An old and powerful story lies at the heart of our nation’s current border crisis. The story has a convenient protagonist – average, law-abiding US citizens such as you and me.
We were working hard to build our American dream, when suddenly a flood of foreigners snuck over our white picket fence. The migrants were dirty, dangerous and desperate to leech off our success.
In this story, America’s only mistake was creating something that our neighbors coveted.
Now all our hard work is under attack. We must choose between courageously defending our American way of life or watching the invaders erode all that makes our country great.
Many smart, well-intentioned citizens take this story as fact. They might have sat in PTA meetings at their children’s school as it dipped into the already tight budget to hire English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors. They might remember the family that used to run the local bakery, before the building was converted to a taqueria. They might know a friend’s teenager who was caught buying marijuana traced back to a Mexican drug cartel.
This narrative might feel real for them, but history proves it’s an anecdote. For the US as a whole, this story is a dangerous fiction, one that blurs our country’s role as the primary driver of our border emergency. We are not the victims of an immigration problem, but the creators of a refugee crisis. Here’s why.
Crash Course in Migration
First, let me define my terms. People move from one place to another for any number of reasons: economic opportunity, family unification, environmental shifts, conflict, divorce, adventure etc. Adding all these factors up for each migrant gives us a picture of whether they’re running towards or running from something.
The travelers that are running towards something are generally called immigrants. They choose to move in an effort to seek a better life for themselves and their children.
The travelers that are running from something are called refugees. Their move is less a choice and more a necessity for survival. They are fleeing war, natural disaster, persecution or unlivable poverty. They are not seeking a better life, they are seeking life period.
The forces that either draw people to a country or drive people out of one are called pull and push factors.
We as a nation like to believe that we only generate pull factors – high paying jobs, fantastic schools, top-of-the-line healthcare, Hollywood, etc. – but that’s less than half the story.
Pushing Latin America
Since the late 1800s, the people we’ve voted into power have directly intervened in almost every country south of our border. We’ve protected US interests with boots on the ground in Argentina, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Columbia. We’ve orchestrated successful coup d’états in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Chile, and Panama.
When I say “protected US interests,” I mean we’ve guaranteed US investments, undermined Communism and fought the drug trade. In 1954, the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (whose brother was then head of the CIA) directed the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government because it attempted to nationalize the holdings of United Fruit Company, an American corporation. As the Cold War intensified, US troops fought Communist-leaning guerillas in Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Cuba. Through the School of the America’s, the US military trained regimes in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay (among others) to torture and “disappear” dissidents as a means of maintaining authoritarian control.
By the 1980s, direct foreign intervention began to fall out of favor with the US populace. Our government’s overt strategy of displacing legitimate governments with US-friendly puppets didn’t align with our image as a benevolent democracy.
To maintain our influence south of the border, we turned to economic coercion through international trade agreements. Financial advisors convinced leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua to take massive short-term loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both largely controlled by the US) on the condition that they eliminate trade barriers and cut social-welfare spending. These loans, called Structural Adjustment Programs, destabilized their national currencies and threw their major job-producing industries into direct competition with the rest of the world.
For the first-world financial advisor, this meant progress through increased efficiency. But for the people living under structural adjustment, it meant they lost their jobs at the same time as food prices skyrocketed and their currency depreciated. In short, the standard of living plummeted to the point that many couldn’t afford to feed their families.
So if a US-backed coup-d’état wasn’t enough to force civilians to flee, add a Great Depression.
Now there are drugs. The ongoing War on Drugs began in the early 1970s, with a mission to cut off the supply side of the supply/demand drug economy. But with no strategy to stem America’s demand, our aggressive criminalization of marijuana, cocaine, opiates (heroine) and methamphetamines simply jacked up the sale price. Just Say No became Just Pay More.
In tragic irony, the War on Drugs has fueled the Latin American drug trade by creating a huge gap between the cost of production (in Columbia, Peru, Bolivia etc.) and the going street price in the US. In 2009, the head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico publicly thanked US lawmakers for keeping drugs illegal, saying “I owe my whole empire to you… The War on Drugs is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
Just as Prohibition bankrolled the rise of organized crime in the 1920s, the War on Drugs has created a warzone out of Central America. The scale and intensity of the drug violence has escalated to the point that General John Kelly, Commander of US SOUTHCOM, has declared it a dire threat to US national security. However, Kelly makes it very clear the threat is of our making:
“All this corruption and violence is directly or indirectly due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs… The malignant effects of immense drug trafficking through these nonconsumer nations [have accelerated] the breakdown in their national institutions of human rights, law enforcement, courts, and eventually their entire society as evidenced today by the flow of children north and out of the conflictive transit zone.”
To summarize, our history of military intervention, economic coercion, and illegal drug consumption has left many parts of Latin America a literal wasteland. While the elements that draw immigrants to the US are no doubt real, we’ve pushed Latin Americans out of their nations far more than we’ve pulled them into ours.
To Americans who say the children arriving at our border are “not my problem,” you may be right. You personally did not decide to overthrow Latin American democracies, or coerce their leaders to take loans their countries couldn’t pay back, or traffic drugs across their borders.
But for over a century, our lifestyle in the US has been predicated on the marginalization of an entire continent. You personally may not have made the choices that brought us to this current crisis, but you’ve probably benefited from them.
If you’ve ever eaten a Chiquita banana or bought imported avocados or tomatoes; if you’ve ever celebrated spring break in Cancun or Tijuana; if you’ve ever smoked marijuana or used elicit drugs… you’ve added your weight to America’s collective shove against our southern neighbors.
Our actions have created unlivable conditions in Latin America. Now mothers are paying strangers to escort their children hundreds of miles across dangerous terrain on the small hope that they can escape north.
History proves that the kids arriving at our doorstep did not come by choice. We pushed them.
Fischetti, Mark. “U.S. Demand for Fruits and Vegetables Drives Up Imports.” August 20, 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/us-demand-for-fruits-and-vegetables-drives-up-imports/
Kelly, John F. “SOUTHCOM chief: Central America drug war a dire threat to U.S. national security.“ July 8, 2014. http://www.armytimes.com/article/20140708/NEWS01/307080064/SOUTHCOM-chief-Central-America-drug-war-dire-threat-U-S-national-security
Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. 2006. Times Books.
Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. 2006. Random House.
Rathbone, John Paul and Thomson, Adam. “Latin America: A toxic trade.” April 18, 2012. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd055994-ca8f-11e0-94d0-00144feabdc0.html#axzz38sIp9YQl
Robbins, Ted. “Wave Of Illegal Immigrants Gains Speed After NAFTA.” December 26, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/12/26/257255787/wave-of-illegal-immigrants-gains-speed-after-nafta
Shah, Anup. “Structural Adjustment – A Major Cause of Poverty.” March 24, 2013. http://www.globalissues.org/article/3/structural-adjustment-a-major-cause-of-poverty
Theroux, Mary. “Voyage of the Damned War on Drugs.” July 24, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-l-g-theroux/voyage-of-the-damned-war-_b_5621296.html
Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. 2007. Doubleday.
Wilson, Tamar Diana. “Economic and Social Impacts of Tourism in Mexico.” Latin American Perspectives. 2008.