With thousands of migrants from Central America currently stranded just south of the US border in Mexico, it’s time to ignore the political rhetoric coming from Washington for a few minutes and focus on the reasons so many choose to leave country, culture and family behind and walk 2,500 miles (4,000 kms) to an unknown future.
It’s difficult for privileged Americans–as well as most other Westerners–to feel empathy for the lives these people are leaving behind. But make no mistake about it, the actions of Western governments–through flawed foreign policy decisions–have contributed to the mass migrations we’ve all witnessed over the past decade.
Some recent comments I’ve read:
“Refugees are lazy and just want handouts.”
“Refugees are entitled and ungrateful.”
While there may be a minority in any given population that would rather take handouts than be employed, I can assure you that the vast majority of the poor I’ve come in contact with in Latin America work very hard just to provide the basic necessities for their families.
I observed multiple construction projects going up directly across the street when I lived in Mexico. The laborers worked a minimum of 12 hours per day Monday through Saturday and half a day on Sunday, in unsafe conditions and for very low wages. Watching them, I marveled at their strength and endurance as they performed grueling tasks by hand that would be done by machines in richer countries.
The deck is stacked against the poor
Many governments can be called out for not providing sufficient opportunities for their populations, but some Latin American countries are particularly guilty. In many cases, leadership for the past two centuries has simply been transferred from one political dynasty to another, creating some of the world’s greatest economic gaps between the wealthy ruling class and the poor masses.
As a teacher working in the developing world, I’ve seen the extreme disparity in educational opportunities between the rich and poor. In countries where the elite send their children abroad for their studies, being born into a poor family presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles for all but the most gifted.
Those with family connections and money control their destinies, while the poor resort to any means to provide for their families. This is often done through the large ‘informal’ economies that operate in poor countries around the globe. The city center streets in many developing world cities are filled with locals trying to sell whatever they can find–from clothing to food–in an effort to produce a subsistence wage.
Political repression and violence
Besides the economic migrants, a large segment of those currently seeking entrance into the USA are fleeing political repression and gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras. The US Government supported brutal dictatorships in Central America during the turbulent 1980s and the citizens of those countries are still suffering the effects decades on.
In such situations, women are often targeted and sexually abused. This has been the case in Colombia (my current home) in the past and a recent report shows such abuse is still a huge problem, especially in rural areas where the rule of law is often absent.
Over the past several decades, America’s failed War on Drugs has showered money on irresponsible governments in this region who’ve used those very resources to maintain authoritarian control over people who have legitimate issues with their own government’s policies.
It’s hypocritical to preach ‘democracy’ in places like the Middle East while supporting dictators in our own backyard. If American’s want to put a dent in drug violence both at home and abroad, we’d do well to work tirelessly on policies for drug prevention and rehabilitation within our own country.
Pollution and environmental degradation
The current American administration’s denial of climate change is only going to further the problem of illegal immigration in the future as less developed countries across the globe grapple with the effects of drought and famine. According to author and journalist Todd Miller, these negative effects on agricultural production and water resources can already be seen in some Central American countries. How high will the border wall have to be to keep the starving masses out of the USA as conditions worsen?
Isn’t it time governments everywhere started planning for a sustainable future for the generations to come rather than focusing solely on creating immense short-term wealth for the privileged few?
For a view of life as a Venezuelan refugee, see my post Putting a Face on Venezuela’s Humanitarian Crisis.