The Refugee Problem is a Foreign Policy Problem

For all the hyperventilating  from the White House, let’s admit that America faces distinct problems that are too often bunched together under “immigration,” which creates confusion. One of those problems is an increasing number of refugees from Central America. According to U.S. Custom and Border Patrol data, the number of refugees showing up at U.S. processing centers along the Southwest border increased by 21 percent in fiscal year 2017.  

Those processing centers are severely understaffed and unable to handle the influx. What’s more, there aren’t enough asylum adjudicators to quickly decide and process refugees’ asylum claims. Hiring more staff and building bigger centers to provide temporary shelter while refugees wait for adjudicators to decide their cases makes sense, but that doesn’t address the actual cause of their plight: poverty, violence, and political instability in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and parts of Mexico–much of which is the direct result of U.S. policies in the region. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration was (as far as we know) caught by surprise when the Honduran military and right-wing oligarchs overthrew the country’s elected president, who was a right-winger but increasingly reform-minded. Wanting the issue to go away quickly, and interested only in “stability,” the U.S. quickly legitimized the new government and continued sending it money. The regime has then used those funds to conduct terror campaigns against opposition and to partner itself with drug cartels.

El Salvador is even more of an example of what policymakers euphemistically call “blowback.” Donald Trump’s favorite anti-immigration bogeyman, the street gang MS-13, is itself a direct result of America’s involvement in El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, when it funded a military dictatorship and its sadistic militias against a left-wing insurgency. The use of child soldiers was widespread and thousands of Salvadorans fled north, with many receiving asylum in Los Angeles, where they were bullied and harrassed by ethnic street gangs. It was there that Salvadoran youths, some with guerilla training thanks to American funds, organized a self-defense gang that quite literally brought American-sponsored gore to its streets. (Machetes remain the gang’s preferred weapon.) MS-13 quickly grew into a powerful nationwide gang, and the FBI created a task force exclusively dedicated to combating it.

A bad, though manageable situation was made exponentially worse precisely through Trump’s preferred solution to all things migration: deportation. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has deported thousands of MS-13 members back to El Salvador, a country that had next to no capability to handle an influx of hardened American-made criminals. MS-13 quickly became the most powerful gang in El Salvador. Its membership exploded across Central America, and a national gang became an international one. The mothers and fathers and unaccompanied minors showing up to claim asylum today are often themselves fleeing MS-13.

Given that winning record–and I’ve only skimmed it–a serious country would be putting massive resources behind making these countries viable places to live. A morally serious country would take responsibility for what it has done and recognize its refugee and migrant problem as one of its own making. This kind of introspection would be unlikely under the best circumstances, and–rest assured–impossible under the current ones.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.