible in their homelands, so they come here. To put it plainly: Many undocumented immigrants' violation of U.S. immigration law is a direct consequence of our government's unrelenting violations of international law.
As we look at ways to reform our immigration system — and, abhorrently, suggest throwing immigrants' children off RIteCare and out of our schools — we must acknowledge that changes in our own government's behavior would improve the terrible conditions that compel so many people to emigrate in the first place
David Segal is a Rhode Island state representative from Providence. Miguel Luna ia a Providence city councilman.
© 2007 The Providence Journal