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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 the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (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.

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