Let’s Hope We Uphold Our Obligations To Afghan Refugees Better Than We Did for Central Americans

As in Afghanistan, failed U.S. policies put Central Americans in danger. Yet like Trump before him, Biden’s slamming the door in their faces.

Decades of failed U.S. foreign policy created a stream of refugees now running for their lives. That describes Afghanistan, of course. But it also describes the Central Americans who’ve been trying for years to migrate to the U.S.

The largest group of people who are heading north to the United States are from Central America. The mainstream U.S. media insists on calling them “migrants.” This is wrong. They are actually many of them “refugees.” The United Nations Refugee Agency is the global authority on this subject, and a senior Agency spokesman, Christopher Boian, says: “Many of the Central Americans arriving at the U.S. southern border have an urgent need for, and a bona fide right to, international protection under international law.” 

But the Biden administration in some ways is behaving as badly toward the Central America refugees as Donald Trump did. It refuses to let most of them apply for asylum, a right they are guaranteed under international law—but then, instead of returning them across the Rio Grande River, it has just started to deport them to the far south of Mexico, where local authorities put them on buses and dump them in a remote town in the Guatemalan rainforest. So far, only an intrepid Associated Press reporter named Sonia Pérez D. has gone to hear their side of the story. 

This disgraceful new policy is getting little coverage in the U.S. media, with the honorable exception of the Washington Post. The first deportation flight happened last week, and “a U.S. official,” hiding behind anonymity, told the Associated Press that the administration plans 24 such flights a month. Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, did reveal, in a press conference on the border, that dumping the refugees 800 miles to the south is designed to stop them from coming back. “If in fact they are turned around and placed in the northern part of Mexico, it is too facile, too easy, for them to return,” Mayorkas said. “And so in response to that recidivism . . . we are expelling them further into the interior of Mexico, which is more difficult to try again.” 

Mayorkas’s language is cruel and not accurate. “Recidivism” is defined as “a relapse into criminal behavior.” It is not a crime for refugees to ask for asylum. The only possible crimes here are being committed by Mayorkas’s Department of Homeland Security.

Neither Mayorkas nor Biden would ever say out loud (as Donald Trump likely would) that Central Americans traveling north are spreading the Delta variant in the U.S. But their policy relies on similar logic. The Biden administration justifies the expulsions under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, “The Public Health and Welfare,” which Trump invoked early in the Covid pandemic to reject the refugees as a contagious disease risk. Mayorkas sneakily maintained the restriction, despite sharp criticism from the U.N. Refugee Agency and others, including a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The scientific evidence is clear; the refugees are not responsible for the Delta resurgence, which is striking hard, for example, in Florida, far from the Rio Grande.    

The Biden policy is even worse than Trump’s because the U.S. was—and still is—partly responsible for the exodus from Central America in the first place. Here is some history: 

Back in 1984, San Pedro Sula, the largest city in Honduras, was a loud, hot, humid, bustling place. People clogged the streets at all hours, picking their way past sidewalk vendors. Radios blared, and young couples flirted in the central plaza deep into the evening. 

By 2019, everything had changed. As darkness fell, a pall of fear spread over San Pedro Sula. People quickened their pace, heading home, businesses closed early, and private guards with shotguns appeared outside them. Criminal gangs had taken over, so most people stayed inside. Taxi and bus drivers openly admitted they paid weekly extortion to the gangs. Out in the barrios, it was worse. The gangs ruled, recruiting children by force, raping, and stealing. A young Honduran mother who I interviewed at a refugee center in McAllen, Texas, in 2014 had already told me: “Kids as young as 7 or 8 are killed for not joining the gangs. We are too afraid to send children to school.” One estimate is that there are 40,000 gang members in the country. “Gangs” may no longer be the accurate term; an “occupying, undisciplined army” is more precise.

Then, last November, the intolerable suddenly got worse. Two category 4 hurricanes hit Central America within two weeks of each other, and San Pedro Sula was struck particularly hard. Honduras had already been the nation sending the most refugees north toward the U.S. border, but the storm devastation added to the exodus.

The U.N. Refugee Agency is responding to the drastic Biden deportations with a diplomatic but clear warning. The Refugee Agency’s representative to the United States and the Caribbean, Matthew Reynolds, stopped short of directly charging the U.S. with breaking international law, but his statement did say that the new Biden deportation policy “increases the risk” of such violations.

But let’s set aside U.S. obligations under international law. There is a strong case that the American militarization of Central America over the past decades contributed to the desperate conditions that triggered the exodus, and so we have a moral obligation to consider admitting these refugees even if not all of them may qualify under international statutes. 

U.S. responsibility is most clearly and recently obvious in Honduras. People there largely despise their president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and blame the U.S. for maintaining him in power even after he lost the 2017 election. Hernández is linked directly to drug trafficking—his brother Tony was convicted in a New York Federal court and sentenced to life in prison in March—and Hondurans also charge him with the nationwide collapse of law and order, the gutting of the health and education systems, and the total failure of any recovery efforts after the one-two hurricane punch. Hondurans think the U.S. props up Hernández because the Pentagon values the big American military base in the center of the country, called Soto Cano, where an estimated 1200-1500 U.S. service personnel are stationed. (Part of the U.S. mission there is supposedly drug interdiction, a tasteless joke given that the whole country has become a narco-state.)

The other Central American nations that are sending large numbers of refugees, Guatemala and El Salvador, can also blame U.S. policy in part for the crisis that is forcing their people to flee. In the 1980s, vicious civil wars in both nations exploded, and the Reagan administration supported the repressive regimes with huge military and economic aid. In El Salvador, for instance, the U.S. spent $5 billion to prop up the military/landowner alliance. The death toll there—75,000 from 1980 to 1991—is proportionally equivalent to the number of Americans who died in our Civil War.

Douglas Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton and a leading authority on migration, explained that even though Central America was unquestionably poor before 1980, emigration from the region was insignificant. Then along came the Reagan administration. One of Massey’s studies concludes, “The available evidence suggests that out-migration from Central America to the United States was initially caused by the U.S. political and military intervention of the 1980s, [and] that it persists because the region has never recovered from the lethal violence and economic havoc that the intercession unleashed. . .”

 Despite the sorry American record, many of the Central Americans in the exodus apparently still trust the U.S. justice system. Distorted Fox News reports portray them as drug smugglers and sex traffickers who try and evade detection at all cost. In fact, many make no effort to hide when they reach the American side of the border. I interviewed refugees in McAllen who said as soon as they climbed out of the water they looked immediately for U.S. officials to turn themselves in. They told me they believed that once they got their day in immigration court they would be able to explain to American authorities why they and their children had run for their lives. 

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James North

James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.