The United States’ Foreign Policy in Latin America and Our Immigration Problem
By Camilo Moraga-Lewy
The United States is a nation of immigrants. From the European and American Native conflicts of the 16th century, to the forced arrival of slaves in the colonies, the influx of new and different peoples has always been a major driving force of domestic unrest in the United States. In recent decades, Latin American immigration policy has been one of the more contentious points in American politics, occupying a significant portion of party platforms. In the 2016 presidential elections, Donald Trump focused on building a wall on the Mexican border and his plan to deport immigrants. His immigration policy became central to his electoral win, in the manner rallying cries against immigrant or minority groups have been central to the success of many political factions throughout history.
Trump and many of the American people fail to examine the causes behind this immigration. A practical and effective approach to managing immigration would attack the problem at its source, not just at the border. Building walls and emphasizing harsher punishments for illegal immigrants, as Donald Trump’s Immigration Plan proposes, will not deter desperate immigrants from the United States, many of whom face prospects more dismal than those found on the fringes of North American society. This is more of the same approach that United States politicians have been trying for decades: building a dam without first diverting the flow of a river.
The source of this river is the poor economic conditions and human security challenges in Latin America. The United States’ foreign policy in Latin America has been a major factor in the creation of this environment. Beginning in the early 19th century, the United States waged war with Spain and France to clear the Americas of European influence. This culminated in the Monroe Doctrine, which proclaimed that the United States would not tolerate further colonialism in the Americas. Later, from 1902-1905, the United States’ policy of using military force to block European influence prevented invasions of Caribbean and Latin American countries. This policy, called Gunboat Diplomacy, prevented Europeans from continuing to influence Latin America allowed the region to become part of the United States’ American economic empire instead. One of the countries secured in these years was Venezuela, which, in light of severe economic downturn, has recently begun importing United States’ oil rather than providing it. Loud political dialogue from both countries’ leadership has clouded the fact that whichever way the resources are flowing, Venezuela still economically relies on the United States over a century after their initial intervention.
Proponents of the existing order in American continental trade would suggest that the actions of the United States saved Latin America from further European subjugation. The United States was successful in this regard, but replaced European colonialism with itself at the head of a new economic system. These actions, and this tenacious sentiment of guardianship over the Latin American continent came in the era when counties now considered developed were completing their ascension to politically and economically secure states. This left many Latin American countries unable to insure their own economic stability.
The economic system of trade between the United States and Latin America is reliant on the lower wages paid in Latin America than in the United States, especially in maquiladoras and factories owned by U.S. firms. Many communities in Latin America are now economically reliant on performing these jobs, and the workers are payed so little that they cannot afford anything outside the necessities of life. As a result, there is a low local demand for local businesses that could provide organic sources of economic stability in these communities. While there is an enormous volume of trade between the United States and Latin America, the profit is concentrated in a very small portion of the population, with many Latin Americans left in poverty. It is true that countries other than the United States have been able to commence economic relations with Latin America, but they have only perpetuated the economic model instigated by the United States. This is the major reason why Latin America continues to be the region with the world’s highest inequality. Poverty is one of the leading reasons for emigration, and it is the United States’ economic relations towards Latin America that has perpetuated it.
The other leading cause of emigration and subsequent immigration to the United States is violence. The United States’ interventionist policy in Latin American governance has been a discernable cause of not only the continuing economic difficulties in the region, but also of the region’s violence. In Nicaragua, the United States backed Somoza regime was known for being extremely oppressive throughout the 20th century. The Somoza era ended in the 1970s when a revolution supported by the impoverished majority of the country installed the first regime with popular support. This was followed by the costly and illegal Contra War, which decimated the country for the much of the 1980s. The Sandinista Revolutionary Party currently rules Nicaragua, exemplifying the futile nature of United States interventions. Nicaragua, which faced several more United States interventions earlier in the 20th century, remains the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with dismal economic markers.
Since the 1970 US census, just preceding the years during which the United States actively engaged in or instigated Nicaraguan conflicts, the number of Nicaraguans living in the US increased from 16,125 to 248,735. In El Salvador within the same time frame, another brutal United States-backed regime known to use U.S. trained soldiers to carry out genocide led the number of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States to increase from only 15,717 to over 1.2 million.
As recent as 2009, a U.S. State Department-backed coup in Honduras lead to a 2010 spike in Honduran immigrants in the United States. These are some examples of the correlation between interventions by the United States and increased immigration from Latin America.
When it comes to the perpetual issue of immigration in the United States, we must look to ourselves before we accuse the vague entities of ‘Latin America’ or ‘Hispanics’ of creating the significant influx of immigrants. We must come to terms with the fact that it us, our policies and our government’s actions that have played a role in causing this migration.
Whether one believes illegal immigrants should be barred from this country, or that they should be allowed to enter and remain in the United States for humanitarian reasons, one important idea must be acknowledged: the massive movement of people should not be necessary to guarantee their survival and their means to an unhindered life. To prevent immigration, and to provide essential human rights to the people of Latin America, the United States should acknowledge that their overbearing influence in the political and economic affairs of Latin American states has had an unquestionable, negative effect. This acknowledgement should, in turn, be met with comprehensive action: not reparation payments or apologetic actions, but with two concrete changes in our policies.
The first of these measures should be a prohibition against new trade agreements that use protectionism against Latin America. The free trade agreements that the United States currently holds with many of Latin-America’s states are subject to change. The second of these actions would be a commitment to not interfere in the politics of the region without justification. Justifications will at times be found; Latin America’s proximity to the United States means that major unrest is a geopolitical threat greater than issues arising from the Eurasian or African continents.
As the ingenious and innovative immigrants have thrived in the United States, newer immigrants coming from Honduras, Mexico and other countries will likely overcome every obstacle placed in their paths. Their motivation comes from a need to provide a brighter future for themselves and their families, and they will come as long as the option to stay in their own countries is not a better one. The United States must do its part to improve this reality, and we must understand that immigration is not inherently wrong nor is it inherently dangerous. It is a natural feature of human behavior for which the goal should not be a rate of zero, but instead a healthy exchange at sustainable levels that strengthens the relations of countries and the health of human societies.