At first glance, Thursday seemed like a banner day for Hillary Clinton’s “minority firewall.” Several respected leaders of Latinx organizations offered their enthusiastic support for the Democratic presidential candidate, while at the same time—Beyoncé-style—her campaign dropped a new, emotionally charged ad into the Nevada market two days before the state’s crucial caucus event. In the ad, a 10-year-old Latina girl expresses fear for her parents, who have just received a letter of deportation. Clinton urges her to be “brave” and let Clinton do “all the worrying”; the candidate chokes up as she tells the child, “I’m going to do everything I can so you won’t be scared.”
Though the ad was obviously meant to be warm and inspiring, it chilled me to the bone. I grew up in Los Angeles—the great Latinx-majority metropolis I once heard described as “the northernmost city in Latin America”—as the child of immigrants, and I have been a witness to the great transformations wrought by the dynamics of immigration over the last few decades. And I cannot reconcile Clinton’s newfound role as “worrier-in-chief” for immigrants in the U.S. with what I know about the policies she has supported for that vast region south of our border where many immigrants to the United States (especially those lacking legal permission) come from.
The “pull factor” of her new, fashionably humane stance on immigration policy cannot be considered outside the context of the “push factors” that compel poor, peasant and working-class Latin Americans to leave their families and brave the incredibly hard, long and increasingly dangerous route to El Norte. Many of these push factors—including the devastation of local livelihoods and family-based agriculture, extreme exploitation (especially of women) in the low-wage maquiladora economy, and the outright terror of political violence—can be traced directly to policies Clinton supported and, in a few cases, personally acted upon as secretary of state.
A look at her foreign policy record with regard to Latin America finds plenty to be scared about. Indeed, the very prospect of Clinton in the driver’s seat of the American empire should trigger alarm bells in anyone who has witnessed or lived through the consequences of Central America’s “dirty wars.” Yes, the bloody legacy of regime change in America’s backyard started with President Reagan, not Secretary Clinton, but two things—her embrace of Henry Kissinger as a “friend” and “mentor” on foreign policy and her personal involvement in the 2009 coup in Honduras that forcibly removed President Manuel Zelaya, a left populist, from power—reveal her commitment to maintaining a legacy of political terror in Latin America that has caused millions of people to flee their homelands.
Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic Policy Research has reported extensively on the Honduran coup and its bloody aftermath, as well as Clinton’s personal involvement in forcibly removing a democratically elected leader from office and preventing his return—a plan of action to which she not only admits but boasts of in her memoir (and ode to Kissinger), “Hard Choices.” This approach to foreign policy, as Weisbrot notes in one report, is also where Clinton’s “secret email issue” becomes extremely relevant to the question of what kind of commander in chief she would be:
A number of Clinton emails show how, starting shortly after the coup, HRC and her team shifted the deliberations on Honduras from the Organization of American States (OAS)—where Zelaya could benefit from the strong support of left-wing allies throughout the region—to the San José negotiation process in Costa Rica. There, representatives of the coup regime were placed on an equal footing with representatives of Zelaya’s constitutional government, and Costa Rican president Oscar Arias (a close U.S. ally) as mediator. Unsurprisingly, the negotiation process only succeeded in one thing: keeping Zelaya out of office for the rest of his constitutional mandate. ...
... A careful reading of the Clinton emails and Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables from the beginning of her tenure, expose a Latin America policy that is often guided by efforts to isolate and remove left-wing governments in the region [see “Latin America and the Caribbean” and “Venezuela” in the new book “The Wikileaks Files”]. The chapter on Latin America in Clinton’s memoir Hard Choices reaffirms this vision of U.S. Latin America policy, and one short passage from the chapter is particularly telling:
We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.
...The “hard choices” taken by Clinton and her team didn’t just damage U.S. relations with Latin America. They contributed to the enormous damage done to Honduras. In the years following the coup, economic growth has stalled, while poverty and income inequality have risen significantly. Violence has spiraled out of control. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has increased military assistance to Honduras, despite alarming reports of killings and human rights abuses by increasingly militarized Honduran security forces. Many Congressional Democrats have asked for a complete suspension of security assistance while human rights violations continue with impunity. But neither the Clinton nor Kerry State Departments have heeded their call.
Clinton’s role in the Honduras coup alone should be sufficient to show that she is no friend of the Latinx immigrant community, but in the last Democratic presidential debate, on Feb. 11 in Milwaukee, she went even further to dismiss the humanity of migrant children caught up in the violent aftermath of the regime change she encouraged and partially engineered. Here is the pivotal exchange between Clinton and Bernie Sanders:
SANDERS: Secretary Clinton, I do have a disagreement here. If my memory is correct, I think when we saw children coming from these horrendous, horrendously violent areas of Honduras and neighboring countries, people who are fleeing drug violence and cartel violence, I thought it was a good idea to allow those children to stay in this country. That was not, as I understand it, the secretary’s position. ...
CLINTON: ... Two quick responses. One, with respect to the Central American children, I made it very clear that those children needed to be processed appropriately, but we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.
SANDERS: ... But in terms of the children, I don’t know to whom you’re sending a message. Who are you sending a message to? These are children who are leaving countries and neighborhoods where their lives are at stake. That was the fact. I don’t think we use them to send a message. I think we welcome them into this country and do the best we can to help them get their lives together.
CLINTON: Well, that just wasn’t—that just wasn’t the fact, senator. The fact is that there was a great effort made by the Obama administration and others to really send a clear message, because we knew that so many of these children were being abused, being treated terribly while they tried to get to our border.
Once again, like a Freudian slip, Clinton’s hawkish attitude undermines her attempt to claim the mantle of humanitarianism, and I was a little disappointed that Sanders in that moment did not go further to press her about her role in creating and maintaining the violence in Honduras that families were desperate to send their children away from.
For her part, Clinton seemed completely uninterested in why children were trying to get to our border; she insisted twice that her refusal to allow child refugees into the U.S. was to “send a message” to families—the message being, apparently, to accept their children’s fates at the hands of U.S.-backed military thugs. Clinton remains utterly unrepentant about her actions in Honduras. And with her old mentor Kissinger at her side, it seems reasonable to expect more of the same as other Latin American countries sink deeper into economic recession, political uncertainty and pervasive violence.
Bloody coups aside, perhaps the biggest single action that transformed immigration into the “problem” we face today was President Bill Clinton’s implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. NAFTA opened the floodgates to transnational corporate profitmaking by removing the barriers that the U.S.-Mexico border posed to the free flow of investment. But instead of being a magic wand that, as Bill Clinton contended, would bring economic prosperity for all and “fix” undocumented immigration to the United States, the impacts of the free-trade agreement on the Mexican economy actually increased the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States by 185 percent.
How did NAFTA and CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement) propel undocumented immigration? In academia, we can spend years counting all the ways. But in large part, it was because of the absolute devastation “free trade” brought to these countries’ family-based agricultural economies. Peasants who had supplied themselves and their communities with staple foods for centuries could not compete when thrust into a global market against a flood of cheap corn and wheat produced by the U.S. government-subsidized agricultural industry. This, and the opening of collectively held lands for sale on the private market, left millions of peasant families broke and landless, with no choice but to go north. Here is a vivid description of what that meant for communities on the ground:
A number of formerly vibrant places are now ghost towns, all their able adults having gone abroad; about one-third of all Mexican municipalities have lost population during the last decade, some by half or more. The counterpart of this hollowing out of the Mexican countryside is the growth of the Mexican migrant population in the U.S., much of it undocumented.
At the same time, manufacturers fled the U.S., eviscerating the American job market, and set up low-wage maquilas south of the border with minimal government regulations or labor standards. The 1.3 million jobs created in Mexico’s manufacturing sector as a result could not keep up with the loss of employment in agriculture, and over the years these jobs too dried up as the globalized “race to the bottom” motivated multinational corporations (such as Wal-Mart, where Hillary Clinton was on the board of directors) to outsource to China and other countries willing to submit to ever greater terms of exploitation.
Twenty-two years after NAFTA went into effect, contemporary Mexico is an economic and political basket case, where economic growth barely tops 2.5 percent per year and is propped up by three major sources of income: drugs, oil, and migrant remittances (which in 2015 overtook oil as Mexico’s No. 1 source of revenue.) The vicious drug war that has raged throughout Mexico and spread to parts of Central America over the last decade—claiming a staggering 164,000 lives in Mexico alone—is a direct product of the economic devastation caused by NAFTA and is also a major cause of immigration to the U.S. without legal permission.
At best, Hillary Clinton has an inconsistent record on free trade: An accounting of her flip-flops on NAFTA, CAFTA and other free-trade agreements over the years can be found here. It must be said, however, that she has been a staunch defender of her husband’s legacy on NAFTA. And though she very recently came to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, as secretary of state she was its chief advocate during the major part of its formation—in fact, as David Axelrod put it, she “owned” the TPP. Although she says she would fight for protections, there is logically no reason to believe she would truly reverse course on free-trade agreements—and there’s no sign of her even making the connections between the trade policies she supported, the gutting of Latin American economies and increased immigration to the U.S.
Among the Latinx community leaders who backed Hillary Clinton on Thursday was legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta. But she and other movement luminaries of color, such as John Lewis, seem compelled to accompany their endorsements with vicious attacks on Bernie Sanders’ progressive credentials. On a conference call with reporters, Huerta asked: “Bernie, where have you been?”
Granted, Vermont is a very small and very white state, and Sanders may not have had much opportunity to advocate in a broad way for the Latinx community and for immigration reform (although we do know how steadfast he is as an advocate for workers’ rights in general). We may not know where Sanders has been, but we do know where Clinton has been, on both sides of the border—and her record doesn’t bode well for immigrants, their families or their communities back home.