With tens of thousands of woman and children fleeing the violence and persecution of Central America, the United States is still searching for an identity when faced with 2017’s tired, poor, and huddled masses. Our country has a long history of its treatment of immigrants conflicting with its stated beliefs on immigration, even when given the opportunity to learn from its past mistakes. While refugees from Central America are still being deported back to incredibly dangerous conditions or turned away at the border, we as a country can look to an episode from our not so distant past to help recognize the right thing to do.
As the Central American refugees of today, Haitian refugees of the early 1990s desperately escaped a violent and chaotic home country. Following two decades of a harsh authoritarian regime and a series of military coups, Father Aristide, a symbolic and pragmatic leader for Haiti’s poor was democratically elected with 67% of the country’s vote in 1991 (1). However, this achievement would be short-lived when yet another military coup exiled Aristide and established an oppressive military regime (2). The regime ruthlessly committed mass killings, enforced a strict curfew, and suppressed freedom of speech (2). As a result, an estimated 10% of the population of Port Au Prince and Haiti’s other major cities fled to the mountains or crossed the border to the Dominican Republic. Attempts to reach the U.S drastically increased as Coast Guard stopped more than 38,000 rafting to the U.S within 6 months of the coup (2).
Labeled the “boat people,” the Haitians escaping their violent home country on tiny wooden fishing boats were hopeful they would find a safe haven in the U.S. Instead, under George H.W. Bush those found at sea were sent to Guantanamo Bay, where half of them were turned back as merely economic migrants who did not meet the “well founded fear of persecution” standard needed for asylum status (2). But those who met the standard for political refugees had yet to finish the U.S government’s tests. The U.S then used its 1987 ban on immigrants with HIV to continue to detain 267 Haitians who had tested positive at Guantanamo Bay for over a year (8).
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton campaigned on the promise he would discontinue Bush’s policy of keeping refugees at Guantanamo and stop turning the escapees back to the violent oppression of Haiti without asylum hearings (2). He criticized Bush’s policy by saying it was “immoral” to send Haitians back to a “brutal dictatorship.”(7) As a result, tens of thousands of Haitians attempted to escape Haiti by boat and arrive in the U.S on Clinton’s inauguration day, hoping he would follow through with his campaign promise (7). Unfortunately, Clinton the president explained that the country misunderstood Clinton the candidate’s stances (7), as he continued to detain, and send back Haitians seeking safety in the U.S.
Clinton’s inconsistency reflected the country’s search for the right answer on immigrants in need. In January 1993 63% of Americans disapproved of allowing Haitians asylum in the United States (9). Nevertheless, a remarkable movement was already in motion. As documented in “Storming the Court: How a Band of Law Students Fought The President –And Won,” law students from across the country performed hunger strikes to gain awareness, as well as collaborated with human rights lawyers to put immense political pressure on the Clinton administration. Their efforts closed the refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay in June 1993. To complete the cause, incremental progress throughout the rest of the decade allowed Haitian refugees to finally fairly seek asylum in the U.S.
Fast-forward to today, and our country is faced with a new wave of migrants whose story matches up to that of the 90’s Haitians. This time from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, together known as the “northern triangle.” Just as the 90’s Haitian migrants were responding to a peak of political turmoil, the northern triangle still has no resolution from civil wars, and military coups, that have stormed the northern triangle since the 1960’s. Militaristic fascist groups have overthrown leftist governments often with the support of the United States under cold war anti-communist intentions and the area has never truly stabilized. The violence killed up to 75,000 in El Salvador between 1979-1992, and up to 200,000 civilians in Guatemala between 1960-1996 (14).
With the civil wars ending, tens of thousands of young men were left without employment or basic resources but access to guns and a culture of violence, which gave rise to MS13 and M18 gangs. The countries have the highest murder per capita rates in the world for non-war zone countries (11). Furthermore, the three countries are among the top five in homicide rates for women (13).
The extreme violence of the northern triangle is a clear cause of migrations; with data showing the more a Central American has been a victim of gang violence the more likely they are to have intentions to migrate to the U.S. (11). About ten percent of the total population of the northern triangle has fled their home countries (14). However, under the Obama and now Trump administrations, families and children continue to be raided by ICE and deported back to the violence they tried to escape. The Guardian points out that at least 83 deportees were murdered after their return, some just days later (12). Justification for the deportations is to deter new northern triangle immigrants from attempting to enter the U.S illegally, and make a statement that the U.S is not allowing all who knock at the door.
With what could be regret of how the Haitian boat people were treated in the early 90’s, our country has the chance to evolve, now with Central American migration. What will our country’s identity be concerning refugees escaping violence? As of July 2014, 45% of Americans believe Central Americans should be deported back to their home countries as soon as possible compared to 40% who think they should be allowed to stay in the United States as victims of a humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, there are very loud voices such as Bill O’Reilly who are changing the context of the crisis by minimizing the violence of the region and saying immigrants from the northern triangle are simply trying to escape poverty (15). Time will tell if the U.S will recognize this as a new opportunity to live up to America’s ideals of welcoming the tired, poor, and huddled masses from the northern triangle that are “yearning to breathe free,” as is emblazoned on the symbolic statute of liberty.