How U.S. military involvement created a border crisis—and what Brandeis students are doing about it

There is a humanitarian crisis occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border as thousands of asylum seekers arrive at border cities with no support from either the U.S. or Mexican governments and with dwindling resources to support their families. The migrant caravan consists largely of refugees fleeing crises driven by the force of U.S. political, economic and military interests across countries in South and Central America. Asylum seekers are under attack at our border by Customs and Border Protection agents as well as the additional 5,000 troops Trump has deployed. Just last week in Tijuana, CBP agents fired tear gas at families with young children and shot rubber bullets at crowds of protestors. Aside from living in constant fear, thousands of individuals waiting for their asylum cases to be heard sleep on the cold dirt or in makeshift tents, without food, clothes or access to clean water. There is a massive lack of resources and people willing to provide aid, and this community of asylum seekers desperately needs support.

To understand the situation at the border, one must understand the long history of U.S. involvement in primarily Central America. Throughout the 1930s-50s, the U.S. backed many violent local allies in wars in Central America, intervening in countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. According to Leisy J. Abrego, associate professor of Chicano/a Studies at UCLA, the U.S. trained soldiers in torture and “scorched-earth” tactics, fostering the violence that led many Central Americans to flee in mass numbers.

U.S. forces occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, a total of 21 years. This occupation came to an end due to the rebellion led by Augusto Nicolas Calderon Sandino. Sandino founded the Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1961 in opposition to the ruling Somoza government. The group overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and two years later consolidated power with other leftist groups. Prior to the fall of the Somoza government, then-President Jimmy Carter started a covert policy of supporting a more “modern opposition” to the government as an alternative to the far leftist group. The U.S. government helped transport Honduran troops into Nicaragua and even deployed its own soldiers in order to fight the Sandinistas.

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala underwent a long civil war fought between a U.S.-installed military dictatorship and leftist groups. The CIA provided intelligence, training and arms support to the Guatemalan government throughout the war. The U.S.-backed government killed many, primarily indigenous people who were accused of being communist supporters.

These examples are only pieces of the U.S. escalation of many connected wars that devastated Central America and created mass human displacement. Many fled, and continue to flee, to the U.S. to escape political repression and economic hardship that largely resulted from U.S. occupation. Once in the U.S., they are often denied asylum and refugee status, which leads to a great number of traumatized communities. One way that these traumatized communities have dealt with the struggle to survive in the U.S. is by way of gangs, which provide a support network that helps individuals navigate and survive their oppressive situations.

According to Special Correspondent John Carlos Frey on PBS NewsHour, the gang MS-13 was created in the U.S., then sent back to Mexico and has actually grown stronger there. Thus, many Central Americans flee the gang violence within their own countries and seek refuge in the place where the gangs were born and rejected. Modern U.S. immigration policy fails to accommodate many who flee gang violence. Bill Clinton’s 1996 Immigration Reform Act expanded the criteria of who was deportable in the U.S. to include immigrants who had committed a crime, thus many former gang members. Clinton’s presidency deported 5,000 criminals to El Salvador, which currently has much internal strife and violence as a local government is fighting to rule the country.

In 2009, a military coup approved by the Honduran Supreme Court ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. President Barack Obama condemned the coup; however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised that the U.S. not make such statements because doing so would force the U.S. to cease all aid to Honduras. This led to an increase to instability and violence in Honduras.

The current Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who changed the constitution to re-elect himself in 2017 as president, is running the country under a corrupt dictatorship. President Trump’s administration recognized and congratulated his re-election despite protests.

Meanwhile, Central America has become the focus of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, introduced and implemented last June, which prosecutes all individuals who illegally cross the border into the United States. This, along with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement that asylum will no longer be granted on the basis of domestic or gang violence, and a record-high number of asylum cases being denied this year, has created a hostile environment for undocumented immigrants in 2018, to say the least.

It is undeniable that U.S. military intervention has led to to the humanitarian crisis in South and Central America that requires people to flee in search of better lives, and that U.S. immigration policy is unwelcoming and inhumane to these individuals. Grassroots organizations have taken on the responsibility of resisting U.S. immigration policy and protecting the rights of immigrants and refugees. One such organization, Movimiento Cosecha, has led the national movement fighting for permanent protection, dignity, and respect for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The chapter that resides in Boston campaigns against institutions that have contracts with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), such as Northeastern University, Amazon and Microsoft. There have been a number of marches to the Suffolk County Detention Center in Boston and Bristol County Detention Center in Dartmouth, each of which house and profit off of the detention of undocumented immigrants. The organization also recently installed a hotline for immigrant workers that experience wage theft, and has succeeded in getting justice and proper payment for several workers.

We, Brandeis students, advocates and Movimiento Cosecha activists, are taking action on the crisis at the border. Emilia Feldman (’19) will travel to the San Diego-Tijuana border for three weeks this winter break where she will be joined by Alejandra Bonilla (’21). Ellie Kleiman (’21) is organizing the project’s logistics and communications and coordinating fundraising with the rest of our Movimiento Cosecha team. On the ground, Emilia and Alejandra will join the Movimiento Cosecha team in distributing donations, documenting stories through interviews and photographs and standing by the sides of asylum seekers as they cross the border and wait for their cases to be processed. The three of us currently serve as advocates at The Right to Immigration Institute (TRII), a student-run, pro-bono legal clinic that helps individuals in the Waltham area seek asylum and navigate the immigration system. We are also activists and volunteer organizers with Movimiento Cosecha in Massachusetts. We cannot get to the border alone. We are asking the community to help us travel to the border and purchase much-needed resources so that we can aid the individuals crossing, hear and document their stories, and connect with grassroots activists from across the country.

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