Children at the Border

Another U.S. Foreign Policy Debacle

Seeing through the tear-jerking to the guilty U.S. Government

The pictures of thousands of children huddled in shelters are upsetting, and the tales some tell are horrifying, and that is all a real but sentimental distraction from the entrenched American power that created these conditions. American power uses these children and their families and their countries for its own ends. American power is not likely to make any meaningful changes to solve what is essentially a permanent crisis. Whatever official alleviation there is will be just enough to get those heart-rending images off the front pages so that the profitable stream of human exploitation can be managed more “effectively.” American power insists that these are “illegal immigrants,” rather than face the reality that they are refugees from the exercise of American power.

So it’s no wonder President Obama doesn’t want to have his picture taken amid the terrible results of American policy to which he has been as much a guilty party as every other president at least since Polk.

By his actions over the years, the President appears committed to the U.S. imperial role in the world, especially in “our backyard.” There is little serious debate among the governing classes, who seem to feel their mandate is expressed by racist rioting against brown children. But there seems to be another, better America as well, perhaps a majority, out of power and out of the media, but stepping up to care for these refugees, humanely, where they are.

On July 7, more than 100 civil rights and civil liberties, human rights, faith, immigration, labor, criminal justice, legal, and children’s rights organizations signed an open letter to the Secretary of the Homeland Security Dept., Jeh Johnson, the man President Obama says keeps him intimately informed on the refugee situation. These organizations adamantly object to the inhumanity of administration plans to open new detention centers for families:

Family detention profoundly impacts the emotional and physical well-being of children and breaks down family relationships…. locking babies in prison cells and deporting women and young children to dangerous situations are not the solution.

This open letter has not been widely reported in mainstream media and there has apparently been no response from the administration to date.

Another coalition of civil rights and civil liberties organizations in Seattle filed a class action suit against the U.S. government on July 9. The coalition argues that “putting children into immigration court without counsel violates both constitutional due-process rights and immigration law.” The coalition represents eight children, age 10 to 17, who face deportation hearing without representation.

The President was in Texas July 9, meeting with Texas Governor Rick Perry, among other things, and sharing a tarmac handshake photo op. Gov. Perry has been asking for help with child refugees for a few years now, although the help he’s been asking for is mostly military and para-military (which may be the way he feels all teenagers should be handled, who knows?).  For most of that time, the Obama administration has been relatively unresponsive, but Gov. Perry has chosen not to make a big deal of it till now, so there’s little evidence to show that those people in power care much about children till there’s enough of them to make embarrassing headlines.

As long as the President was going to Texas anyway, lots of people wondered, why didn’t he visit the border area where thousands of children constituted a growing humanitarian crisis that was getting global attention?

The President’s answer during a press conference in DalFort Fueling in Dallas seemed oddly bloodless, not only uncaring, but evasive of accountability:

This isn’t theatre. This is a problem.
I’m not interested in photo ops.
I’m interested in solving the problem.

Because these were American journalists covering an American President, there were no meaningful follow-up questions. No one asked: How do you define “the problem”? What is your idea of a good solution? Why were you OK with a photo op last night [July 8] shooting pool and drinking beer with the Colorado governor?

On MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports program the next day, Mitchell talked about this odd set of presidential priorities with Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, who has warned that the border crisis could become Obama’s “Katrina moment,” a reference to President Bush’s apparent callous indifference to the suffering in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane. To be fair, Obama has not done a detached flyover, looking down on the Rio Grande Valley, as Pres. Bush did over flooded New Orleans (in a famous White House photo op).

Andrea Mitchell and other reporters have speculated lately about why, in their view, the White House has seemed surprised by long-festering problems like this flow of refugees, or others like the Veterans Administration’s failures and the collapse of Iraq.  Rep. Cuellar commented:

If he’s saying he’s too busy to go down to the border but you have time to drink a beer, play pool, the appearance means that he’s not paying attention to this humanitarian crisis.

To be fair, this humanitarian crisis is not new. Nobody has been paying meaningful attention to it for decades. It’s getting attention now only because the flood of refugees has topped the figurative levees and threatens to inundate higher-priced real estate. Almost everyone talking about it is fundamentally cynical, focusing only on symptoms, nothing approaching a cure for the underlying pathology

The most obvious example of a cynical band-aid is the President’s modest proposal of $3.7 billion in emergency spending, roughly half for caring for and processing refugees, and half for more military and para-military border protection. The inherent logic in the increasing militarization of the border is increased killing of refugees: how far will Americans be willing to go with that?

In any case, more spending of this sort will not solve the problem, though it might relieve the crisis. The chance of the spending bill getting through Congress (it passed the Senate 93-3) is presently near nil. One measure of the President’s cynicism is his unwillingness to photo op the refugee camps, which might actually pressure Congress to act – and that might not be useful to Democrats who need an inactive Congress to run against in the fall.

To be fair (again), the prospect of Republican control of Congress is itself a potential crisis that could emerge from long-festering failures. But that’s another story, even though it wouldn’t likely improve the refugee crisis story.

There is nothing but cynicism on all sides of the refugee story

Another measure of the cynicism of the emergency spending proposal is what it proposes to do to “solve” the problem: make nicer refugee camps and get more officials to speed up deportation of these people back to the hellish places they came from. That’s what the White House has already said is likely to happen.  Well, that’s a solution of sorts for the U.S. But it’s not a permanent solution, and hardly one decent people can be proud of. In every meaningful sense of the word, these children (and most of the adults) are real refugees from the ravages of American power.

On June 20, the White House announced what was reported as “a slew of aid programs to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They include $US9.6 million in aid for the countries to ‘receive and reintegrate’ their citizens who have been denied entry into the U.S., as well as multi-million dollar crime and violence protection programs in each of the three Central American nations.”

Calling $9.6 million “a slew” of aid to three impoverished countries is something of a joke when you compare it to spending $3.7 billion in the richest country in the world. Who even thinks the aid will reach the neediest people, much less reintegrate them? That comparison shows a roughly 40-to-1 disparity of spending on the rich to spending on the poor. That’s already a structural problem in Central America and it’s a growing one in the United States. No wonder most of the spending in all four countries is for military and para-military means of protecting plutocracy.

Cynicism permeates media explanations of events as well, with mainstream media like the Washington Post and the New York Times blaming the present humanitarian crisis on a 2008 law signed by President Bush. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 was designed to counter global sex trafficking in part by providing legal rights for children picked up by immigration authorities (with the exception of children from Mexico and Canada). As Charles Lane in the Post put it:

This law’s special mistake was to guarantee an immigration hearing to unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States on the theory they might be victims of sex trafficking and to let them live with U.S.-based family, if any, until a judge was available….

[The bill’s authors] failed to anticipate that trafficking mafias in Mexico would market temporary entry pending the delayed hearings as a new form of “permiso” (“permit”) and can charge families $10,000 per child to pursue it.

More refugees a result of crime, poverty, gangs, and following the law

One of the things driving the right crazy about all these underage refugees is that the problem has grown, in part, because the Obama administration has been following the law. And the law protects children, of all things. And it was signed proudly by President Bush, can you believe it?

Texas Gov. Perry has recovered from a booing by his own Republican Party in 2011, when he said of those opposed to educating refugee children: “I don’t think you have a heart.” He hasn’t come close to expressing such decency lately, but has managed to encapsulate current American political dysfunction exquisitely on Fox News, by saying:

The federal government is just absolutely failing. We either have an incredibly inept administration, or they’re in on this somehow or another. I mean I hate to be conspiratorial, but I mean how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?

Gov. Perry is absolutely right about a “fairly coordinated effort,” which overlaps with other coordinated efforts smuggling drugs, guns, and sex slaves. Asked on ABC’s This Week about the President following the 2008 law against sex trafficking, Gov. Perry ducked the question entirely, saying, when pressed:

What has to be addressed is the security of the border. You know that. I know that. The president of the United States knows that. I don’t believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is — is secure.

Interviewer Martha Raddatz let this blatant political lie pass unchallenged. She didn’t ask Gov. Perry to explain why Pres. Obama is referred to as the deporter-in-chief, since his administration has deported record numbers of people. This administration has also detained record numbers of people crossing the border. This administration has record numbers of officers patrolling the border, and even shooting people across the border.

Gov. Perry says he has requested 1,000 National Guard soldiers for border patrol. He was not asked why he hasn’t used his own authority as governor to call up the National Guard. Perry claimed, somewhat unclearly, that he had been asking the administration for help since 2010, without a response. He said, “ I have to believe that when you do not respond in any way, that you are either inept, or you have some ulterior motive of which you are functioning from.” Again he went unchallenged, as the segment ran out of time.

Is the Rio Grande Valley comparable to Katrina as a racial event?

After meeting with Gov. Perry in Texas on July 9, President Obama spoke affably to reporters, saying , “there’s nothing the governor indicated he’d like to see that I have a philosophical objection to,” including the 1,000 National Guard troops, But the President’s emphasis was leaning, instead, on the Texas Congressional delegation to support his $3.7 billion emergency appropriation request. In Congress, House Republicans have reportedly hardened in opposition to the $3,7 billion bill, leaving the party in the position of simultaneously demanding that the border be secured and refusing to spend more money on securing the border.

For his part, Gov. Perry followed up on the meeting without noting any agreement with the President on anything. He did say that the President’s refusal to visit the Rio Grande Valley was “no different” from Pres. Bush’s response to Katrina. In response to Perry’s jibe, a White House representative offered patent nonsense, but in complete sentences:

I think it doesn’t make sense to compare this to a natural disaster. This is a humanitarian situation that we have been on top of from the very beginning. It involves the entire federal government, it involves our partners in Central America who have acknowledged that we all share a responsibility to make sure we stop this situation before it starts.

If the White House had been on top of the situation from the beginning, why has it gotten so bad (from the beginning)?  The beginning of just this phase was more than three years ago, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Those figures show that child refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador have both increased more than twelve-fold since 2010. The number of children from each country is now about as many as Mexican child refugees (whose numbers have been declining for more than a year, but still remain high). The most child refugees now come from Honduras, whose numbers have increased fifteen-fold since 2010. (The number of child refugees continues to climb: between October 2013 and June 2014, some 52,000 child refugees were taken into custody by the U.S., about 75% from the three Central American countries).

Despite the White House statement, it’s obvious that the humanitarian crisis does not involve “the entire federal government” in any meaningful way. Or if it does, what is the role of the Marines? Or the IRS? Or the ambassador to Iceland?

But the rest of the statement – “it involves our partners in Central America who have acknowledged that we all share a responsibility to make sure we stop this situation before it starts” ­– is perhaps as revealing as it is strange (since it’s already decades past the situation’s start).

What do El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have in common? 

Insofar as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are “our partners” rather than free and independent states, they are decidedly junior partners. Each of them shares borders with the other two. More than anything, they share more than a century of exploitation by Americans, both governmental and corporate. Since the 1950s, they have all suffered brutal, anti-democratic coups d’etats orchestrated or approved by the United States. They have all suffered especially brutal dictatorships supported by the United States for the benefit of a tiny elite that controls most of the wealth in each country. The United States has brutalized these countries for decades, has helped make them unlivable, and now pretends to wonder why people don’t want to live there.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras account for almost 75% of all the refugee children coming out of Central America.

These three countries also share the honor of having served in recent decades as American proxies in wars against their own people or their neighbors, or both. By way of illustration of what it means to be an American “ally,” the streams of children from these three countries are unmatched by other countries in the region. Almost no children are fleeing Nicaragua, a former American enemy (full of phantom threat and against whom the U.S. committed war crimes). On the contrary, Nicaragua is a host country for asylum seekers, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found in a study (“Children on the Run”) released in March 2014:

While the United States is receiving the majority of the new asylum claims, UNHCR has documented a 712% increase in the number of asylum applications from citizens of these three [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras] countries in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, combined, from 2008 to 2013.

When the White House says there’s “a responsibility to make sure we stop this situation before it starts,” it’s time to start some White House soul-searching, not just about American military and corporate predation over decades, not just about trade agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) that have hurt the poorest people in these poor countries, but especially about the Obama administration’s own deeply bloody role in what has happened in Honduras since 2009.

When it came to Honduras, America offered no hope and no change

Five years ago, Honduras had a democratically-elected government that was beginning to make reforms. Five years ago, most of the Honduran population of 8 million were safely staying home.

On June 28, 2009, Honduras suffered a military coup. Almost immediately, the Obama administration blessed the new dictatorship and soon set about lying to the American people in order to avoid enforcing American law that’s supposed to apply to any coup (later the administration did the same dishonest dance around the Egyptian coup).

The United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the European Union all condemned the Honduran coup. On July 5, 2009, the OAS voted unanimously to suspend Honduras from membership (the suspension was lifted two years later). None of this affected unwavering U.S. support for the coup (which some people even argued was not a coup).

Less than a month later, the U.S. embassy cabled a report to Washington titled, “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup,” asserting that there was no doubt that the military coup was unconstitutional and the removal of the Honduran president was a “kidnapping” with no legal authority. The cable went to the White House and to the Secretary of state. No one in the Obama administration – not Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton, no one – told the truth about Honduras. They kept this cable secret and they lied about it.

The embassy cable remained secret till November 28, 2010, when Wikileaks released it (as part of the release of 251,287 confidential State Department documents). Reported then by Just Foreign Policy, the cable had little impact.

The coup – and the continued degradation of Honduran governance – had the quiet, bi-partisan support of American power. The United States has dirty hands throughout the hemisphere, dirty hands that are equally at home in strangling democratic governments or children’s futures.

The obvious horrors of Honduras, the crime and personal suffering, are well-documented anecdotally in mainstream media, almost always without critical context. The Honduran government commits and allows atrocities, as is well known, but they continue to receive tens of millions of American tax dollars to support their crimes.

Some critical context for Honduras has come from reporter Dawn Marie Paley for years. In February 2014, Toward Freedom ran a trenchant Paley piece, “War on the Poor in Honduras,” in which she vividly describes the fear, violence, danger and extortion (“war tax”) of daily life for most Hondurans. She observes that:

The biggest shops, US fast food chains and grocery stores, are the only ones who seem to get away without paying the so called “war tax” to gangs.

Critical context also comes from history professor Dana Frank on her Huffington Post blog. She describes some of the deep corruption among Honduran politicians, police, prosecutors, and judges, which even the U.S. State Dept. acknowledges:

Among the most serious human rights problems were corruption, intimidation, and institutional weakness of the justice system leading to widespread impunity; unlawful and arbitrary killings by security forces, organized criminal  elements, and others; and harsh and at times life-threatening prison conditions.

In response to his country’s police corruption, Honduran President Hernandez has increased the country’s militarization, as Frank reports:

Not only does the regular military now patrol residential neighborhoods, airports, and prisons, but Hernández’s new 5,000-strong military police force is fanning out across the country.

On May 13, the new military police surrounded, tear gassed, brutally beat up, and forcibly ejected from the main hall of congress all 36 congress members of the center-left opposition party LIBRE.

Ultimately the surge of child refugees into other countries has less to do with gangs and extortion, or with rape and murder, or even with poverty and political repression, than it has to do with the American role in the world – the American power that promotes and profits from all these horrors, and expects gratitude in return.

This is what the United States government has become, and it is despicable.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.