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Central American Asylum Seekers Should Be Welcomed by the US, Not Shunned

Without a change in US policy toward Guatemala and all of Central America, the thousands of asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty will continue to come — no matter what Joe Biden or Kamala Harris say.

Vice President Kamala Harris in Guatemala on June 7, 2021. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, on her first international trip as vice president, Kamala Harris traveled to Guatemala. There, she warned Central American migrants fleeing the violence and poverty of the region not to seek asylum in the United States. Speaking at a press conference in Guatemala City after a meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris said “I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home. At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States–Mexico border: Do not come, do not come.”

Harris went on to champion a US$310 million “humanitarian” aid package for the region announced in late April. Aimed at stemming what the Biden administration has described as a “surge” of migrants at the US-Mexico border, including Central American children traveling unaccompanied, this package includes money for pandemic and disaster relief as well as funds to support jobs and education for women and girls. In exchange for these funds, the Biden administration expects Giammattei and other leaders in the region to “combat corruption” and to implement enhanced and militarized border security to prevent migration.

Combining so-called humanitarian aid with exhortations to harden border controls against the civilians attempting to cross them is a staple offering in the long, brutal history of US imperial intervention in Central America. Despite its expressions of sympathy for people motivated to leave their homes — in his first press conference in March, Joe Biden spoke of his grandfather’s voyage to North America on a coffin ship, comparing this flight from hardship to the situation of contemporary migrants — the Biden administration’s assumptions about migration’s root causes are dangerously incorrect and ahistorical, forcing its advocates to twist and distort language.

Attempting to provide Vice President Harris with a crash course in the real conditions creating contemporary migration from Guatemala, protesters at her Guatemala City appearance carried a banner reading: “Kamala, They Are Lying to You! There is corruption, political prisoners, malnutrition, hate crimes, femicides, exploitation of children, unemployment and poverty. Guatemala is a Narco-State. This is why there is migration.”

People hold signs during the visit of US vice president Kamala Harris, outside the US Embassy in Guatemala City, on June 7, 2021.(Orlando Estrada / AFP via Getty Images)

Not referenced in this apt distillation was the bloody, almost seventy-year history of US support for murderous regimes in Guatemala, which has contributed mightily to the nation’s current straits. Can this administration truly be unaware of the deadly consequences of the long history of US intervention in Central America?

In her April essay in the Nation, Aviva Chomsky describes “The Biden Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America” as linking the disastrous effects of twentieth-century US counterinsurgency operations in the region to current efforts to suppress migration. In Chomsky’s terms, the policy proclaimed by Harris in Guatemala City effectively functions to “kettle” migrants, trapping them between military and security forces hopped up on US dollars, on the one hand, and neoliberal economies beset by predatory foreign investment bent on resource extraction and brutal climate change, evidenced by the unusually destructive Hurricanes Eta and Iota last December, on the other.

Resource extraction and the environmental havoc it creates displace many, often destroying rural, indigenous, and Afro-descended, Garifuna communities. For example, after indigenous Xinca protested a mining license granted on their lands at Escobal by the Guatemalan government to the Canada-based international corporation Pan American Silver, Guatemala’s Supreme Court suspended it in 2018. On taking office in 2020, Giammattei appointed Juan José Cabrera Alonso, Guatemalan legal counsel for Pan American Silver, as special secretary to the vice president, signaling his administration’s support for the resumption of mining — despite suspicious murders of indigenous and environmental activists that have already taken place and the inevitable and permanent environmental degradation that will be a consequence of the mine.

While the Biden administration refers to “corruption” as though it were a mild disorder to be purged from the civic body with well-intentioned financial support, the situation at Escobal is both endemic and indicative. Giammattei endorses the strong-arming and displacement of communities, and the extralegal murder of civil society leaders that goes along with it, because it creates the appearance of a productive business climate and generates lucrative kickbacks for government officials and contractors. This corruption is favored by both the conceptual support of the Biden Plan as well as on-the-ground financial backing by powerful Global North investors like Pan American Silver. Similarly, the complicity of the US Department of State with the ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 created the conditions leading to the assassination of Lenca environmental activist Berta Cáceres there in 2016.

Forced to leave their homes, migrants from rural areas often leave for nearby cities, where they encounter exploitative economies, neighborhoods controlled by narco-traffickers, and militarized police forces. Confronted with violence and poverty, many choose to continue their travels, seeking refuge and opportunity in the United States. While it has become common in political parlance to describe groups of migrants using the term “surge,” this military deployment is inaccurate. It conjures images of a concerted assault at the border, inflaming xenophobic fears, rather than describing groups of desperate people who seek to protect themselves and their relatives.

Although she spoke as if she was merely canceling a dinner party, Harris’s excoriation of migrants not to come flies in the face of international as well as US law certifying the rights of migrants to claim asylum. The United States is a signatory to the 1967 United Nations High Council on Human Rights Protocol, which certified the right to cross a border in order to seek asylum from persecution. But successive administrations, from Reagan to Trump to Biden, have restricted and curtailed its practice, implementing the detention of asylum seekers and delimiting the conditions that count as persecution. Under Attorney General Jefferson Davis Sessions III, for example, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that gang violence and domestic abuse did not constitute grounds for seeking asylum.

As US administrations have sought to, in Chomsky’s words, “outsource the border,” they have supplied arms and cash to regimes that emerged out of the US-backed counterinsurgency warfare of the 1970s and 1980s. Built on the displacement of rural communities, the savaging of unions and civil society groups, and the dispossession and murder of indigenous Central Americans, as transpired during Guatemala’s long civil war, these regimes continue to create the conditions illuminated by the Guatemala City banner. Salvadoran-American writer Roberto Lovato explains that the flow of guns and power produced by US-backed counterinsurgency efforts created the current conditions of corruption and narco-terrorism.

A policy truly in partnership with the people of Central America must reckon with the legacy of US involvement in the region. “Corruption” does not grow like mold, unbidden; it is the result of a violent history implemented by the School of the Americas, the CIA, and other US actors against the popular sovereignty of the Central American people. If US policy intends to invest in ending corruption, it must support local communities in their fights to stay home rather than migrating, combatting the deep pockets that support resource extraction and displacement; it must advocate for sovereignty on indigenous lands. Such a policy would benefit the region as well as the planet by curtailing destructive resource extraction.

Meanwhile, the thousands of asylum seekers fleeing the violence and poverty of Central America will continue to come, no matter what Biden or Harris or anyone else says. Their exemplary acts of endurance and courage, certified in national as well as international law, must earn them both refuge and respect.