Beyond Headlines: A Brief Analysis of the Criminalization of Refugee Families

In May 2018, the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy that would further criminalize migrant families by separating parents from their children at the US-Mexico border. Since then, photos of detained children have made their way back to the news and caused massive indignation. We have every right to be outraged.

When the photos now in circulation— of children sleeping in cages with foil blankets — first surfaced around 2014, activists and organizations joined together to form the Human Rights Alliance for Child Refugees & Families in opposition to the detention, criminalization, and separation of refugee families, which has long been part of U.S. immigration policy.

Now, as this ongoing issue is once again making headlines, we are deeply concerned that the mainstream framing of this announcement of “zero tolerance” suggests that the increased criminalization of migrant families is something new and unique to the current Trump administration.

This false assumption is dangerous insomuch that it implicitly ignores and erases the United States government’s long legacy as an imperialist nation built on the dehumanization, criminalization, and separation of families. The violent separation of African slave children from their parents and the forceful removal of native children from their communities were central to the founding of the United States.  The more recent internment of Japanese people in concentration camps in the mid-20th century makes it clear that the practice of detaining Central American refugee families has historic precedent.

If we truly want to end family detention, we must look beyond immigration and refugee policy and the US-Mexico border, and certainly beyond the so-called “Trump Era.” What are the root causes of forced migration from Central America?

The United States has a long legacy of political, military, and economic intervention in Central America in defense of the interests of global capitalism. From the training, arming, and financing of the Guatemalan military as it committed genocide against the country’s indigenous population to the more recent example of support for the 2009 coup in Honduras and the fraudulent elections that have followed, the U.S. remains faithful to its investment in expanding global capitalism in the region no matter the human cost.

In addition to military and electoral intervention, the U.S. has aggressively pushed neoliberal policies benefiting transnational corporations, such as  NAFTA and CAFTA, which forced governments to turn over their public sector industries to foreign corporations in order to receive development aid. These free-trade agreements worsened poverty in Central America, and pushed families from rural areas into cities and eventually to the U.S. Furthermore, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has only provided security for the development of free markets rather than public safety for local communities.

Despite the clear evidence that U.S. foreign policy in Central America worsens the root causes of migration, when stories of the unaccompanied minors hit the news in 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would push a major aid package for Central America, known as the Alliance for Prosperity. The aid package increased militarized security and pro-corporate development. Worse still, the bill stipulated that Central American countries must “secure their borders” in order to receive aid.

The U.S. continues to absolve itself of responsibility through its rampant criminal prosecution of migrant families to mask the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle. From the 216 people processed from the 2018 Central American Refugee Caravan, 205 established a possible fear during their credible fear interviews. The U.S. has responded with inclinations to “elevate the threshold of proof in credible fear screenings.” This treatment mirrors the way Central American refugees were treated during the 1980s. The United States refused to acknowledge their direct involvement in the civil wars that caused migration by rejecting almost all asylum cases. The only difference now is that the war on communism has transformed into the war on drugs and the war on terror. MS-13 and political corruption, both consequences of decades of destabilization, are the supposed targets of policy platforms that punish and displace entire communities.

As the Human Rights Alliance, we refuse to ignore this long history and encourage migrant communities, activists, and organizers to continue organizing against the root causes of forced migration. We demand that the current administration rescind the “zero tolerance” policy and denounce all attempts at increasing state surveillance of refugees, including unaccompanied children and their sponsors, as a way to further criminalize migrant families. We have said it before and we will say it again: there is NO humane way to detain children and their families. The Obama administration and the Democratic Party tried to fool us into thinking that this was possible, only to witness the expansion of the for-profit incarceration of migrants. Central American refugees are here because the U.S is in our home countries. The root cause of forced migration from Central America is U.S. imperialism. We must continue to educate, organize, and mobilize to end U.S. foreign policies that uphold political and economic domination over Central America.


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