On Wednesday, Trump yielded to public pressure and reversed his family-separation policy on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying he would issue an executive order ending his administration’s brutal and sadistic policy of taking children from their parents. But the trauma will not end overnight, as thousands of immigrant children and their parents are still in different states. Other parents have been deported, while their children remain in this country.
We need a larger shift in U.S. immigration policy. Maybe the horror of these recent events will help more Americans see the issue more clearly.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” Trump said when he signed the order. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”
But nothing about Trump’s “strong” approach is addressing the root cause of migration. For years, U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the chaos and violence that engulf Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, sending desperate migrants fleeing from these countries to seek shelter in the United States.
Instead of helping to solve this humanitarian crisis, the Trump Administration is making migrant desperation worse.
In El Salvador, brutal gangs like MS-13—which Trump suggested he was stopping from coming into the United States with his border crackdown—serve as surrogate families for orphaned children. By seeking to deny asylum on the basis of gang violence, and by stranding thousands of children far from their parents with the recent family-separation policy, the Trump Administration may be creating thousands of new recruits for those gangs.
Contrary to Trump Administration hype, MS-13 is actually a U.S. export. In 1989—at the end of a civil war in which U.S. military aid to a brutal regime played a profoundly destabilizing role—the United States began deporting thousands of gang members from Los Angeles back to El Salvador.
“The Salvadoran state was far too weak to deal with the influx of this criminal element,” writes Oscar Martínez, author of The History of Violence. “They came down here as experts in organizing gangs, having learned in the world capital of Latino gangs, which is in Southern California, specifically Los Angeles.”
U.S.-raised gang members recruited El Salvador’s civil-war orphans, and took control of rural areas, turning El Salvador into what became the most violent country in the world.
I met some Salvadoran teenagers fleeing gang violence when I travelled to Puebla with my teenage daughter, Lily, to see the migrant caravan as it passed through Mexico toward the U.S. border this year. Lily interviewed the kids she met on the caravan for Madison’s listener-sponsored community radio station, WORT.
Claudia, age eighteen, told Lily she left her mom and four siblings after gangs in El Salvador threatened to kill her if she didn’t sell drugs. Shortly after Claudia fled the country, gang members killed her stepfather, shooting him fifteen times in the face. Claudia said her mother wants to follow her to the United States but she can’t leave now, since she is under surveillance by the gangs.
U.S. citizens are not the victims of the humanitarian crisis on our border. The real victims are the people caught in the middle of terrible conflicts in which our country played a rol
Another teen Lily spoke with, seventeen-year-old Wilmer from Honduras, laughed about Donald Trump’s tweets describing the caravan as an invading army—“like something in a movie,” he said, looking around at the ragtag group. Lily laughed, too. There was nothing dangerous-looking about the caravan. Wilmer explained how the escalating pressure to join a gang in Honduras forced him to leave and try to make it to the United States on his own. Gang members there had threatened to kill him.
Honduras is also wracked by political violence. U.S. military aid to repressive governments has long played a role. Recently, the Trump Administration threw its support behind a rightwing president who was widely seen as having stolen the 2018 election, and who has been cracking down on supporters of his political opponent, as Jeff Abbott reported in The Progressive in April.
The most painful story we heard during our visit with the migrant caravan was from Milagro del Tracito, a mother who fled Guatemala with her fourteen-year-old daughter. Gang members came to extort her when she was pregnant, she told us, and beat her until she miscarried. She broke down and wept describing the trauma.
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“U.S. foreign policy tore apart the social fabric of the country,” Guatemalan social anthropologist Irma Alicia Velasquez wrote in The New York Times, referring to longtime U.S. support and military aid to regimes that practiced genocide and brutal repression in that country.
As Trump and his enablers gin up anti-immigrant rhetoric, labeling undocumented immigrants as law-breakers for crossing the border without papers, and lumping them together with violent criminals, it’s important for Americans to understand the bigger picture. U.S. citizens are not the victims of the humanitarian crisis on our border. The real victims are the people caught in the middle of terrible conflicts in which our country played a role. We have a responsibility to help them.
“They could be murderers and thieves and so much else,” Trump said of the parents whose children have been taken away from them at the border. “We want a safe country, and it starts with the borders. Thas the way it is.”
As when he called migrants “animals,” and tweeted that the United States was being “stolen” by members of the migrant caravan, Trump is deliberately mischaracterizing these desperate families in order to play to nativist fear and resentment.
The mothers, fathers, little children and teenagers fleeing violence in Central America are not coming to “steal” the United States. They are simply looking for a way to survive.
It was heartening to see the outpouring of support for the migrant caravan along its route in Mexico. Volunteer immigration attorneys flew from the United States to offer advice on seeking asylum. Church members, the Red Cross, and local citizens came out with food and clothing.
But when the migrants reached the U.S. border, they ran into the fan blades of Donald Trump’s alarmist hype.
On June 2, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group that organized the caravan, issued a statement confirming that at least nine caravan members who were seeking asylum in the United States had been separated from their children by U.S. immigration officials.
“In most cases those children, as young as two years old, have been sent to and are now being detained in youth detention facilities in other states while their parents have been transferred to adult detention centers and prisons in California and Texas,” the group declared in a press release.
Maria, a mother currently detained in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego—known as “the icebox” for frigid temperatures that have taken a toll on migrants’ health—was among the parents from whom Pueblo Sin Fronteras has gathered statements. Maria was separated from her two-year-old and seven-year-old children in early May.
When an immigration officer came to take her children, she was holding her toddler, and objected that she could not let them go without her. “Can the little one walk?” she recalls the officer asking. Yes, she said. Her older child took the young one’s hand and started to walk out. As she described it, “Then they turned around to look and when they saw that I was not going after them they cried more and when they were out of sight I asked again where they had taken them. They only told me ‘to a shelter’ and that they would explain to me later and they took me back to the icebox.”
Devastated, Maria issued the following plea to the government of the United States: “Let it be clear that I brought them to protect them because I love them and what is happening to me hurts so much that there are times when I don’t know what to do.”
“Put yourselves in my place,” she added. “If you could feel the pain I feel as a mother, maybe you would understand that it isn’t necessary to separate children from their parents because we come fleeing from our countries.
The United States owes these people so much more. But even cold self-interest should dictate a more enlightened, humane approach. Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy makes the whole world less safe.