Immigration: Whose Crisis?

Last week I had a brief, surprising moment of agreement with President Trump. He described the situation of Central American asylum seekers at the US/México border as a humanitarian crisis – “a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.” I recognized that as a profound truth. Unfortunately, we do not share the same understanding of who is in crisis, and why. I recently visited the origin of the Honduran human ‘caravan,’ so I share here some insights arising from that trip, and what they mean to me as a US citizen. I suggest that the US shares more responsibility than we think for the pressures faced by asylum seekers.

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If you are an English speaker, ‘indiferencia’ means what you think it means. Honduran humanitarians not only see the US as saying ‘no’ to asylum seekers; they also perceive us as indifferent to their plight. (Used by permission).

First, some perspective: the US does face challenges, but there is no evidence of an ‘immigration crisis.’ According to the US Border Protection agency, undocumented crossings at the southern border have been in decline for 20 years.[1] The restructuring of small-group migration into caravans is new, but that does not necessarily mean that overall numbers are increasing. The notion that immigrants cause insecurity in the US has been debunked by more fact-checkers than I can count.[2] If there is a crisis in the US, it is a crisis of politics, and a crisis of conscience as we struggle to understand the interconnectedness of our region and its people.

I work globally,

but I blog about my own USA.

Sometimes that gets messy.

In November 2018, I visited San Pedro Sula, a key economic hub and the starting point of the first asylum seeker caravan. My job was to facilitate an analysis of the sociopolitical context completed by 32 local humanitarians, who use such analysis to shape their own organizational strategy. I felt anxious about my own US identity, because just as I was arriving in the caravan’s starting point, the caravan members themselves arrived at the US border and were denied the opportunity to request asylum. Making an asylum request to escape from violence and persecution is a human right recognized under US and international law, yet the US increasingly treats it as a criminal act.[3] It was a painful moment in international relations, and I felt ashamed, yet I was welcomed generously by my Honduran colleagues.

Migration was one of several themes addressed during their context analysis. I summarize here in simple terms the complex explanations developed by Honduran humanitarians as they analyzed the greater Sula Valley. They concluded that outward migration was caused by ‘crime’ and ‘poverty,’ just as we often hear in the media. However the intensity of those two factors, and their inseparability, are not widely understood by outsiders. Also, none of the causes that the humanitarians described had originated exclusively in Honduras; the causes are embedded in the wider web of dynamics unfolding across the Americas.

First, the mild-sounding term ‘crime’ actually refers to the massive networks of organized crime, including drug traffickers and highly sophisticated street gangs, that made San Pedro Sula the most violent city in the world 4 years in a row. From 2012 to 2015, hospitals and morgues in that city registered the highest rates of non-war homicides on the planet. The death rate has improved significantly over the past 2 years due to  government clampdown (despite the fact that some government players are also suspected of colluding in crime).  Even so, the level of violence remains high.

This is not the kind of violence that leaves civilians alone if they simply stay out of the way. Civilians are prey. Youth gang members are not only sought, they are forcibly recruited. Families and business people are extorted for cash under threat of violence, forcing them into impossible choices. What would you do if confronted with a demand to hand over either your life savings or your eldest son? If you couldn’t support your family because your small business income was drained by extortion? If you couldn’t trust the police to help? You would probably try to flee to a safer place – and while fleeing you would be at further risk of theft, extortion and human trafficking.

These violent forces are transnational. We know – but routinely ignore – that the transit of drugs through Central America is driven by uncontrolled demand in the US. The most prominent gangs, which Trump talks about keeping out of the US, originated in Los Angeles. When Salvadoran refugees fled a 1980s civil war fueled by US policies and funds, their youth encountered an already existing petri dish of gang culture in L.A, and new fusions emerged including the Mara Salvatrucha and 18thStreet Gang. After a decade or so of learning and operating in the US, many gang members were deported in the mid-1990s to El Salvador where they began to overwhelm that country in addition to neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. (Honduras, by the way, was a US ally during the Cold War, and did its part to shelter Salvadoran refugees).

Looking at ‘poverty,’ two-thirds of Hondurans experience it, and at least one-fifth live in extreme poverty.  It’s already clear that violent crime is a key source of economic vulnerability. Additionally, the transnational banana industry shaped the economics and politics of modern Honduras[4], and then contributed to poverty when export prices declined. Un- and underemployment are big issues, especially in the internationalized economy of the Sula Valley. The maquila industry – composed of foreign factories placed in Honduras to reduce overhead costs – is genuinely appreciated as a source of jobs. At the same time, there are not enough maquila jobs to go around, and those that do exist often come with inadequate salaries and protections. Government austerity policies, encouraged by the US-influenced International Monetary Fund to help stabilize the national economy, have the disastrous side-effect of increasing inequality.  Youth who lack opportunities find it harder to resist gang recruitment.

The Hondurans caught in this perfect storm of crime and poverty are the ones in genuine ‘crisis.’ My humanitarian colleagues called it ‘desperation.’ They do not foresee the flow of asylum seekers stopping, despite the fact that the first caravan is visibly stuck, until there is a change in the underlying factors that push people to flee. They are somewhat hopeful for sensible immigration reform in the US – but they also see indifference within the US population as an obstacle to political change.  They see Honduras as a country, a former US ally, finding new political allies on the international stage.

We as a US population need not be indifferent. None of the insights I’ve shared are new – though it is compelling to hear them from the perspective of Honduran humanitarians! Central American asylum seekers are not fleeing problems of their own making. They are fleeing because they bear the brunt of complex regionalized problems for which the US is partly responsible.The way to deal with a crisis in the neighborhood is by working together for the wellbeing of all the neighbors.  México is taking a creative policy lead, considering proposals for a managed increase in asylum plus major regional investments in human security and economic development. Let’s see if we as a US constituency can push our own politicians to catch up.

[1] Click here for US government data.  See also 2017 migration trend researchby the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

[2] For example: The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant, New York Times, 30 March 2018.

[3] Asylum law is a complex system that doesn’t currently work very well. Here are useful explainers from the American Immigration Council and immigration attorney Luis Mancheno.

[4] The banana industry is a brutal story of economic and political manipulation driven by the US-based United Fruit Company. For perspective: How US Policy Created the Refugee Crisis in Central America, Citizen Truth, 1 Nov. 2018.

A Warning from Anne Frank

Last weekend in Amsterdam I queued up for two hours in cold weather to gain admission to the Anne Frank House museum. There was no guarantee that there would be space for me, or that my endurance would last long enough to find out. But I made it inside! It was a profound experience. I don’t think that my reflections were much different from those of other visitors – but they were made timely by simultaneous events taking place in the US.

The visit to Anne Frank House was a reminder that human genius is extraordinarily ordinary. Anne was a typical teenage girl – she had crushes and she hung pictures of movie stars on her walls. She was also an aspiring author, writing not only diaries, but also short stories and the beginning of a novel, during the two years that her Jewish family was in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. After her death, her diary became one of the most influential books of the 20th century.[1]

Yesterday in Seattle, neighbors posted dozens of supportive messages after the Muslim Association of Puget Sound was vandalized.

The museum visit was also a reminder of how evil can creep its way into ordinary life. Why should this brilliant young girl die in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, one month before it was liberated, simply because of her Jewish identity? Why should over 100,000 other Jews in the Netherlands meet the same fate? Or 6 million across Europe? Every person who was lost bore the image of their Creator, just as Anne did, even though most of them never became famous.

When we reflect on these horrors we tend to state the obvious: this must never happen again. But it has happened again. On a large scale in the 1990s in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and on a smaller scale in cases like the current persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group in Southeast Asia. So Anne’s story reminds me of the horrible things that can happen when we begin to view our fellow human beings as anything other than human beings.

In the US, dehumanization rose sharply during the recent presidential election. By ‘dehumanization’ I mean viewing other groups of people as less than ourselves, to the extent that we deny their basic rights and dignity as human beings. President-elect Trump did not invent dehumanization – in fact, its roots run deep in our culture. And I do not claim to know Trump’s inward intentions. Nonetheless the impact of his divisive campaign statements has been a visible flourishing of dehumanization.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified over 700 incidents of post-election harassment against immigrants, Blacks, LGBT persons, Muslims, women and occasionally even against Trump supporters.[2] Those statistics are difficult to interpret, yet the cultural phenomenon that they highlight is real. It’s worth noting that a number of the harassers linked their boldness directly to the election results with explanations such as: “Now we can say what we really think.”

Last weekend, while I was visiting the Anne Frank House, white nationalists held a conference in Washington DC. Their goal is a ‘white ethno-state,’ a country exclusively for people of European origin. They used to meet in quiet corners, but this gathering was open and assertive. In the words of one participant: “I never thought we would get to this point…The culture is moving more in my direction.”[3] Lest anyone miss the point, the conference also involved hailing the election results with recycled Nazi slogans.[4] Trump later made a comment condemning this group, which was very welcome, but very minimalist. A lot more leadership will be needed to contain the ugliness that has been unleashed.

Also last weekend, while I was visiting the Anne Frank House, someone vandalized the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the Seattle area’s largest mosque. The sign reflecting the Muslim community’s identity was struck with a sledgehammer. Despite the obvious hostility, this story is now unfolding in a beautiful way. The number of perpetrators who attacked the sign is, I would guess, probably around two. The size of the crowd that showed up yesterday to express solidarity during a MAPS Open House appeared to be well over two hundred. I saw them there – over two hundred individual expressions of shared humanity – and they were powerful.

Comparisons to the Nazi era tend to upset people, so let me be clear: I am not saying that the level of dehumanization in the US is equal to that of the Nazi past. I am saying that we are at risk of moving in the wrong direction. I am saying that we all have a role to play in determining what happens next. At this point citizen action can make a difference – so let us take decisive action. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republication, a Democrat, or something else. I hope that you will be motivated to action by a commitment to shared humanity. As the late Israeli statesman Shimon Peres stated upon visiting the Anne Frank House: “It’s not a memory, it’s a warming to all of us.”[5]


Update: Shortly after writing this post, I learned that I had underestimated the number of people who showed up for the MAPS Open House. I had guessed well over 200; happily MAPS counted almost 500! On 9 December, MAPS’ new sign was dedicated in a ceremony that featured multi-faith religious leaders from all over Seattle. On 17 December, the sign was vandalized again. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. MAPS continues to engage their community by being a good neighbor.


Comments are welcome, as long as they are respectful and non-discriminatory.