Faces in the Cages — How US Policies Shaped the US-Mexico Border Crisis

This appeared in The Millennial Source

Images of the children, separated from their parents and huddled in detention center cages at the US-Mexico border, have shocked the world. Verified reports of these children being denied basic necessities like blankets, soap and toothbrushes have escalated the global outcry. And detained adults are not faring any better, as recently released photos and videos show.

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The current humanitarian emergency at the US southern border has grown out of a long, complex history. Even if the deeply divided US government came together in a determined effort to resolve the underlying problems, doing so would take time.

But as children continue to grow sick and even die in custody, and people of all ages endure undeniably inhumane conditions, the need for immediate action is clear.

Basic facts about the people being held in US border facilities

As of July 2019, there were over 80,000 men, women and children in detention at the US southern border. So who are they, and where did they come from?

Contrary to President Trump’s infamous remarks when he announced his presidential candidacy in 2015, most people arriving at the US-Mexico border are not rapists or drug smugglers.

In reality, the vast majority of people currently suffering inside the cages fall into two main groups. Many are Mexican migrant workers, most of them male. Seeking higher wages, they attempted to enter the US without documentation and were apprehended by Border Patrol agents.

The second main group of detainees is made up of a record number of asylum seekers, who either presented themselves at legal US ports of entry, or willingly surrendered to federal agents upon crossing the border. This group includes a great many women and families seeking an escape from violence-ravaged Central American countries, especially the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Why are conditions so terrible at border detention centers?

In the past, US Border Patrol holding facilities were primarily used for the short-term detention of migrant laborers without legal immigration papers. The centers are far from ideal even for that purpose, but they have usually managed to house people in minimally adequate conditions. And they did so with fewer agents than the US has patrolling the border today.

What the border detention centers were not designed to do is house large numbers of adults and, especially, children for long periods. Since it often takes weeks or months to arrange US immigration court and asylum hearings, that is a real problem today. The disturbing photos and videos show just how poorly equipped the centers are to care for those arriving at the border now, especially the children.

None of that, however, justifies separating children from their parents. Nor does it excuse the indefinite confinement of people under intolerable conditions. Whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was technically correct when she described the centers as “concentration camps” can be debated, but the need to alleviate the current suffering cannot be.

The Trump administration asserts that detaining people seeking asylum is necessary to ensure that they show up for court hearings. However, the US government’s own data shows that over 90% of people seeking asylum in the US honor their court dates, even if they are released from custody without bail. That number reaches close to 97% for families.

Most importantly, as challenging as the current crisis might be, there is not and never has been an “invasion” of migrants, as Trump and his political allies like to claim. Even with the dramatic rise in the number of asylum seekers, total arrivals at the US southern border remain well below record levels.

The changes at the US-Mexico border lie not in how many people are arriving there, but in who is coming, and why.

An emergency funding bill recently passed by the US Congress should provide some relief. However, some proposed US policy shifts, such as cutting off aid to Central American countries, might actually make the situation worse. To understand why, it is important to consider how past US actions have contributed to the ongoing Central American chaos.

Links between US policies and Central American violence

If they wish to move beyond crisis management and toward long-term solutions, US leaders must first recognize that the country’s past and current efforts to curtail Central American violence have come up short. The reality is a lot grimmer than just that, however.

For decades, US policies have actually contributed to the rising tide of violence that now sends refugees fleeing north.

Drug trafficking and violence in the Northern Triangle

In spite of spending over $78 billion a year on a so-called War on Drugs, the US remains the world’s #1 consumer of illegal drugs. Cynics believe that this failure of US domestic policy has always been intentional, with drug enforcement efforts providing a smokescreen for the sinister activities of the CIA.

Regardless, the countries of Central America have become unfortunate victims of the geography of the international drug trade. The long isthmus connecting North and South America is the only land route from the largest cocaine producers in the world (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) to their biggest customer, the US.

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The level of devastation that drug trafficking brings to a Central American country depends to a great extent on local economics. At the southeastern end of the isthmus, Costa Rica and Panamá are shielded from the worst of the violence by relatively strong domestic economies. The GDP per capita in both countries is over five times that of Honduras.

Since the late 1990s, technology exports have eclipsed Costa Rica’s strong agricultural and tourism industries as the country’s leading revenue source. Meanwhile, over 14,000 ships pass through the Panamá Canal each year, paying over $1 billion in total fees. The canal forms the backbone of an economy centered on services related to international trade and tourism.

By contrast, as three of the four poorest countries of Central America, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are prime recruiting grounds for drug trafficking kingpins and gangs. For desperate young people, the allure of a gun and a pocketful of cash is strong. Strengthened by this constant influx of new recruits, the gangs fight bitterly for control of smuggling routes through the Northern Triangle’s rugged terrain.


Interestingly, the poorest country in Central America, Nicaragua, has historically been among its least violent. Even with recent unrest and a resulting escalation of violence, Nicaragua’s murder rate remains far below the sky-high rates of Honduras and El Salvador.

Many analysts attribute Nicaragua’s relative success at keeping violence in check to state-run anti-gang and anti-drug education programs aimed at the youth. However, the country is far from a peaceful paradise. The nation’s failures to curtail violence against women have contributed to a recent rise in the number of Nicaraguan women journeying to the US border.

Nevertheless, the fact that Nicaragua’s violence reduction programs have succeeded to some extent poses a challenge for those who cling to US Cold War ideology. The programs were created by the leftist Sandinistapolitical party, which the US spent two decades trying to destroy.

Cold War roots of the crisis in Central America

In the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, rebels led by Fidel Castro overthrew the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, establishing a Communist government that remains in power today. The revolution was a pivot point of the global Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR).

Both Cuba and the USSR actively exported both arms and Communist ideology to the poorer countries of Central and South America. In response, the US armed and trained anti-socialist and anti-communist groups throughout the region. Guatemala tumbled into a four-decade civil war beginning in 1960. El Salvador followed in 1979. By the time the conflicts ended, guns were prevalent throughout both countries, many of them supplied by the US and Soviet governments.

In spite of a stagnant economy, Honduras avoided the civil war trend. However, the country’s relative stability during the 1980s did not insulate it from the proliferation of arms and political violence in Central America, largely due to events in neighboring Nicaragua.

In 1978–79, Communist-allied Sandinista rebels overthrew Nicaragua’s right-wing dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle (generally referred to simply as Somoza, or by the nickname “Tachito”).

Fearing the emergence of a Communist stronghold in Central America, the US threw its support behind a counter-revolutionary force known as the Contras. This group featured prominently in US President Ronald Reagan’s greatest scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair. Under Reagan’s leadership, the US military turned Honduras into a primary training ground for both Contras and Salvadoran civil war combatants.

Without ever having a major conflict fought on its soil, Honduras became highly militarized, with a massive influx of US weaponry.

The violence persists today, so Hondurans join other Central Americans on the arduous journey north. Their futures now depend on the whims of a country that spent much of the 20th century contributing to the very violence they are fleeing.

How the US exports weapons and criminals to Central America

The end of the Cold War greatly reduced the legal movement of weapons from the US to the Northern Triangle, but guns still flow south out of the US through illegal channels. The ease of obtaining guns in the US makes the country a magnet for illegal arms dealers. These traffickers purchase large quantities of weapons at US gun shows, and then resell them to smugglers who distribute them throughout Mexico and Central America.

Many of the same conservative Americans who favor denying asylum seekers entry to the US also oppose tougher gun laws, which could reduce the number of weapons reaching Central American gangs. Worse, US policies do not just facilitate the export of weapons to Central America; they actually lead to the exporting of violence itself.

Most of the undocumented immigrants deported by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fit one of two profiles. Either they work in facilities that employ large numbers of migrant workers, such as a Texas meatpacking plant or food processing plants in Mississippi, or they have engaged in serious criminal activity on US soil. President Trump has insisted that the recent July 2019 ICE raids focused on the latter group.

Unfortunately, this targeting of immigrants who engage in criminal activity contributes to a reality that is essentially the opposite of one of Trump’s go-to narratives…

The vast majority of migrants coming to the US southern border are NOT criminals, but a significant percentage of those who get deported are.

For example, in June 2018, Trump asserted that migrant “caravans” from Central America included many members of MS-13, a brutal Salvadoran gang:

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No evidence supported the president’s claim, but the more important reality is that MS-13 was born on US soil.

The gang was founded in Los Angeles, California by Salvadoran immigrants, originally to protect fellow Salvadorans from well-established gangs with Mexican and African American origins. As the gang grew more violent, several of its leaders were arrested and sent back to El Salvador. Only then did the gang take root in Central America.

Lingering economic impacts of the “banana republic” era

Long before the Cold War, US companies played a central role in the impoverishment of Central America. The arrival of the Cavendish banana (originally developed in Asia) on American shores in the late 1880s sparked rapidly growing national demand for the easy-to-eat fruit. By the early 1900s, US agricultural companies like the United Fruit Company (Chiquita today) and the Standard Fruit Company (now Dole) had set up shop throughout Central America.

In addition to carving up huge parcels of land to establish banana plantations (displacing local agriculture in the process), these companies gained control of railroads, highways and utilities. Corrupt local leaders allowed the companies to operate tax free, and the companies in turn worked behind the scenes to help these leaders stay in power.

In Honduras, the United Fruit Company came to be known as El Pulpo (“the octopus”), because its tentacles reached every aspect of Honduran life.

During the same era, US mining companies like Rosario Mining descended on the region. As with the fruit companies, the large-scale operations of these companies displaced local enterprise. Entire regions became dependent on the mines for jobs, setting Central America onto the boom-and-bust path that resource extraction often brings.

As the exploitation heightened, Central American countries became severely economically stratified. Ruling elite classes reaped the benefits of their alliance with US corporations, while the vast majority of citizens in each country fell into desperate poverty as peasant laborers. Recognizing this trend in its early stages, American author O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) coined the term “banana republic” in 1901.

Several of the dictators threatened or overthrown during the Central American civil wars of the mid and late 1900s came from the elite classes that arose during the banana republic era. The devastating economic effects of that era remain visible in the Northern Triangle today.

Sadly, many US citizens today, including many pro-immigrant progressives, only know the phrase Banana Republic as the name of a clothing company based in San Francisco.

Reported failures of US aid efforts and Trump’s plans to cut aid

In spite of all the negative impacts of US policies on Central American politics and life, it would be wrong to conclude that the US has never attempted to improve the situation in the Northern Triangle. Billions of dollars in aid have flowed from Washington, DC to countries throughout Central America over the years.

Critics of past US foreign policy point to the continuing violence in Central America as proof that aid to the region has not worked. That conclusion can certainly be disputed. For example, the murder rate in El Salvador fell for several years after President Obama announced a $1 billion aid package for Central America in 2015. Nevertheless, even those with an optimistic view of US foreign aid acknowledge that results in Central America have been mixed.

One problem is that the US government places a heavy emphasis on the use of aid funds for drug interdictionalong the Central American smuggling routes. Money directed toward law enforcement does not inherently improve conditions for most of a country’s citizens. It can also have a rebound effect, with drug gangs seeking more weapons to protect their lucrative trade.

However, even under the assumption that US aid efforts so far have accomplished very little, there is absolutely no evidence that eliminating aid would improve things. Many analysts fear that Trump’s recent announcement of plans to cancel most or all aid to countries in the Northern Triangle (including aid promised under the Obama policy) will only lead to greater violence.

Trump’s justification for cutting promised aid is that the aid packages carried a requirement that Central American countries reduce the number of migrants leaving their borders. He says that aid will be restored when the countries make progress toward that goal. However, very few countries are either committed or well equipped to stop unauthorized exits, and Trump’s own country is no exception. Even along the heavily guarded US southern border, leaving the country is not difficult.

Have American citizens tried to help people in detention?

At US border detention centers, the dire realities of the present drown out all the lessons of history. With government agencies failing to meet the basic needs of people held at the centers, it is reasonable to ask whether private citizens have attempted to fill the void. Americans are known for generosity, with the US ranking fourth among nations for charitable giving.

It is therefore no surprise that many US citizens, along with various nonprofit organizations, are attempting to donate supplies like toothpaste to Border Patrol centers for distribution to children and adults in detention. However, as of now, Border Patrol agents are refusing to accept any such donations, with officials claiming that they are unsure whether the agency can legally accept them.

One family’s tragic journey from violence to heartbreak

“The world should know what is happening to so many children inside these ICE detention facilities.” — Yazmin Juárez, former detainee from Guatemala

Most of the people suffering in detention center cages in 2019 played no role in the past political events that shaped present-day Central America. Many of them were not even alive when the civil wars were fought.

On Wednesday, July 10, 2019, 21-year-old Yazmin Juárez, a refugee from Guatemala, testified before the US Congress.

In 2018, Yazmin and her baby daughter, Mariee, were held at an ICE facility euphemistically named the South Texas Family Residential Center. While there, Mariee developed a severe cough, diarrhea and a high fever. A clinician diagnosed a respiratory infection, but Yazmin was given no medication for her child other than Tylenol (a pain reliever).

Yazmin and Mariee were later discharged from the detention center and traveled to New Jersey to join relatives. However, Mariee never recovered from the illness, dying in a New Jersey hospital in May 2018 at the age of 21 months. She was one of at least seven children to die during or after Border Patrol or ICE detention since the beginning of 2018.

Up Next: How a post-World War II labor shortage led to US recruitment of Mexican migrant laborers, and how that era changed the nature of the US southern border. (Subscribe to stay in the loop!)

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