President Trump hoped to swing the election in favor of Republicans with warnings of an invasion by caravans of Central American immigrants making their way north through Mexico. Though the photos made clear that these were young fathers, mothers and children in strollers, Trump spoke of the criminals and Muslim terrorists hidden among them, as well as the diseases they supposedly carried, from leprosy to HIV. The lack of empathy for the conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that might prompt young families to walk the length of Mexico to the US border reached its nasty paranoid peak when right-wing conspiracy theorists claimed that the immigrants had been funded by the financier and philanthropist, George Soros.
Acting on his sense of threat by an invasion, President Trump ordered 5,900 troops to the Texas and Arizona borders at a cost of $200 million to taxpayers. Since the military would not have direct contact with the immigrants, their role, beyond installing concertina wire, was unclear: remaining there for the next few months, they would act “in support of customs and border police.”
The midterm election suggested that a majority of Americans do not support the President’s policies or rhetoric. Since then, Trump has gone silent about the caravan. Turning his ire to an apparent increase in asylum claims over the past ten years, which he believes indicates a “rampant abuse” of our nation’s asylum system, he has signed an executive order to deny asylum to immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally. The Presidential order, which went into effect on November 10th, is a direct challenge both to our country’s 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and to international conventions. A United Nations treaty signed by the United States in 1951 states that, “refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry,” because extreme situations sometimes “require refugees to breach immigration rules.” Not surprisingly, the new Presidential order has already prompted suits by human rights organizations.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is following a well-worn American tradition of passing immigrant legislation in the context of vilifying immigrants—usually perceived as the “darker races.” The ignoble Immigration Act of 1924 was passed in response to the arrival of Italian, Jewish and Chinese immigrants, who were allegedly changing the inherent nature of the country. The Act limited immigration through a national quota system that favored Western Europeans and excluded all Asians.
Honduras, which most of the caravan members are fleeing, is a mountainous country. As limited arable land has been consumed by large banana, coffee, cotton and cattle plantations, subsistence farmers have been transformed into a huge unemployed and poorly paid labor force. Sixty-six percent of all Hondurans live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Like their Guatemalan and Salvadoran neighbors, Hondurans rely heavily on remittances from family members in exile in the US.
Weak government institutions, from hospitals to the police and the judicial system, increase the precariousness of life for the Honduran poor. Organized gangs and drug traffickers pay off police, prosecutors and judges, making victims afraid or unwilling to report crimes. Only 20 percent of all homicide cases are investigated, and only 4 percent result in a judicial resolution. Cities like San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa have among the highest homicide rates in the world.
Although nearly half of the Hondurans walking north have requested asylum in Mexico, the fact is, people don’t leave their homes to begin a walk of over 1500 miles across unknown territory unless conditions are so difficult and dangerous in their villages or towns that it has become impossible to stay. This means that any workable (not to mention compassionate) immigration legislation aimed at the Central American refugees has to be coupled with policies to ameliorate the poverty and lawlessness in their home countries. Without such policies, border walls, concertina wire, military police, and other draconian measures will only create desperate tent cities of immigrants waiting for the unlikely chance to get in.
Poverty and suffering can be frightening to witness. But turning the Central Americans into disease-ridden criminals storming our borders will not help either us or them. Remembering that we too were immigrants, we need to recognize our common humanity. Doing so would be a first step toward a sane and respectful immigration policy.