Approximately six months in, the Biden administration has proposed a strange combination of policies to address immigration. President Joe Biden’s proposals contain humanitarian measures: a path to legal status for the undocumented individuals in the United States, rebuilding the asylum process and bolstering legal paths for Central American migration. Yet, they also blend in anti-immigrant hard-line sentiment, epitomized by Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent admonition to Central Americans: “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”
And it’s not just words: The Biden administration is aggressively pushing border enforcement southward, enlisting Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran authorities to militarize their own southern borders and to increase what’s blandly known as “interior enforcement.”
Finally, there’s Biden’s “Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America.” While claiming to address the “root causes” of migration, including poverty, violence and corruption, the plan actually reasserts a long-standing bipartisan approach to the region: bringing “progress” to unruly people of color through foreign investment backed up by military force. The United States has used this playbook repeatedly, such as with the 19th century’s “Manifest Destiny,” the early 20th century’s “dollar diplomacy” and the recent drug wars.
Biden is on the right track by acknowledging that the causes of immigration have a lot to do with conditions on the ground in Central America. But what he, like many others before him, conveniently ignores is that it is precisely this U.S. domination, foreign investment and military force that are the “root causes” of the conditions on the ground that the policy purports to overcome.
For the past century and a half, Central America has been subject to the whims of U.S. corporations backed by the U.S. government. In the 19th century, U.S. adventurers and filibusters invaded Central America, settled there and advertised the region as an easy route to the California Gold Rush. Starting at the end of the century, the United Fruit Company developed massive banana plantations along the Caribbean coast and established regular shipping routes in the region, taking advantage of cheap land and labor and creating a market for bananas in the United States.
As the United States became more of a world power around the turn of the 20th century, it relied upon the Monroe Doctrine (1820s), which warned Europeans against interfering in the hemisphere, and the Roosevelt Corollary (1900s), which claimed the right to exercise “international police power” when U.S. investments were threatened to drive out European imperial competitors and take control of Central America’s finances. The U.S. empire in the region included territorial occupation and political meddling: The U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 to protect private U.S. interests and canal-building options, setting the stage for its U.S.-trained leader, Anastasio Somoza, to install a decades-long family dictatorship.
At the root of this interference: convictions shared by policymakers, U.S. corporations and Central American political and economic elites, including the belief that the rural poor and Indigenous populations were “backward” and in need of prodding and reform. Economic progress in the form of foreign investment and export-oriented production, they argued, would turn “Indians” into productive workers by taking their lands and forcing them into wage labor. For Indigenous peasants, this meant dispossession of their land and exploitation of their labor.
With the rise of the Cold War, preventing the spread of communism became the new rationale for U.S. intervention in Central America in the middle of the 20th century.
President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, the Agency for International Development and international financial institutions under U.S. auspices poured money into developing the agro-export economy. The idea was that this would bring jobs and economic growth, which they believed would bring prosperity, thus deterring communism. But new investment in plantation agro-exports just meant new rounds of dispossession and forced labor.
By displacing peasants and turning them into cheap, exploited workers, this form of development brought exactly what the United States feared: if not “communism,” exactly, popular movements for social change demanding land and labor rights.
In Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution succeeded in overthrowing the U.S.-supported Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Somoza’s corruption and violence had alienated even Nicaragua’s business classes, and a broad popular front implemented a mixed economy promoting popular organization, land reform and the socialization of basic services. But the Reagan administration saw this and similar revolutionary projects in El Salvador and Guatemala as stalking horses for communism. It helped Central American elites and militaries to overthrow governments and crush popular movements.
Yet, unlike in previous eras, this time, the reassertion of elite control produced large-scaled migration from Central America to the United States. As the United States propped up right-wing governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, hundreds of thousands were killed and millions displaced from their homes. Most of the displaced fled to urban areas or refugee camps within the region, but about 1 million escaped to the United States. They faced legal exclusion because of strict numerical limits on Latin American migration.
A major legislative change to U.S. immigration policy, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, didn’t help these migrants. It created paths to legal status only for long-term residents and farmworkers (most of whom were Mexican) while reinforcing the long-term trend toward harsh treatment and criminalization of the undocumented. Few could receive asylum in a system heavily tilted toward those fleeing communist countries.
This new, bipartisan law exemplified the U.S. propensity to forget its role in producing the flood of migrants from Central America.
As Central America’s revolutionary movements were crushed, dismantled or voted out of office (in Nicaragua) in the 1990s, foreign investors raced back in as debt, structural adjustment and the Central America Free Trade Agreement helped reinstate their favored economic model: access to land, low wages, little regulation, tax breaks and a strong dose of military force to crush attempts at unionization or protest.
President Barack Obama’s Alliance for Prosperity looked eerily like Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, though its stated rationale was deterring migration rather than deterring communism. The prescription was similar: promote new foreign investment and exports. But although the policy helped diversify the economies of these countries, it was again coupled with a repressive side: support for militarized policing to ensure the “security” and profits of these new enterprises and to prevent would-be migrants from leaving.
Yet, unsurprisingly, with hopes for social change at home foreclosed and few economic alternatives, migration only increased after the wars ended. Wartime migrants had established roots in the United States, where deindustrialization was creating a plethora of new opportunities in the low-wage and informal sectors of the economy. Many migrants joined family members and communities already here.
Biden’s plan simply rehashes decades of failed policy. The administration hopes to rely heavily on private investment and public-private partnerships to reform Central America. Harris boasted that she had obtained new commitments from major corporations such as Nestlé, Microsoft and Mastercard to invest in countries there. But the low-wage model of economic development that privileges foreign investors is not going to bring either security or prosperity to Central America. In fact, this system is precisely what has kept Central America largely poor, violent and corrupt for more than a century. It’s what brought the revolutions of the 1970s and ’80s, and the wave of out-migration that has only grown since the ’90s.
Central Americans still protest the model at home — and often get killed for their efforts. As long as Biden continues to follow the same recipe of foreign investment and militarization, we can expect more poverty, violence, corruption and migration to follow.
Aviva Chomsky is professor of history at Salem State University in Massachusetts and the author of “Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration.”