The horrific accounts of immigrant families being torn apart have inspired ordinary Americans to take to the streets, calling for an end to the Trump Administration’s cruel detention policies. But while President Trump’s recent actions have led to shockingly brutal child incarceration, mass arrests, and the criminalization of immigrants, the issues that push desperate migrants and refugees to our borders span many decades. Progressives must seize this historic moment to tackle the United States’ long-dysfunctional relationship with its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors and build new, more perfect ties.
Half a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. argued that “a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” Turning to the Western Hemisphere, King said, “It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, ‘This is not just.’” The time is now for such a revolution of values: By decisively breaking with long-standing US policy, we can ease the violence and misery south of our borders, so that people may finally lead dignified lives in stable communities throughout the Americas.
Indeed, look at the 1980s, when military dictatorships and right-wing militias in Central America—armed, trained, and continuously backed by the United States—killed hundreds of thousands of people across El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, sparking a wave of migration into the United States. Or look at the pro-corporate North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which displaced millions of Mexicans in the agricultural sector, entrenching poverty, and contributing to a surge in Mexican emigration into the United States. The Trump administration’s decision to end protections for tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants is only the latest blow to a country that had already suffered two US-backed overthrows of its elected governments in a 13-year span. And in Honduras, a leading source of unaccompanied child refugees today, it was the United States that helped ensure the success of a violent military coup against the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009, unleashing a flood of repression and displacement.