US president-elect Donald Trump has highlighted some campaign promises that he actually plans to keep. Among others, he confirmed that he will build his promised wall on the Mexican border and deport up to three million undocumented migrants.
It is important to ask: who, in fact, are these people? In Trump’s apocalyptic worldview, they’re a hoard of Latino “gang members” and “drug dealers” with “criminal records” who are invading America. But analysis reveals that image is far from reality.
First, Mexico and Latin America are not the only sources of immigration to the US. In fact, since 2009 more Mexicans have been leaving the US than coming to it, and China and India have since overtaken Mexico in flows of recent arrivals. Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa also now comprise a significant share of undocumented immigrants in the US. Still, in his third presidential debate, Trump used Spanish to depict undocumented migrants as wicked lawbreakers.
It would be a mistake to assume that the key priorities of immigration enforcement are terrorism suspects and convicted felons. In 2015, 59 per cent of the people America deported – 235,413 in total – were convicted criminals, while 41 per cent were removed for immigration violations such as overstaying a visa. Undocumented entrants apprehended at the border are also included in this number. So the claim that three million undocumented migrants living in the US are dangerous criminals is unsubstantiated – and irresponsible.
Still, hundreds of thousands of deportees are actual criminal offenders. The stereotypical Latino offenders that primarily obsess Trump and his ilk are gang members and drug dealers: Mexican cartel bosses, Salvadoran maras. Scary stuff, right? Maybe, but a nuanced historical analysis shows something nativist US politicians are less keen to publicise: that American anti-Communist foreign policies implemented in the 1980s played a major role in fuelling these criminal activities. Mexico and Central America were crucial battlefields. In 1979, the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorial government in Nicaragua. Reagan immediately offered financial and material support to anti-Sandinista forces called the Contras, including by ordering the CIA to plant mines in Nicaragua’s harbours and deploying funds obtained by selling weapons to Iran, which were then embargoed.
Critical to today’s reality, the US also channelled its assistance to the Contras through traffickers who had been indicted on drug charges. A 1989 senatorial committee lead by then-Senator John Kerry, revealed complicity between the US government and Latin American drug traffickers. At the same time, in El Salvador, the US was also embracing a military junta that in 1979 had overthrown president Carlos Humberto Romero, offering its leaders substantial military and economic aid in order to prevent “another Nicaragua”.
What does all of this have to do with the gangbangers of Trump’s imagination? Decades of war left thousands of Central American orphans. Many of them eventually migrated to the US and, parentless and penniless, joined what family the streets had to offer: criminal organisations such as Los Angeles’ Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs. Latino drug traffickers and gangs are hence an important legacy of the Reagan administration.
John Forsyth was US Secretary of State from 1834 to 1841. In 1857, he noted in a letter that “the hybrid races” of the American continent would “succumb to and fade away before” the “institutions” and “superior energies of the white man”. The current president-elect of the US has ominously based his immigration policies on this tradition of thought, a problematic position further compounded by a general American failure to understand the historical causes of the immigration-related problems Trump seeks to address.
The time for Latin America to resist bigotry and racism has thus arrived. In this task, we must not resort to nationalist discourses that merely mirror, from the other side of the looking glass, the stereotype of evil gringos who hate bad hombres. Rather, Latin American responses to racism should draw both from humanism and an accurate knowledge of the past, as well as of human rights and international law.
Two positive steps we could take are addressing the countries’ own crime problems while respecting rights and due process, and treating with dignity the approximately 500,000 Central American immigrants who cross into Mexico each year. Like it or not, history and geography have now made Mexicans the vanguard of resistance, and the world will be watching.
The writer is a Senior Lecturer in Human Rights, Constitutional Law and Legal Theory, University of Wollongong