Contextualizing Crises

//mark jay

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America (overwhelmingly from Honduras and Guatemala) have crossed into the US through the southwest of the country in the last few months, leading many to declare an immigration crisis. The US government has struggled to cope with this massive influx of immigrants, and has detained most of them in prison-like detention centers, sparking outrage from human rights groups. These groups say that the US is not in accord with international law, pointing to UN guidelines which explicitly state that minors “should not, as a general rule, be detained.” In the face of international and domestic pressure, Obama has shifted the onus to the parents of the children, telling them “not to put their children in harm's way in this fashion." [1]

© 2014   Ava Decapri   &   Anthony Decapri,   " Reaching"

© 2014 Ava Decapri & Anthony Decapri, "Reaching"

Obama’s basic sentiment — that addressing this human rights issue is unfortunately outside the scope of practical politics — has been echoed in the national media, which has been keen to focus on the schism between sympathy and pragmatism. Take for example the words of one Texan citizen, as quoted in The New York Times: “That’s my tax money taking care of a foreign national or however you want to classify them … I don’t want to take care of a foreign national. It’s not my problem.”

In Vassar, a Michigan city 70 miles north of Detroit, a proposal to house 120 child migrants has been met with similar opposition. A group of fifty citizens draped in American flags gathered to protest against hosting the migrant children. The protesters argued that the “vast majority of the immigrant children are criminals, belonging to gangs and drug cartels,” and, “if you allow the immigrants to take over, the country will be destroyed.” Several of the protesters were armed and carried posters with phrases such as, “My rattle is rattling, next is the bite.”

Xenophobia aside, at first glance, there is some logic to these patriotic protests. In a world of perpetual war and never-ending human rights violations, why is it up to the US, a country with a debt of more than $17.5 trillion (more than $55,000 per citizen), failing infrastructure, high unemployment — essentially, a country with some issues of its own — to solve the world’s problems?

In order to answer this question, in order to answer most political questions, one needs some historical context. One needs to understand the basic reasons underlying the poverty and violence that the children from Honduras and Guatemala are fleeing from. And most importantly, in terms of the ethical imperative facing Americans, one needs to understand the relationship of the United States to this violence and poverty. 

In Honduras, there was a military coup in 2009 which ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Wikileaks has published cables indicating that the US State Department was behind the coup, which brought into power successive corrupt and violent regimes charged with an array of human rights violations, including the arrest and torture of political dissidents. [2] In the words of the ousted Honduran president Zelaya, the goal of the coup was “to make favor of the industrial policies and the military policies and the financial policies of the United States in Honduras.” [3] In the years since the coup, the humanitarian situation in Honduras has unraveled, and in 2013, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world. [4]

The last decade has also seen a massive wave of privatization in Honduras, ushered in by CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 2004 despite heavy protests from Honduran citizens. “Like NAFTA did for the U.S. and Mexico," says Professor Dana Frank of University of California, Santa Barbara, "[CAFTA] opens the door to this open competition between small producers in agriculture in Honduras, small manufacturers, and jobs are disappearing as a result of that.” [5] The American farm system is heavily subsidized: $24.3 billion in direct government payments to farmers in 2005 alone, with nearly 45% of that going to the wealthiest 7% of American agricultural companies. [6] The subsidies have allowed giant US agricultural companies to outcompete the Honduran agricultural sector, in which nearly half of the country’s employed citizens work. The effect has been high unemployment (unemployment and underemployment have almost doubled since CAFTA was signed in 2004) and massive poverty (more than 66% of Hondurans live in poverty; 46% live in extreme poverty). [7]

Professor Dana Frank of University of California, Santa Barbara, has explained the situation facing the Honduran immigrants:

“And we’re talking about starving to death — that’s the alternative — or being driven into gangs with tremendous sexual violence. And it’s a very, very tragic situation here. But it’s not like it tragically just happened. It’s a direct result of very conscious policies by the U.S. and Honduran governments.” [8]

The situation in Guatemala is similarly dire and entangled with exploitative US foreign policy. Guatemala has the second highest homicide rate in the world. [9] One of the most violent cartels in the world is in operation there: the Zeta cartel. Successful drug traffickers, and an immense source of profit for the corrupted Guatemalan government, the Zetas were trained by the Guatemalan military, which in turn was trained by the CIA. A number of the most prominent figures in the repressive Guatemalan military were trained at the School of the Americas, a US counter-revolutionary training center for Latin American soldiers. This is nothing new. In the early 1980s, thousands of Guatemalan political activists and dissidents were murdered by the military, under the command of General Montt. Montt was also trained at the School of the Americas, where his espoused political philosophy was cultivated: “Beans for obedient, bullets for the rest.” [10] In 2013 Montt was convicted of genocide in a national court. [11]

The Guatemalan agricultural sector — the source of 50% of the country’s employment in 2005 — has also been undermined by US entry into their domestic market. Unable to compete against US agricultural producers, Guatemalan food production has plummeted, and Guatemala must import most of its food, making the country susceptible to the wild swings of international food prices. The result has been a disaster for most Guatemalans. Nearly 70% of Guatemalas live in poverty, and half of Guatemalan children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition. [12]

It would be too simple to say that American corporate news organizations have been willfully blind to the US’s exploitative foreign policy in these Latin American countries. On the whole, they haven’t been. The New York Times, for example, has published numerous articles detailing US-backed coups in Guatemala and Honduras, going so far as to publish the aforementioned Wikileaks cable that showed the US State Department’s involvement in the 2009 overthrow of Honduras’s democratically elected president. Likewise the Times published several articles documenting the widespread protests of Central Americans against CAFTA.

But amidst the current immigration crisis, none of this context is offered to the Times’ readers. If one tried to understand the immigration crisis based solely on the reportage of The New York Times this July, he or she would see no links between US foreign policy and the low standard of living in Central America; he or she would see the “poverty” and “violence” that these child migrants are fleeing from as simple facts, not as historical developments.

This decontextualized presentation of news is not unique to the Times. In his essay, "Journalism and Politics," Pierre Bourdieu argues that the entire vision of modern news outlets is

At once dehistoricized and dehistoricizing, fragmented and fragmenting … a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution — Zaire today, Bosnia yesterday, the Congo tomorrow. Stripped of any political necessity, this string of events can at best arouse vague humanitarian interest. Coming one after the other and outside any historical perspective, these unconnected tragedies seem to differ little from natural disasters — the tornadoes, forest fires, and floods that also occupy so much of the news .… As for the victims, they’re not presented in any more political a light than those of a train derailment or any other accident.
— [13]

In the US media, calls for a “rational” immigration policy have resounded recently in our national discourse, from Biden’s argument that skilled immigrants “fuel American dynamism” to Bill Gates's and Warren Buffett’s argument, as printed in a New York Times op-ed, that, “for those [immigrants] who wish to stay and work in computer science or technology, fields badly in need of their services, let’s roll out the welcome mat.” But if such “rationality” stands outside of history, it can too easily lend itself to exploitation. The “rational” New York Times reader is never forced to consider why these children are poor or fleeing violence, and how, for example, history might dictate that Americans owe more to these immigrant children than to just select the most talented among them in the hopes of boosting the US economy.

In this historical vacuum, the “it’s not my problem” American response to the immigration crisis can be seen as cold-hearted and callous, or, just as easily, as shrewd and reasonable.



[13] Bourdieu, Pierre. Sociology is a Martial Art. 2010. Page 8

//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery


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