Failing to Connect the Dots on Immigration: The Democratic Debate in Miami

The March 9 debate in Miami between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was the first chance the two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination had to discuss immigration and its connections to trade and U.S. policy in Latin America.  Unfortunately, neither candidate took advantage of the opportunity.

The mainstream “immigration debate” generally avoids mentioning the forces that have driven millions of Latin Americans to move here without legal authorization over the past forty years.  The media and the politicians treat the migration either as a natural disaster (“flooding over the border”) or as a second-rate science fiction movie (“the aliens are invading”) — with either scenario seen as deserving an aggressive response.

But i n the real world, the asylum seekers and other migrants that some call “illegals” are human beings pushed from their homes by economic dislocation or fear of violence, often risking their lives for a chance at a brighter future.  And U.S. foreign and economic policies are intimately linked to these “push factors.”

As investigative journalist Allan Nairn said on Democracy Now! in January when discussing the effect of U.S.-backed terror in Guatemala on unauthorized immigration to the United States: “Well, you know, if you go and burn down your neighbor’s house, don’t complain when, as they run from the flames, they come onto your lawn.”

Discussing the Causes. . .

In the 1980s the administration of Ronald Reagan backed far-right forces in the brutal conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.  Some 300,000 people died in the violence, mostly civilians, and more than 650,000 people migrated to the United States from the three countries.

The political fighting ended in the early 1990s, but violence resumed (except in Nicaragua) — along with the flow of refugees — in the past decade as both Democratic and Republican administrations promoted a heavily militarized “war on drugs,” first in Mexico and then in Central America.  The target of the new war was the drug trafficking that expanded in the region thanks to the legacy left by the earlier wars: plenty of weapons, high rates of crime and violence, economic devastation, and disruption of the social order.

And it gets worse.  In 2009 the United States government gave de facto support to a rightwing coup in Honduras, unleashing a corrupt, brutal police and military force and leading to a dramatic jump in criminal violence and political repression.  Mainstream media outlets here whipped up hysteria about the increase in unaccompanied Central American children seeking asylum in the United States in 2014, but they didn’t explain why more of these kids came from Honduras than from any other country.

At the same time, the U.S. government has been pushing neoliberal economic policies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.  The best-known example is the North American Free Trade Agreement.  Most people in the United States seem to understand that we lost jobs through NAFTA, but not that the trade deal meant a net loss of employment for Mexicans as well.  The agreement forced Mexican family farmers and small business owners into competition with U.S.-based mega-corporations like Cargill and Walmart.  The result was that millions of Mexicans were thrown into the job market.  Not surprisingly, many decided to look for work across the border in the United States.

It’s understandable that Clinton wouldn’t want to discuss these issues in the debate.  After all, she has been deeply implicated in U.S. government policy for the past twenty-five years, as first lady, then as senator, and finally as secretary of state .

. . . and Recognizing the Effects

But i t should have been easy for Sanders to link immigration to the issue of “free trade .”  All he had to do was quote from his own immigration policy statement, which was written in consultation with immigrant rights activists.  “Unfortunately, our nation’s foreign policy towards Latin America has made difficult economic and political problems even worse,” his campaign wrote in November.

Since the implementation of NAFTA, the number of Mexicans living below the poverty line has increased by over 14 million.  Not surprisingly we saw [a] 185 percent increase in the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico between 1992 and 2011.

The self-described socialist senator from Vermont missed his chance to connect the dots.  He got a second opportunity when Univision anchor María Elena Salinas questioned him on comments he made in 1985 about leftist governments in Nicaragua and Cuba.

Sanders stood his ground, saying he continues to oppose U.S. interventions in Latin America and still acknowledges some accomplishments by Latin American socialist governments in areas like health and education.  Sanders’ remarks inspired Clinton to an outburst of old-time red-baiting.  In 1985, she said, Sanders had

praised what he called the revolution of values in Cuba, and talked about how people were working for the common good, not for themselves.  I just couldn’t disagree more.  You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.

This was astonishing hypocrisy, even for an establishment politician.  In her 2014 book Hard Choices Clinton admitted that she’d worked behind the scenes following the Honduras coup to “render the question of [deposed president Manuel] Zelaya moot.”  There’ s a disconnect here: Clinton is acknowledging her support for an anti-democratic regime that solidified its power through repression and impunity, becoming a virtual poster child for getting away with murder.  With over a hundred activists assassinated since the rightwing takeover, what part of “you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions ” does Clinton fail to recognize in Honduras?

Just a week before the debate, Berta Cáceres, the prominent indigenous rights activist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2015, was murdered in her home in Honduras.  In an interview shortly before the killing, Cáceres had told the leftist Italian publication Il Manifesto: “We are caught in the sights of hired assassins, judicial and armed.  Our lives hang from a thread.”

New York University professor Greg Grandin argued eloquently in The Nation that Clinton shares the blame for this assassination.  “All people of goodwill,” he wrote, should ask Clinton “if she is still proud of the hell she helped routinize in Honduras.”  This is certainly a question Sanders should have asked in Miami.

Hopefully the senator will raise these issues in the future , but those of us looking for an honest dialogue on the way U.S. foreign policy impacts immigration should realize we can’ t count on politicians  to give it to us.  It’s up to us to make it happen.

Co-authors Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson are working on a revised edition of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).