Of Guilt vs Responsibility

The uproar over juvenile refugees crossing our border exposes a shameful flaw in our approach to immigration: our refusal to place the plight of migrants in its proper context, lest we be called upon to shoulder any responsibility for it. We are not presently to blame for the corruption and violence in Central America that has triggered an exodus of children. But we are complicit in the historical conditions that have perpetuated misery in the region, and it is too convenient to confuse guilt with responsibility all the better to deflect the latter. Worse yet, in the current uproar over this surge, we have shown a disturbing willingness to subvert asylum law, one more chink in our supposed championship of human rights.


There is an early scene in John Sayles’ wonderful 1996 film Lone Star where a Mexican American US history teacher is excoriated by parents for imparting a less-than-Davy-Crockett-happy interpretation of Texas’ past. Their argument: we came out ahead, and any questioning of exactly how that came to be is taboo.


And so it goes for today’s discussion – if that is what you call it – of the genesis and nature of the flight of children from Central America: a refusal to even consider whether the history of US involvement in the region has anything to do with the failure of states within it, and the violence, corruption and grinding poverty it has spawned. Complicity in the situation which has emerged extends beyond past political and military shenanigans by the American government, to the narcotics trade supported by stubborn demand, a shortsighted response in the form of a war on drugs that has migrated north from Colombia and, of course, a history of exploitive labor practices on American-owned plantations in Central America. They don’t call them banana republics for nothing. Most recently, the Obama administration’s tepid response to the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras was hardly a promotional boost to its prospects for human rights.


I’ll spare you the detailed chronology of US interference in Central America and of its impact on the welfare of its populations. Still, here are a few factoids emblematic of neo-colonial US interference in the area over the past century. Perhaps not all of the most recent vintage, but nonetheless indicative of some historical responsibility for the region’s struggles with underdevelopment and everything that goes with it: political instability, perennial impoverishment and social dysfunction, of which the flight of children is a clear consequence. To wit:


The United States has dispatched troops or warships (mostly troops) to the region some twenty-five times since 1900. This tally does not include reports of training by the US Special Operations Command of units of the Honduran armed forces suspected of having terrorized members of land rights movements as recently as 2009. In fact, opposition to land reform, threatening to the interests of oligarchs and American agribusiness investors, has been a central theme of US intervention over the last century. The historical record does include a few especially salient episodes, such as a 20-year occupation of Nicaragua by US Marines, and subsequent military assistance to the repressive policies of the ruling Somoza family.


In the 1950s, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état against the democratically elected Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz, who had the effrontery to institute reforms for the benefit of the country’s impoverished agrarian population. Such reform ran contrary to the interests of the United Fruit Company, and was tagged as communistic, hence justifying the overthrow of Arbenz and his replacement with a 40-year dictatorship at the cost of an estimated 250,000 deaths.


Honduras was essentially colonized during the 1980s to serve as a base for military action against the Sandinistas of Nicaragua who had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship.


There is more, but I’ll stop the recitation before straying too far from the point I am building to. The backdrop of US military and political involvement in Central America has been the protection of American economic interests – United Fruit in the mid-twentieth century the most exemplary of them – without regard to the welfare of the vast majority of the people of Central America, and most often to its lethal detriment. The fallout continues to this day in the form of abject poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, corruption, the attraction of gang members to the drug trade and the ensuing violence directed at unarmed civilians, many, many children among them. Beyond all this, as Thomas Piketty demonstrates in his bestselling economics text, countries succumbing to foreign investment as their dominant growth vehicle struggle far more to emerge from underdevelopment than those, like China, which control the influx of capital from overseas. This is not to applaud China’s political regimen, far from it, but rather to draw the contrast with regions like Central America that have experienced systemic difficulty clawing their way out of penury, in large part thanks to a legacy of economic colonization. By us.


So where am I going with this? Surely the vast majority of Americans have no idea who Jacobo Arbenz or the Somozas were. Most of us weren’t even alive when they were, and were never investors in United Fruit. We were force-fed propaganda by the Reagan administration, engaged in arming thugs it cynically anointed ‘freedom fighters;” we did not volunteer for a taste test. We are not members of the gangs killing and terrorizing children in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, although some of those gangs originated in places like Los Angeles. In other words, we cannot be tagged as guilty of acts we did not commit.


But here’s the rub: there is a difference (subtle you might argue) between guilt and responsibility, and we are really, really bad at distinguishing between the two. In other words, if we are without clear guilt in an immediate crisis or situation, we needn’t assume responsibility for it. In the march of history each day has a clean slate. We are a little better at acknowledging past shamefulness committed on our own territory, say, the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor or the reign of Jim Crow in the South. (I said a little, not a lot.) However when it comes to our history south of the border, it’s out of sight, out of mind.


And so it goes in the present “crisis” of desperate – very desperate – children and others from Central America. Since the suffering they endure in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is not our immediate and direct doing, we needn’t bear any onus of responsibility for their plight. If we greet them with a modicum of humanity, it is solely out of the goodness of our big hearts, certainly not in settlement of a liability. In fact, if recent behavior and posturing by, say, members of our Congress is any guide, the juvenile refugees are the culpable party, the “lawbreakers.” The Christian Science Monitor went as far as to headline an article: “Are migrant children refugees or criminals?” (Did they really need to ask?) In failing to separate guilt from responsibility, we absolve ourselves of the latter, and revert back to the enforcement-centric tenor of our immigration law and policies.


I find this disturbing on so many levels. Let’s name a few, shall we?


  • The word ‘crisis’ has been misused, and focused attention on a perceived violation of our borders rather than on the origins of the migratory surge of children, and on the suffering they endure. I can easily support the notion of a humanitarian emergency that we must address, even if that implies a cost and highlights how ill prepared we are to accommodate even a modest influx of refugees. However, the use of the word ‘crisis’ by the media has most often referred to the numerical increase in border crossings, prompting inflammatory jabbering about an imagined invasion, this becoming the real issue in the eyes of neo-nativists and the politicians ever so willing to cater to their sensitivities, even when these lapse, as they are wont to do, into outright xenophobia.

  • When we examine the numbers – and there are not that many to examine – invoking a crisis borders on hysteria. An increment of 100,000 immigrants fleeing violence and desperation into a total population of 318 million is hardly a juggernaut. How would we feel if we were Jordan or Turkey coping with the fallout of civil war in not one, but two neighboring countries? The figure of 100,000 is itself a generous tally; indications are that the tide has ebbed in response to a number of factors including tighter control along Mexico’s southern frontier, and, possibly, the discouraging words from the US government reaching the ears of would-be Central American migrants.

  • The rhetoric of the past few weeks has been deplorable, often sickening, from the cry-wolf alarmism about an invasion from members of Congress and other politicians, to the ugly demonstrations in Marietta, California and near facilities housing refugee children, the fingering of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as the “magnet” for freeloading migrants, the we-can’t-afford-it whining of neo-nativists and other restrictionists who won’t abide the sight of another brown face in the local schoolyard or hospital waiting room, etc. The prize must to go to the unsubtle governor of Texas, Rick Perry, for dispatching the Texas National Guard (replete with gunboats) to patrol for twelve-year-olds, who have tended to rush toward, not away from, the Border Patrol. Runner up is the Arizona lawmaker who joined a group of anti-immigrant protesters greeting what they thought was a busload of refugees, who turned out to be returning YMCA campers. I’ll let you guess his party affiliation.

  • The policy response has been just as bad. We are actually willing to gut anti-human-trafficking law and carve a shortcut around due process in order to more quickly deport a relatively modest influx of refugees. Think about that, and what it does to our championship of human rights. I grant that President Obama is considerably more sensitive to the dangers facing migrants and the genesis of their plight than his political opposition. Nevertheless, I fault him for even considering alteration (read weakening) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, whose very purpose is not automatic asylum but to safeguard due process for the most vulnerable. It instructs the Department of Homeland Security to place affected minors “in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child” and “to explore reuniting those children with family members.” (The first quote is from the legislation, the second from the New York Times.) Now the prevailing attitude is that such protection is a nuisance to the extent that it inhibits expedited removal of a wave of children. I thought that was the point.

  • Part of the special appropriation request made to Congress by the president is to increase the number of immigration judges in order to accelerate, if not expedite, the processing of these new arrivals through the immigration courts. The immigration courts are indeed woefully under-resourced and have case backloads stretching out for years. I am all for expanding the capacity of the immigration courts, as well as for giving judges the discretion of which they have been deprived and which hamstrings their ability to adjudicate adequately. The problem is that the appropriation request addresses a headline-grabbing spate of new immigrants, many of them eligible for asylum, that the government is in a big rush to process for removal while it ignores the underlying issue of a systemically inadequate immigration bench.

  • And what of asylum? I don’t know about you, but I find particularly outrageous the cavalier dismissal of the right to asylum and the willingness of public actors to throw it under the bus. The law provides for the granting of asylum under specific conditions that are not subject to numerical limitations. “The applicant must establish that race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.” In the case of many, if not most, of the Central American children, there are a number of grounds for asylum, the most salient being “membership in a particular social group,” namely the social group comprised of kids resisting induction into violent gangs in whose reign of terror the local governments are effectively complicit. There is no provision in the law that caps the number of applicants, or that proposes to subordinate asylum to political expediency, the wishes of individual states or even populist outcry. The particularity of the 2008 anti-trafficking law is its explicit imposition of due process specifically designed to explore the possibility of asylum for abused migrants; the kids from Central America fall squarely into that category. Hence the rush to abrogate the statute in the face of a surge of beneficiaries we would sooner deport than harbor, exposing us as hypocrites who promote human rights as long as they do not impose on us. Nice. Further, the language of US asylum law echoes international law as expressed in the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, signed by the United States. The persistent American mentality toward international treaties and conventions has allowed us to cheer their provisions – the thunderous applause presented as proof of our commitment to international law – while again resisting their applicability to us whenever they prove inconvenient, i.e., most of the time. As a legal matter, we can get away with this: international conventions only have force of law if Congress has passed enabling legislation, which it seldom does. However, each time we attempt to turn back the clock on our commitments to international norms, with each instance of a politician joining the chorus of hostility toward refugee children, we dim the beacon of human rights we claim as ours.


The idea, implicit in the notion of desperate juvenile immigrants as rogue trespassers on our sovereignty, that refugees can or should be turned back regardless of their legitimate appeals for asylum, brings us full circle, back to our inability to separate guilt from responsibility. If the two are synonymous, and we are not directly culpable of the violence and misery that sent these kids here, it would follow that we bear no responsibility and can turn them away with a clear conscience. Even if it means subverting our law to do so. Even if it means brandishing ignorance as our shield against the historical truth of our domineering relationship with Central America. Even if it means playing the victims when confronted with real ones.


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