Stop the Criminalization of Immigrants!

June 7, 2019

Central Americans, reeling under murderous violence and deep poverty in their home countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—have felt compelled to seek refuge first by crossing into Mexico, where they have met a mixed reception, at times welcoming and now often facing arrest and deportation at the southern border. There, they have been criminalized by the real criminal, U.S. President Donald Trump. Still, they have continued to demand their right to asylum, to be treated as human beings, not “illegals,” not “animals.”

To comprehend how we have come to this dangerous, inhuman moment, we need to explore the changing policies of Mexico with regard to immigrants, and the militarization and criminalization of the U.S. southern border with regard to Central Americans—children, women, families—who seek refuge and asylum.


These three countries are populated with different peoples, and have different histories. They are similar, however, in that from the post-World War II period to the present they have all felt the boot-heel of U.S. imperialism, economically and militarily. This includes the narco (drug)-trafficking coming from Colombia and Mexico; the gang violence that controls much of their territories in these times of deep poverty and unemployment; and the corruption of their governments. Despite valiant efforts of Central American peoples toward self-determination—including revolutionary movements, mass demonstrations, strikes, community organizing, resistance and attempts at free elections—U.S. imperialism has blocked their way by supporting genocidal militaries, aligning with oligarch families’ controlling interests, fomenting actual coups or looking the other way when a coup happens.

  • GUATEMALA—In 1954 the U.S. organized the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, who had instituted a mild land reform threatening, among others, the United Fruit Company. United Fruit petitioned the U.S. to overthrow Arbenz, which, via the CIA, it did, calling him a “communist.” A series of military dictators, supported by the U.S, then ruled Guatemala. A Civil War began in the 1960s lasting a quarter century with a number of Left rebel groups supported by Mayan indigenous people and Ladino peasants faced off against genocidal attacks by the military. Some 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared,” the vast majority at the hands of the military and its paramilitary forces. For the most part the U.S. continued to support the military’s rule. A 1996 Peace Agreement ended the Civil War, but it has taken more than a decade to put some of those responsible on trial.
  • HONDURAS—In the 1980s the country became a U.S. pawn in then-President Ronald Reagan’s “Contra” wars in Nicaragua, and counter-insurgency against rebel movements in El Salvador. The U.S. established a continuing military presence in Central America in order to carry out these wars. As a result, Honduras was flooded with arms and is saturated with weapons today. Ruled mostly by a rich elite with military backing, the election of Manuel Zelaya upset Honduras’ small group of ruling families when he sought mild changes to promote a more egalitarian society. In 2009 a coup removed him from power. While the U.S. paid lip service in opposing the coup, it eventually fully supported the change. The decade since has seen military and paramilitary repression against any opposition from below, including the assassination of the human rights and environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • EL SALVADOR—In 1979, a military government carried on a vicious war against guerrilla groups organized under the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the populace. The U.S. actively supported the counter-revolutionary war. After a dozen years and tens of thousands of deaths, including the slaughter of entire villages (see particularly the massacre of El Mozote in December 1981 by the army), a peace agreement was signed. Since then El Salvador has had a series of different governments and elections, including participation by former members of the FMLN. Now, a new law is coming into effect supported both by the Right and the Left giving amnesty to both sides for all the murderous horrors committed during the civil war.

Today, drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, extreme poverty and violence characterize the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America. To make matters worse, Trump has cut off $500 million of their annual aid.

This is why hundreds of thousands are fleeing, seeking to save their lives and those of their families. Creatively, they organized themselves into huge “caravans,” seeking safety in numbers as they cross through Mexico, where, historically, criminal gangs have robbed immigrants, raped and killed women, and sought to extort Central Americans. What is the response of Mexico’s new “progressive” administration to this human crisis inside its borders?


Faced with a growing stream of Central American immigrants crossing into Mexico, then new President Lopez Obrador began with an open-door policy. Humanitarian assistance was offered: shelters, food, work permits.

However, under Trump’s economic threats that policy has changed, despite smooth words of human rights and human dignity. From April forward a much more punishing policy was imposed. The number of Central Americans stopped at Mexico’s southern border, or detained after crossing into Mexico, has been rising drastically. Tens of thousands of migrants are forced to return every month. A militarized approach has been implemented, centering on containment, detention and deportation. Figures from the National Institute of Migration reveal more than a doubling of deportations.

Human rights of migrants are being subordinated to the economic and commercial interests of Mexico and the U.S. There is a growing xenophobic attitude arising in some areas as on the Guatemala border and in Tijuana in the north, places where streams of immigrants arrive.

Presently, raids by migration agents against Central Americans are taking place, as in Tenosique, Tabasco, where migrants wait to board the train named “The Beast” to travel north. Gloria Muñoz Ramirez in a recent “Los de Abajo” column (La Jornada, June 1, 2019) described the reality migrants face in Tenosique:

“The siege keeps on strangling the men, women and children who arrive to this city occupied by the Federal Police since more than a month ago. Downtown, there are patrols all day long, and last Thursday the police illegally chased a van carrying humanitarian aid and 25 migrants. In the yard of ‘La 72,’ horror stories compete with each other. At nights, people go over the extortions, robberies, chases, rapes, hunger and thirst that they suffered, without—until recently—any action from the Mexican state to protect them or free them from the mafias and police agents that harass and hunt them like animals”.

AMLO has already agreed to permit Trump to send refugees seeking asylum back into Mexico to await a decision rather than being allowed to stay in the U.S. Some 6,000-plus have already been sent to Mexico.

In face of Trump’s threat to impose tariffs from 5% to 25% on Mexican imports, it appears that AMLO has decided to become the enforcer of Trump’s racist, xenophobic immigration policies. Some 6,000 Mexican National Guard troops are going to the Guatemalan border to stop Central Americans from crossing. Mexican human rights activists are being arrested for “immigrant smuggling,” thousands of migrants are detained and deported. Suddenly, “Mexican sovereignty” is being raised with intimations that Central Americans are “violent.” It appears AMLO’s Mexico is going to follow Trump’s America in the criminalization of Central American migrants.


For the two and a half years of the Trump presidency, his policy toward immigrants was to demonize, criminalize and punish. Immigrants seeking to obtain asylum are now all characterized as an “illegal.”

In office Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric against Central Americans turned to cruel action. Besides cutting off aid to Central American countries, he instituted a plan of family separation at the border with Mexico. Only judicial review halted this inhuman policy. Recently he sent 4,000 members of the U.S. National Guard to the border in an act of intimidation.

At ports of entry, the Trump administration limited the number of asylum seekers processed each day to as low as 25, forcing thousands to wait weeks and months even to make an application. In response, Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, as well as others, have taken the only action they could—climbing the walls and fences at the border to enter the U.S. and request asylum.

Recently in one day more than 1,000 migrants crossed into El Paso, Texas. Among them were 63 children who came by themselves; 934 people entered as families; and 39 elderly people came alone. In truth it is the U.S. that has been acting illegally by not accepting their asylum requests. The Trump Administration has also restricted the grounds for asylum, including women fleeing domestic violence!

Then there is Trump’s call for billions to construct a “wall.” His actions and dangerous rhetoric will surely not cease in the period ahead as he maneuvers with his base for the 2020 election.

We need to be in solidarity with the Central Americans and their determination to reach a decent, a human life, and refuse to fall prey to narrow chauvinistic, lying slogans and actions.

–David Walker, June 5, 2019

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