What many Americans don’t understand about illegal immigration

Jared Olson in the mountains of the south Mexican state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border.

By Jared Olson | gargoyle@flagler.edu

The Equation

IT WAS IN THE SOUTH MEXICAN town of Comitán, Chiapas that I first caught wind of the shootout. I had been taking a taxi to the edge of town when the driver, hearing I was a journalist, first offhandedly mentioned it to me. Three days before, he said, two rival gangs broke into a bloody territorial dispute in a local market, and the firefight that followed was dispersed only when a faction of the army arrived. Twenty people had been shot in the melee, many of them innocent bystanders. Five more had died.

“Were you scared?” I asked the taxi driver.

He smiled. “It’s normal around here,” he said, shrugging. The lightheartedness of his response seemed to suggest that he thought the whole scene to be little more than an absurd cosmic joke.

I was nearing the end of an almost two-month foray into the south Mexican state of Chiapas, where I had been reporting on a movement of indigenous campesinos. And though violence in Chiapas is tame by Mexican standards, such a skirmish was still enough to unsettle me.

The story the taxista told me in Comitán—the ease with which he implied a disturbing normalcy of violence—seemed emblematic of a far greater phenomenon I was beginning to see throughout my time in Mexico. It was, I would later conclude, the southern end of a vast human equation.

I would only fully realize it was comparable to an equation when I saw that equation’s logical conclusion, four months later, when on Nov. 26 U.S. Border Patrol Agents fired volleys of tear gas canisters upon unarmed refugees as they stormed the border crossing at Tijuana. They were images jolted the nation: skinny, ragged, dark-skinned immigrants fleeing in terror amidst a noxious white haze of the toxic lachrymator gas.

When I saw the scene, a jolting and dramatic vision of the immorality with which we treat immigrants, I was assailed with memories from the time I’d spent reporting in Guatemala in Mexico this past year. And it was at that moment that the broader phenomenon I was beginning to perceive as an “equation” fell into sharp, disheartening clarity.

It goes something like this: people are forced to flee their home countries due to extreme violence and poverty. After perilous journeys over thousands of miles, they arrive at the southern border of the U.S., where they’re vilified by much of the American population—despite the fact that, in a horrible historical irony, the problems forcing them to leave their homes in the first place were caused by the United States itself.

What I’ve Seen

THE VIOLENCE IS palpable in Guatemala City.

We could sense this violence from the moment we left the airport of the capital of the Central American nation, where another journalist and I traveled in April 2018 for a reporting project. We could see it on the streets, where stores containing merchandise of any price were laced with barbed-wire and stood silhouetted by guards in Kevlar wielding military-grade weapons. We could hear the it when, listening through the haze of noise that envelops the city at dusk, we could faintly discern the report of gunshots.

Later, as we made our way through the piney mountains west of Guatemala City, our driver pointed out a number of haunted-looking, shelled-out villages to us. Scattered along a misty ridgeline stood several dozen paint-chipped homes whose shattered windows revealed dark and empty rooms.

“What a shame,” the driver said, our car lurching past the potholes of fetid water which scarred the cloudy mountain road. “Such a beautiful neighborhood, such beautiful views—and everyone had to leave!”  He spoke of how an utter lack of jobs had driven nearly everyone from these neighborhoods, the majority having long since dispersed to Guatemala City or the United States in search of employment.

We had gone to western Guatemala to report on malnutrition among indigenous children. But as we began reporting, it soon became clear that disentangling malnutrition from poverty, alcoholism and joblessness—more broadly, disentangling malnutrition from globalization—was a nearly impossible wager.

Seeing children so malnourished that dead hair fell from their scalps was heartbreaking. Seeing children malnourished and knowing they lived in such deprivation because anonymous forces far beyond their control made them do so was infuriating.

TO THE NORTH, in Mexico, where I reported from late June to August of last summer, it’s hard not to see residue of the violence which has swept the country in the past 13 years.

The ongoing Mexican Drug War—which then-President Felipe Calderon inaugurated in 2006 when he gave the military leeway to fight the cartels on the streets—has become a human disaster of shocking proportions.

Many have accused military and government officials up to the highest echelons of power of working with the very same cartels they’re supposed to be fighting, even carrying out assassinations and mass “disappearances” on the payroll of various druglords.

The Drug War’s victims have overwhelmingly been civilians. A controversial study carried out in 2017, for example, concluded that Mexico was the second-deadliest country in the world, ahead of Afghanistan and Yemen, behind only Syria. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 were murdered in Mexico in 2017. And it’s widely presumed that at least 230,000 people, including all those murdered, caught in the crossfire, or those who were simply “disappeared,” have been consumed so far in Mexico’s drug conflict.

But there are those who, hardened by experience, believe the death toll could reach much higher.

At least that’s what two activists and researchers I interviewed in Chiapas suggested to me. They believed, when future historians settled down to count the ledgers, that the total death toll could fall closer to a three or four hundred thousand.

Though I had not traveled to Mexico to report on the Drug War, the couple insisted with a grave and unsettling seriousness that I not use their names in any reports I wrote. Personal experience had taught them the consequences of being too cavalier.

Several years before, they told me, they’d been living in the state of Tamaulipas when their friend, a photographer, began receiving a mysterious stream of death threats. He’d taken photos at certain political rallies which displeased a local political party, an organization suspected of having ties to the cartels. Their friend paid at first paid no heed to the warnings and continued to take pictures, like always. But soon the danger became so great that he was forced to flee to Mexico City. To no avail.

Their friend’s body was later found riddled with bullets after unknown assassins gunned him down in his apartment. Several friends in the room, unrelated politically but guilty of being-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, fell victim to the same grisly fate.

Drugs lay at the heart of the violence pulsating throughout Mexico. But many Mexicans, tired of shouldering the entire burden of that violence, point out that one of the largest recipients of illegal narcotics is the country to their immediate north.

“Americans always talk about how degenerate we Mexicans are because of violence,” an old friend said to me, discussing politics on her porch in the mountains of Chiapas. “But who are the ones ultimately consuming the cocaine? Who are paying the money to have it?”

A silence emerged between us. She wasn’t wrong.

What I’ve Learned

THE HISTORICAL IRONY IS ALL the more tragic because it’s almost completely flown over our heads.

The paradox of Latin American immigration to the U.S. has, save for a few voices, been largely left out of the national debate: that all those immigrants, the “invaders,”the “animals,”the “stone cold criminals,”and the “rapists,”are fleeing violence and poverty very often created by the United States.

Though much anti-immigrant rhetoric suggests Mexicans to be the primary “invaders,” statistics show that Central Americans have for the last several years been the largest category of asylum seekers arriving on the U.S. southern border. And an-oft forgotten fact is that many of those Central Americans are coming to the U.S. not to find better jobs, but to escape the very real prospect of being murdered.

Take El Salvador and Guatemala. Discounting war zones, gang violence has transformed these countries into some of the most dangerous places in the world. In the impoverished barrios of San Salvador and Guatemala City, men are murdered for refusing to join gangs, women are killed for not becoming prostitutes, while small-business owners are executed for not paying a “gang-tax”on time.

But these gangs didn’t inexplicably emerge out of nothingness. The reason many Central American slums resemble a warzone today is because once, long ago, the entire region was one.

The roots of gang violence in El Salvador and Guatemala can be traced to several U.S.-backed wars between the 1970s and ’80s, violent conflicts of counterinsurgency in which the US siphoned billions of dollars in weapons to two murderous, right-wing regimes, despite clear evidence that they were massacring their own populations. For such tiny countries, the damage wrought by these unduly prolonged conflicts was catastrophic: ninety-thousand lives were lost in El Salvador’s war, a quarter of a million to Guatemala’s (the latter so bloody that the UN later deemed it a genocide).

As the conflicts began unwinding by the early ’90s, gangs began sprouting from the wreckage of these wars like weeds from fertile soil.

MS-13, the gang which most frequently terrorizes Central American slums, was created by Salvadoran youth refugees in Los Angeles, in what was originally a self-defense organization, who’d been forced to flee the American-subsidized war ripping apart their home country.  The Kaibiles—the sadistic narco-militia with a reputation for beheadings—was formerly a Guatemalan Special Operations Unit funded by and trained in the United States in the wars of two decades ago. The list goes on.

The litany of gangs has metastasized since their post-war inceptions into other Central American countries, as well as Mexico and the United States. And the flourishing drug trade and vast slush of arms that coagulated in these countries did little to stymie their growing strength.

THE VIOLENCE IN HONDURAS, the country currently discharging the most illegal immigrants to the US, has far fresher roots.

That country’s brutality can be traced back not to the bloodbaths of thirty-five years ago, but to June 28, 2009 when a US-sanctioned military coup ousted the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformer. The overthrow, an event then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is suspected of having given the green light to, inaugurated an era whose death toll was unprecedented in the former Banana Republic. Crime had of course existed in the years preceding 2009, but the coup opened a cruel Pandora’s Box that saw both an astronomic escalation of gang murders as well as a slew of political assassinations.

Almost immediately after the coup, the number of violent deaths—and of Hondurans seeking asylum—skyrocketed.

Many have noted the nearly identical correlation between post-coup violence and immigration to the United States. And the blowout from Zelaya’s ouster didn’t take long to set in: by 2012, the Honduras had been transformed into the world’s most violent country outside a war-zone.

YET IT’S not just violence that’s driving immigrants to the U.S. border. It’s poverty. That, too, has much of its origins in unfair economic deals imposed on the region by the United States.

The continued impoverishment of Mexico and Central American finds many of its roots in the “Free Trade Agreements,” of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Free Trade Agreements, which fell into vogue during the ’90s “End of History” craze, are economic deals that conjoin multiple countries into a single economic zone, scrapping the protectionist tariffs that previously existed between them and allowing corporations to cross their borders with ease.

NAFTA (short for North American Free Trade Agreement), a 1994 deal which connected the United States, Canada, and Mexico, was the gleaming archetype for such an arrangement.

Critics would point out early on that such deals benefited the rich proprietors of corporations to the disadvantage of everyday workers.

Just as American factory jobs would be shipped to the cheap, quasi-slave labor of north Mexico’s maquiladoras, Mexico’s agricultural sector, which consisted mostly of small farmers, was destroyed by the tsunami of cheap produce imported en masse from huge industrial farmers in the United States.  Millions of small Mexican farmers would be displaced by NAFTA, and they constituted one of the largest majorities of Mexicans coming to the United States illegally.

In short, Free Trade Agreements stipulate that money and corporations are allowed to freely cross borders. People, however, are not.

Free Trade Agreements nearly identical to NAFTA would conjoin the U.S. economy with the countries of Central America—creating similarly disastrous effects for the rural farmers of those countries. It was this, I later realized, that forced the people to leave the empty villages we saw in the high mountains of Guatemala.

It was NAFTA that sparked the armed rebellion of Mexico’s Zapatistas, the enigmatic social movement of Mayan campesinos I reported on in Chiapas. They knew perhaps better than anyone else the destruction that would be wrought on small farmers in the wake of such agreement. Their rebellion was an ominous prelude to an era of mass rural displacement and immigration to the United States.

A DIRECT LINK connecting Latin American violence and poverty and the actions of the United States isn’t always immediately visible. But our hands are still deeply stained by the ruin we’ve provoked south of the border—through a bloody foreign policy and unfair economic treaties which helped to drive millions of people here illegally.

And at the end of it all, the people arriving at the border find themselves vilified by the very country which caused them to leave in the first place.

Thus, to reject the immigrants at our border is to reject the victims of our government’s policy. To turn back the children of our own violence.

The Tragedy

THE TRAGIC PARADOX of it all is that many people in these poor Latin countries believe in the American dream to an extent many Americans might find naïve. It’s part of the reason people still brave the deserts, the fences, the border patrols and the gangs. The hope that they can carve a life out for themselves in the Land of the Free is enough to make them risk everything to get there—even if that means a flirtation with death.

I remember one afternoon when I was travelling through the mountains of Chiapas. I’d been interviewing the survivors of a 21-year-old massacre in a remote village named Acteal, and had hitched a ride in the back of one of the many pickup trucks—the colectivos—that thread the country’s rural southlands. In the back of the truck was an indigenous Mayan kid not much younger than I.

It was a painfully bright summer day. All around us, the sweeping mountains of Chiapas ranged against the horizon like verdant waves on a windswept ocean. Wind in our hair, we clutched our bodies against the truckbed’s raised metal railings and contemplated the wideness of the landscape as it passed us. We began to talk.

He was a nineteen-year-old Mayan who was studying at a local college and who spoke Spanish and French as well his native language, Tojolabal. He told me how, even with the college degree he was working towards, there were so few jobs available that he wanted to go to the United States to find a better life.

When I asked how he would get there, he responded matter-of-factly that he would probably cross the desert, illegally.

I cannot remember the name of that kid. But I do remember the buoyant optimism that flashed in his eyes, the eager way he spoke of traveling to the United States. It was a place he’d never seen with his own eyes but that, I’m sure, he’d spent his entire life hearing about.

Did he know about the ICE detainment centers? About the sudden midnight raids? About the hundreds of perished souls whose bodies are found strewn about the desert?

It breaks my heart to think that, if he followed through on his plans since I saw him last August, he may be one of the thousands locked up interminably in a cage by ICE. Or that he is simply another of the fallen migrants, his remains curdling slowly under the hot Sonoran sun.

I tried in vain to explain the dangers that awaited him. But the roar of the wind was too much for him to hear me. He was still clutching to the railing of the truckbed. And there he was, hair wafting in the wind, his eyes glued dreamily to the horizon.

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