It was expected to reach the US border right after the midterm elections. And in mid-November, in fact, the first wave of the massive caravan from Honduras arrived in Tijuana, the Mexican city separated from the United States of America by a mere wall. In the last few weeks, the press has been witnessing and covering the chaos that has erupted as the migrants approached the US, in the hope of being able to enter the country.
In an attempt to clamp down on this human wave, President Trump announced on November 9th that the US would not grant asylum to those who had crossed the border illegally. However, last week a federal judge ordered the administration to resume accepting asylum claims from migrants, no matter where or how they managed to step foot on US soil. The order issued by Judge Jon S. Tigar of the United States District Court in San Francisco temporarily suspended Trump’s decree until the case gets decided by the court. Nevertheless, administration officials have asserted that they will continue to defend the policy, claiming that the American “asylum system is broken and it is being abused by tens of thousands of meritless claims every year”, and stating that the President has the authority to halt the entry of migrants into the country.
But who are these migrants the international media have been talking about for weeks? What are they escaping? Can President Trump find a legal way to reject them, denying their right to apply for asylum? We asked these and other questions to Jon Carter, Assistant Professor at Appalachian State University, Co-Director of AppState Ethnography Lab, expert on Honduras.
President Trump decided to militarize the border in order to stop the “invasion” of “criminals”, he has said. He is also trying to deny asylum to those who entered the US illegally. Do you think that this policy respects human rights, international law, and, in particular, the Geneva Convention?
“The Trump administration has attempted to characterize asylum seekers as criminals, without providing any evidence to support their claims. On the contrary, there is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that the vast majority of asylum seekers from Central America’s Northern Triangle have experienced direct violence in their home countries at the hands of gangs, transnational criminal organizations (cartels), and corrupt police, while finding little to no protection from the state or criminal justice system. While these persons are not fleeing “war” per se, their countries have been deeply impacted by civil and counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s, which left behind a heavily militarized region and weakened institutions. Decades later, the citizens of these countries are fleeing a breakdown of those state institutions and criminal violence that thrives in the context of impunity. In recent weeks the language of the Geneva Convention has been scrutinized by many within the immigration debate, and though I am not a lawyer by training, one part of that language seems clear: that immigrants, no matter whether they entered the country legally or illegally, have the right to apply for asylum status”.
Could you explain to us what these migrants are escaping?
“Hondurans are fleeing their country because of the impacts of free trade on small countries in Central America. The passage of NAFTA in 1994 resulted in the economic displacement of vast sectors of the Mexican working class, after which these economic practices extended into Central America’s Northern Triangle. Across the nineties the shift to an export economy in Honduras, benefiting consumers in the US, resulted in an overall decline in labor conditions and economic security. As the formal economy contracted, the illicit economy expanded, as criminal cartels organized to meet the demand of rising rates of cocaine consumption in the US. It is known that many within the political establishment in Honduras have been involved in narcotrafficking, and that criminal organizations have infiltrated law enforcement and military bodies. Surrounded by a sluggish economy, institutional instability, and corrupt law enforcement, local gangs have been able to recruit membership and to extort the families of poor Honduras without fear of consequences. Having nowhere to turn, law-abiding Hondurans are fleeing their country”.
Do you think that the United States’ foreign policy in Latin and Central America has in some ways contributed to establishing the conditions under which these migrants are fleeing their home? Some analysts have referred to the US’ “tacit support” for the military coup of 2009 in Honduras.
“The June 2009 coup against president Manuel Zelaya had serious impacts on the country that broadened the kinds of economic and paramilitary problems that contributed to the crisis I described above. In this sense, they accelerated those problems into the crisis that we see today. Specifically, despite the illegal removal of Zelaya in June 2009, the US State Department recommended negotiations rather than immediate restoration of the president. Likewise, the State Department recognized the legitimacy of elections in November 2009, despite widespread evidence of fraud and voter suppression. In the aftermath, the newly seated Lobo administration sacked supreme court justices critical of the coup. In the years that followed the administration assailed public institutions, especially those safe-guarding education, health care, and labor rights. In elections in 2013, Juan Orlando Hernandez was declared president after an election marred with evidence of fraud and voter suppression, and then illegally reelected in 2017 in an election declared illegitimate by the Organization of American States. The US State Department recognized the official results of each of these elections, empowering those who believe that they can rule the country by force. Police and paramilitary violence against civilians occur with impunity in Honduras due to the long-term impacts of such political polarization and institutional paralysis”.
Drug trafficking is one of the major plagues afflicting Central America. It also affects the United States: rather than an invasion of migrants, maybe we should be talking about an invasion of drugs from Central America that keep crossing the US-Mexico border, sometimes also the Canadian one. There’s also a flow of drug money that continues to be laundered in the United States. What’s the status of the US’ war against these phenomena?
“Drug consumption in the United States and Canada is a central feature of this crisis, as it has been the life-source of transnational organized crime groups that specialize in cocaine trafficking across borders and the erosion of law and institutional integrity inside of small countries such as Honduras. While the War on Drugs in the United States focuses its resources largely on interdiction, rather than rehabilitation and treatment for victims and addicts, it is in the name of the War on Drugs that the US has funded the militarization of the civilian police force in Honduras, alongside anti-drug special forces. While militarized police forces have been associated with increasing levels of violence against civilians in the post-coup era, regional missions with highly-armed special forces have wrought disastrous consequences for civilians caught in the cross-fire (see incident in Moskitia in 2012). Investigations into human rights violations by police and anti-drug forces are often inconclusive and plagued with irregularities, furthering the experience of injustice and desperation that fuels migration out of the country”.
This is not the first time a caravan of migrants has tried to reach the US border from Central America. How did former Presidents like Barack Obama and George Bush react and what kind of policies did they pursue? How much did these policies differ from those of President Trump?
“The Obama administration deported more immigrants than any other previous presidential administration in US history, but the trend really began with new laws passed during the Clinton administration in 1996 that revised procedures for processing undocumented persons and ordering deportation. These were strengthened during the Bush administration, in reaction to the attacks of 2001. This integrated state and local agencies in immigration enforcement, created new government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security which expanded the number of agents working on national borders and in processing persons for deportation. While the Bush administration had focused on “returns” (stopping individuals at the border of entry without legal proceedings) the Obama administration focused resources on “removals”, with greater legal ramifications for persons deported from the country, making them ineligible to reapply for legal entry. Obama policy also differentiated between those believed to be law- abiding migrants and those taking advantage of the system, enabling a Janus-faced policy that claimed to support families while actually intensifying enforcement and removal. Of course, the Trump administration has gone farther than either Bush or Obama in criminalizing migrants in the popular imagination, while also subjecting migrants to a widely privatized prison industrial complex in which legal proceedings are less transparent than ever before”.
What should America do in order to prevent new flows? How can the United States help those countries afflicted by violence and corruption?
“In Honduras there are many initiatives that the US Embassy and State Department could support, and actions that could be taken. The primary problem in Honduras, at the moment, is the legal impunity enjoyed by white collar criminals of elite status, whether in politics, industry, or the military. Since the 2009 coup the Honduran supreme court has been subject to harassment, firings, and partisan appointments which have undermined accountability across the most essential institutions of governance. The US could strongly support anticorruption investigations such as that conducted by the Organization of American States starting in 2016, an investigation that has been troubled by obstructionism and whose original head investigator resigned in frustration in February 2018. The US could strongly support reform of the Honduran national police force which, again, has seen reform efforts in the past few years that yielded few results. This support would include withholding foreign aid of any kind for policing, until substantive changes have been accomplished. And finally, the US must consider the impact of both the regional War on Drugs, and the part played by drug prohibition in the US where the banned status of illicit drugs keeps market value high, and promotes acceptance of the arcane, failed approaches to interdiction which combat drugs as a crime rather than a social illness that could be resolved with softer measures of legalization, treatment, and investment into communities negatively impacted by addiction and drug interdiction”.