Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Migrants certainly are not criminals for fleeing conditions the U.S. government helped create. They are victims. (Photo: Ryan/flickr/cc)

Migrants certainly are not criminals for fleeing conditions the U.S. government helped create. They are victims. (Photo: Ryan/flickr/cc)

Dear Democrats: We Owe Migrants More Than "Decriminalization"

U.S. policies have created the disasters from which they are fleeing.

Timothy A. Wise

Like many citizens of the United States, I was pleased to hear the consensus condemnation of President Trump’s punitive migration policies from Democratic presidential candidates during the last debate. Granted, It does not take much courage to condemn “holding children in cages.” Still, it was heartening to hear support for “decriminalizing” migration. That would certainly be an improvement over the abusive policies now prevailing on the border.

But granting that many migrants at our southern border are not criminals falls far short of recognizing the complicity of our government in creating the multiple crises Central Americans and Mexicans are fleeing. We have a responsibility to those migrants for violations of their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, because the U.S. government is significantly responsible for those violations.

It is time for Democrats to go just beyond just opposing the border wall, stopping child detentions, and decriminalizing migration. Migrants certainly are not criminals for fleeing conditions the U.S. government helped create. They are victims.

To this end, I would ask all Democratic candidates to raise their hands in the next debate if they would support adding the following items to the questions posed to migrants when they are apprehended or questioned at our border:

1. Are you fleeing gun violence? Since the US is the source of 70% of the guns used by criminals in Mexico, and nearly half in Central America, we feel a particular responsibility to welcome victims of U.S.-made guns.

2. Are you fleeing gang violence? Because many of the Central American gangs gained strength when the US deported Central Americans who had been recruited into gangs in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities after fleeing civil wars we precipitated, we bear some responsibility for such organized crime.

3. Are illegal drugs the source of the gang violence you are fleeing? The U.S. is overwhelmingly responsible for the drug trade because U.S. consumers are by far the largest source of demand for the drugs being trafficked through Central America and Mexico. We owe special consideration to the victims of drug-related violence.

4. Are you fleeing government repression? The U.S. government has armed and heavily funded the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. We provoked a civil war in El Salvador. We supported a coup against the elected government of Honduras in 2009 and then backed the fraudulent election of the current Honduran president in 2017. We oversaw the genocide of indigenous people by the Guatemalan government in the 1980s. So political refugees fleeing U.S.-backed regimes deserve special consideration for asylum.

5. Have you left your home because imported goods from the U.S. undermined your livelihood after a trade agreement? Did you grow corn and then found you had no market for your crop because subsidized U.S. corn was pouring into your country at prices below what it cost to produce, a form of agricultural dumping outlawed by the World Trade Organization? The U.S. owes the victims of such brazen trade policies compensation for such unfair practices.

6. Did you leave home because multinational firms have taken over your land for industrial farming, mining, or tourism and threatened those who resist displacement? U.S. firms have a long history of such actions; today Hilton Hotels has displaced hundreds of native Garifuna people in Northern Honduras for an exclusive resort. A local Garifuna organization estimates that half of the people between the ages of 12 and 30 have migrated as the community has lost nearly three-quarters of its ancestral land. We recognize that we are responsible when U.S. companies violate human rights abroad.

7. Did you leave home because your land was taken over to produce sugar, palm oil, soybeans, corn, or one of the other biofuel crops? U.S. biofuel policies have put added pressure on land in places like Central America where such crops can be grown cheaply, yet the hidden costs to the rural poor are devastating. We should extend a welcoming hand to anyone who has been displaced by U.S. demand for biofuel crops.

8. Were you compelled to migrate because climate change destroyed your livelihood, such as with the persistent drought that has plagued Central America in recent years? The U.S. is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), yet our current president denies climate change exists. Your countries contributed almost none of the GHGs that cause climate change, so there is a particular climate debt we owe to people of your country. The least we can do is welcome refugees from the climate disasters we have created and continue to magnify.

Decriminalizing migration is a welcome, and humane, proposal. But recognizing our own role in the many insurmountable problems forcing migrants from their homes would put responsibility squarely where it belongs. Extending a welcoming hand at our southern border to the victims of harmful U.S. political and economic policies is, truly, the least we can do. The most we could do is stop pursuing policies that create migration in the first place.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Timothy Wise

Timothy A. Wise

Timothy A. Wise is a senior advisor at IATP, where his work focuses on agribusiness, family farmers and the future of food, based on his recent book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press). He was a senior advisor with the Small Planet Institute, where he directed the Land and Food Rights Program from 2016-2020. He is also a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, where he founded and directed its Globalization and Sustainable Development Program.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

UN Officials Warn of 'Record-Shattering Month' for Civilian Deaths in Yemen

Following deadly strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, Oxfam is calling on the U.N. Security Council to condemn attacks on Yemenis and to "inject new urgency" into peace talks.

Jessica Corbett ·


Experts Say Nuclear Energy as Climate Solution Is Total 'Fiction'

"The reality is nuclear is neither clean, safe, or smart; but a very complex technology with the potential to cause significant harm."

Jessica Corbett ·


Air and Water Under Threat as SCOTUS Targets Environmental Laws

"It seems like we have a new conservative supermajority on the court that is much more inclined to do a slash-and-burn expedition through our major environmental laws."

Julia Conley ·


'Historic Turning Point': Cuba Issues Plan for Vaccine Internationalism

"This lifesaving package," said the head of Progressive International's delegation to Cuba, exemplifies public health and science being "placed above private profit and petty nationalism."

Kenny Stancil ·


Fridays For Future Announces Global Climate Strike for March 25

"Join us for the Global Climate Strike as we demand policymakers and world leaders to prioritize #PeopleNotProfit!"

Common Dreams staff ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo