America has always had a contradictory and ambivalent attitude towards the outside world. On the one hand it celebrates its heritage as a nation of immigrants and a place of refuge, to whom the Statue of Liberty holds out a torch for the world’s ‘tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ At the same time American domestic and foreign policy has persistently identified everything-that-is-not-America as a potential souce of danger, racial and cultural debasement, or a threat to its security and national existence.
Throughout modern American history, these fears have attached themselves to a constantly changing array of threats. In 1882, it was Chinese migrants, who subject to the first Chinese Exclusion Act after a racist campaign by California politicians. In 1886 it was German anarchists in Chicago after the Haymarket bombings. In 1920 it was the anarchists and radicals deported during the Palmer Raids.
During the Cold War it was communists or simply communism itself. In the 1980s, at the height of the Reagan wars in Central America, conservative politicians and op ed writers would argue with a straight face that the Sandinistas had to be stopped in Nicaragua – a country with a population of about 3 million – because otherwise they might invade Texas.
After the Cold War new threats emerged, from ‘megaterrorists’ armed with WMD or infected with smallpox germs, to Muslim terrorists, or Muslims in general, or the Hispanic migrants who were intent on ‘taking back’ the American southwest or destroying American identity and replacing it with a hybrid ‘MexAmerica.’
Whatever they attach themselves to, these fantasies of invasion/penetration/envelopment are invariably invoked to justify some kind of military/security response, whether it takes the form of ‘preventative’ military action abroad, or the militarisation of the US-Mexico border.
In the last two decades, self-styled border militiamen and conservative politicians have identified the US-Mexico border as a weak chink in America’s armour against an array of threats that include illegal immigrants, narcotraffickers, and – according to Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo adn others – Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.
Successive US administrations have poured money into the border, boosting it with UAVs and other technologies of surveillance, new walls and fences and extra personnel, in an attempt to force undocumented migrants to undertake more difficult and inaccessible routes into the country.
These measures have certainly increased the lethality of migrant journeys, but they have not stopped migrants from coming, nor have they calmed anxieties about America’s ‘porous’ border.
And now a new threat to the border has materialised, in the shape of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America who have begun to appear in unprecedented numbers in Texas, Arizona, and California. Between October last year and June 15, 52,000 Central American migrant children have been detained at the border, an increase of 90 percent over the previous year.
Many, if not most of these children, have fled from countries plagued by endemic drug and gang violence, in which children have been directly targeted by rival gangs or narcotraffickers. Four Central American countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras – are among the five countries with the highest murder rate in the world.
At the top of the list is Honduras, with 90 homicides out of every 100,000 people. One survey has found that the murder rate in Central America is higher than it was during the worst period of the Iraq occupation. In effect, child migration is a product of a massive humanitarian crisis in an undeclared conflict zone.
These developments are to some extent a consequence of the decades of American interference in Central American politics, from America’s support for the military regimes which drowned the region’s radical politics in blood during the 1960s and 80s, to the disastrous ‘drug war’, which transformed some of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world into the corrupt narco-economies and territorial battlegrounds that feed America’s drug habit.
Now these countries have become so dangerous that even their children cannot live in them, and their parents have sent them abroad in an attempt to save them, or they have left themselves in search of a place of safety, only to find that they are now included in the long list of foreign invaders and infiltrators who have threatened America’s security and existence.
The threat covers all ages, from pre-school toddlers accompanied by their brothers and sisters, to adolescents and teenagers, but there is no doubt in the minds of those entrusted with America’s security that they are a potential source of harm.
Thus Marine Corps General John Kelly, commander of US Southern Command, has told the website Defense One of a ‘crime-terror convergence’ on the border that includes ‘ Lebanon’s Hezbollah’, but also an ‘incredibly efficient’ smuggling network, ‘ along which anything – hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children – can travel, so long as they can pay the fare.’
Notice the inclusion of children, up there with drugs, WMD and terrorists, and Hezbollah. And Barack Obama takes this threat as seriously as SouthCom. So much so that he has just asked Congress for $2 billion in emergency funds in order to undertake ‘an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers.’
Obama has rightly identified the situation at the border as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, but instead of a humanitarian response he proposes to facilitate deportations of Central child migrants at the border, so that they can be sent back more easily and more quickly, regardless of why they left or what they are going back to.
Many of these children will already have survived the horrific journey up from Guatemala to the border which the Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez described so powerfully and so eloquently in his marvellous book The Beast. Some will have walked the deadly migrant routes of La Arrocera, in Chiapas, Mexico, where migrants are regularly robbed, raped and killed with impunity. Others will have ridden the train from Chiapas to Mexico City that Mexicans call La Bestia, where gangs, rapists, thieves and corrupt cops prey on migrants.
That didn’t deter them, so it’s difficult to know what Obama could do to be more aggressive, short of carrying out drone strikes on child migrants in Chiapas. There is a bleak irony in the fact that thirty years after the Reagan administration helped save Central America for democracy and capitalism through the promotion of state violence, that the region’s children are now fleeing their homes to escape non-state violence, only to discover that there is no place for them, and that they are in fact considered a threat to America’s security, lifestyle and national existence.
Perhaps the ‘war on children’ should take its place with the ‘war on drugs, and the ‘war on terror’, and specialists will dedicate themselves to ‘counter-childrenism’ or warn the nation of ‘the childrens’ invasion.’
But probably not. Because what Obama is planning is too shameful to be named. Rather than help these children – either at the border or in their own countries – the president wants to keep them out and send them back.
And whatever spin his administration puts on it, there is nothing humanitarian about that. It is merely one more indication of the depths to which even the richest and most powerful countries will sink in an attempt to shut themselves off from the world that they helped create