SINCE last spring, tens of thousands of children from Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking refuge from worsening gang violence and crushing poverty. They are child refugees forced to flee because their lives are at risk.
It is heartening to hear so many voices calling on the U.S. government to address the flight of Central American children as a humanitarian crisis. These children and families deserve the compassion of citizens of conscience, who should respond with humane care and legal support rather than summary deportation.
But this is much more than a humanitarian crisis. The United States bears a great deal of responsibility for the dire poverty, violence and corruption in Central America.
The U.S. government has a history of standing on the wrong side in conflicts in the region, consistently supporting dictators over democratically elected officials. Too frequently, America intervened in favor of U.S. business interests to the detriment of Central American civil society.
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For more than 60 years, U.S. foreign and economic policies in the region have greatly contributed to increasing desperation there. Most Americans will never see firsthand the impact of misguided, failed foreign and economic U.S. policies that result in the fears that Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans face daily. What Americans do see is the arrival of children at the border — a consequence of billions of U.S. tax dollars wasted over decades propping up generals and oligarchs.
The U.S. drug war, launched in 1971 by President Nixon, pushed cartels from Colombia into Central America. Latin American leaders implored the U.S. to take a different approach to drug consumption in this country. In spite of that, the Obama administration continues to fund this failed so-called drug war pouring hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars into training corrupt police and security forces in Honduras and Guatemala in the name of fighting drug trafficking.
U.S. support of brutal regimes in Guatemala and Honduras fuels the violence and instability that makes life unbearable for ordinary citizens. The U.S. government supported the 2009 military coup in Honduras, and continues to support the illegal coup government there.
Gang violence, especially in El Salvador, has its roots in the United States. The maras, international criminal organizations that terrorize Central American communities, were exported back home from Los Angeles street gangs and metastasized in the chaotic wake of the civil wars the U.S. government stoked.
This is not a border crisis. It would be counterproductive to spend more tax dollars on fortifying the border, building more detention centers or sending these children back to their worst nightmares.
Instead, the Obama administration should offer them all due process and legal representation, reunite them with their families where possible and grant asylum to those who qualify.
Treating child refugees humanely and fairly is only the first step. The conditions that send them northward will deteriorate further unless the U.S. government addresses the root causes of this crisis. This is our problem: The Obama administration must acknowledge that its policies there only further destabilize the region.
The U.S. government must stop supporting brutal regimes in Honduras and Guatemala and instead work with human-rights groups in these countries to restore the rule of law. It’s time to end the failed, costly drug war and stop militarizing the region with weapons and training.
The best U.S.-based humanitarian efforts to support Central American projects cannot resolve this crisis unless the U.S. government changes course.
Let’s use this Congressional recess and beyond to hold community conversations with our leaders urging a new, bold and just neighbor policy with Central America — for the refugees’ sake and for America’s.
Kay Hubbard served as director of International Programs at the University of Washington from 1981 to 1998. She has been working for peace and justice in Central America for more than 30 years.