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Commentary Immigration

Opinion: To understand migration issues, look first to history

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By Rev. Phil Ley

For the past several weeks, national attention has been focused on what is occurring at our southern border.  The humanitarian crisis unfolding there is of particular interest to me because I have spent a good part of my life in Latin America, mostly in Central America, and currently run Posada Guadalupe, a shelter in San Antonio for immigrants, the majority of whom are young men from Central America who age out of the detention centers for unaccompanied minors.

Rev. Phil Ley

The stories they tell us concur with my own experience of living in Honduras and El Salvador. 

One young man from Tegucigalpa told me he came north because he was ordered by a gang to kill a man who refused to pay the “impuesto de guerra,” the war tax that gangs demand from small businesses that operate in their territory.  He was to kill the man the next day and take his head to the gang.  

That same night, instead of killing the man, he fled north.  Another of our residents, from San Pedro Sula, said that he observed how so many of his peers were being killed and dumped in front of their mothers’ homes.  He was afraid that his turn was coming up, so he left for the U.S.

These are not isolated cases. They are the norm for people living in extreme poverty, which is the vast majority of the population.

On March 26, a delegation of 19 Republican senators toured the U.S.-Mexico border to see first-hand what is going on with the countless number of migrants attempting to enter into the United States.

At the same time, a delegation of Democrats from the House of Representatives, led by Joaquin Castro, paid a visit to a shelter for minors in Carrizo Springs, Texas.

It is good that members of the government are taking this issue seriously.  This is one of the very few issues that both parties can agree on — that the situation is very serious.  Agreement on how to resolve it, however, is nowhere in sight.

In my view, a major part of the problem is that we seem only willing to address the matter with bandages, like setting a broken leg with duct tape.  

The question that many people raise is why?  Why do so many people risk everything they have, including their very lives, to come to this country? 

It is true that people want a better life than what is possible in their home countries, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador.  But why are the people there so bereft of opportunities?  This is where we need to look at history.

Back in the 1950s, the United Fruit Company went to Honduras to plant bananas.  They cut a deal with the government in Tegucigalpa and ended up with some of the most fertile land in the country, ideal for their banana plantations.  

They hired peasants, from whom they had swindled their land, to do the labor for them.  They installed a railroad to get the product from the field to the port to be shipped to the U.S.  The labor conditions were worse than deplorable, and when one of the workers died of malaria, which was rampant, his family was evicted from the company housing, and another person was hired.

Central American migrants gather at Posada Guadalupe shelter in San Antonio. (Photo courtesy of Rev. Phil Ley)

The United Fruit Company was not satisfied with their crops in Honduras, they wanted more.  So they went to Guatemala to do the same.  In Guatemala, the freely, democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, said no. 

Not willing to take no for an answer, however, the banana company appealed to one of their stockholders who had substantial influence in Washington — John Foster Dulles, the secretary of State under President Eisenhower.  He was quoted as saying “we have a communist in Guatemala and we need to take him out.”  

And take him out they did.  Arbenz was able to escape to Mexico, but that event unleashed a 36-year civil war in Guatemala, in which thousands upon thousands of indigenous people were slaughtered, leaving tremendous poverty and violence in its wake.

Some years later, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, stated before a U.S. congressional subcommittee that the Guatemalan farmer can compete with the U.S. farmer, but cannot compete with the U.S. Treasury, which gives huge subsidies to the farmers on our side of the border, who in turn dump their grain on the Central American markets.  

One such farmer in Michoacán, Mexico, told me that it is cheaper for him to buy corn imported from the United States than to grow it himself.  Granted, that was in Mexico, but the same is true of Central America.

The experience of El Salvador is different, but no less cruel.  Unrest due to lack of opportunity and disparity of wealth had been simmering for some time. Then, on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who constantly spoke out in support of the dignity of the poor, was gunned down by a military death squad.  

It is a murder that, to this day, has not been resolved.  This act was like the straw that broke the camel’s back, and an all-out civil war supported by the U.S. government ensued, lasting 12 years and leaving 75,000 dead.   

What happens then is that all these generations later, young people from south of the border are coming north, in the hopes of finding work to sustain their families, and, lest it be left out of the equation, to escape the violence of the gangs that run rampant in all of the cities of what is known as the Northern Triangle of Central America—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador.

I speak here with authority, having lived in our Franciscan missions in Honduras and El Salvador for a number of years.  One of my good friends was gunned down in broad daylight in El Salvador.  Two weeks later I was kidnapped at gunpoint.  Fortunately, I had enough money to satisfy their demand for ransom.  Besides this, all my confreres in El Salvador have been assaulted, sometimes on the street, sometimes on the bus.

Contrary to public belief, those coming north are not thieves, drug dealers, rapists, murderers etc.  But the common refrain we hear from politicians is that they take our jobs, (not many natural born citizens are willing to do roofing work under the brutal Texas sun during the months of June, July and August or crawl under a house to dig post holes to level it), they don’t pay taxes and they all take advantage of our welfare programs.  

Of course, this is not true, but it does instill fear in people and garner votes. The only way we can convince people of the truth is to invite them to come and get to know some of the people who are “taking our jobs.”  They will discover that these immigrants are just like us, with the same love for their families and the same desire to make a contribution to society as anyone else.

So it is good that legislators are taking a serious look at the current situation at our southern border, but until we have the courage to take a serious look at our complicity in that situation, Republicans and Democrats will continue to fight like cats and dogs and nothing will get better.  

The Rev. Phillip G. Ley is a Franciscan priest who runs Posada Guadalupe shelter in San Antonio.

Cover photo: Lidia, left, and Rosa try to decide what to do next after being expelled last month from the United States along with their children. The women, who met during their month-long journey from Guatemala, had no money and did not know where to go once they crossed into Juárez. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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