The Seeds of the Current Humanitarian Crisis


Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 3:08PM

The Seeds of the Current Humanitarian Crisis Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir, Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies offers historical and political background to the present humanitarian crisis sending thousands of unaccompanied children across the United States border.

The Seeds of the Current Humanitarian Crisis at the Border

By Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir, Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies.

The seeds of the current humanitarian crisis unfolding along the southern border of the United States lie in its deep historical entanglement in Central and Latin America. Already in 1823, as many Latin American countries were gaining independence from Spain, U.S. President James Monroe publicly declared that all of Latin America now belonged to its sphere of influence. Effectively, the U.S. was asserting its neo-colonial dominance over its southern neighbors.

By the early 20th century U.S. corporations had purchased vast tracts of land in Central America, displacing small local farmers with massive industrial style plantations that grew tropical fruit for export to the U.S. Those Central American nations came to be known as “banana republics,” because their governments largely served the interests of international fruit companies based in the U.S. The result was the creation of a small super-wealthy elite while the majority of people in those countries, many of whom still lived in small indigenous villages, lived in deep poverty.

In the late 1960s, liberation theology emerged in Central America, with its belief that God has a preferential option for the poor and its commitment to popular education as a means of empowering the poor. Popular political movements arose in many Central American countries during this period - some of which were connected to the Catholic Church, while others were influenced by the Cuban Revolution. The Reagan administration actively opposed these movements by funding and training paramilitary forces in counterinsurgency tactics similar to those used in Vietnam. Whole villages were destroyed and thousands of innocent people died.

Following the end of the war, with El Salvador deeply in debt to international lenders, the International Monetary Fund imposed new monetary policies, requiring that the Central American countries allocate large chunks of their national budgets to pay back international loans taken out by earlier dictators. The IMF also forced these countries to open up to foreign investors, who were exempt from paying local taxes on the profits they earned from manufacturing in these countries. Thus, El Salvador and its neighbors became lucrative manufacturing zones, where foreign companies known as “maquiladoras,” have been able to exploit workers who manufacture goods that will ultimately be sold at much higher prices in the U.S. and other wealthy countries.

Pastor Tonia Rios, who pastors Baldwin Park UMC, fled the killings in her home country of El Salvador when she was only 18. She believes that “the seeds of the current migration lie in the 10-11 years of civil war during the 1980’s. In those years the US spent $1 million every day to repress the popular movements for change.

President Kuan

During her visit to El Salvador this past May, Pastor Rios was told that lots of people were leaving the country. Many of those planning to leave already had families in the U.S. Seeing the hardships people have been enduring, she asked everyone she met, “How do you survive?”

Many of her family members still living in El Salvador work in the maquiladoras. Pastor Rios’ sister-in-law works from 7 AM until 7 PM but gets paid for only 8 hours. In order to work in the maquiladoras a person must have at least a high school degree or even a college degree. One of Tonia’s sister-in-laws works packing hams, yet she has never tasted the ham because it is much too expensive. Another works in a factory making expensive exercise clothes while still another is packaging Starbucks coffee.

Yet, these economic hardships are not the main drivers of the current migration. Rather, it is the growth of gang violence that harkens back to the violence of the 1980s that is fueling the influx of mothers and unaccompanied children. But, here too, the U.S. continues to deny its complicity, given that its policies of deporting undocumented convicted criminals back to their home countries has fueled the growth of violent gangs in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America.

The story of Pastor Rios, and her family serves as a reminder that the current “immigration crisis” is not an isolated issue. It takes place within a context and history of violence and exploitation. For those of us living in the United States, we must come to terms with the reality that the events and policies that have shaped our current circumstances are not pretty, yet they have been conducted under our name. It is up to us to decide how we approach our decidedly interconnected future.


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