Tired, poor, huddled masses from Central America are owed entry
Ana Maria Moreno Portillo from Guatemala embraces her daughter after they were deported from the U.S., at the Kiki Romero Sports Complex in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April 5, 2021. | Christian Chavez / AP

Vice President Kamala Harris met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei Monday and on Tuesday meets with the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Her trip has the announced intention of helping solve the immigration situation at the U.S.’ southern border.

Harris said in Guatemala that the goal of U.S. policy is to improve conditions within Guatemala so that people will not want to risk life and limb to leave there and travel to the U.S. border with Mexico.

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, attend a news conference, June 7, 2021, at the National Palace in Guatemala City. | Jacquelyn Martin / AP

The job that Harris has been given is largely an impossible one. Part of the battle in Central America, she noted, is dealing with corruption. Yet one of her main meetings involved working out deals with Giammattei, widely viewed around the world as a kingpin of corruption in the region.

Conditions in Guatemala and the other Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, and El Salvador are so bad that many parents are willing, in order to save their children, to send them to the U.S. alone, hoping they will be able to locate relatives able to take them in. We cannot even imagine how bad things have to be for parents to make such a decision.

One thing for sure, however, is that a permanent solution to the problem is impossible without understanding how this horrible mess began and how the problem can then be solved.

Huge numbers of refugees came from Central America under President Donald Trump and they were cruelly welcomed with his policy of family separation. Now children are sent to the southern border, and under the allegedly more humane policies of the Biden administration, they are not turned away. No decent human being would turn back to a life of terror a 12-year-old child trying to survive.

But rather than just take a triage approach to waves of border arrivals, Biden says he wants to get to the root of the problem in Central America. Trump’s way of getting to those roots was to pay off the corrupt leaders of those countries to control their populations, including cutting off their ability to come to the U.S. Since those corrupt leaders did not do this, the policy was a failure.

“They have not done their job. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador—they’re paid a lot of money, every year we give them foreign aid, and they did nothing for us, nothing,” Trump said as he was pulling families apart at the border.

The leaders of the countries of the Northern Triangle are indeed among the most corrupt in the world. But that horrible corruption alone doesn’t explain the ongoing disaster in these nations. There is no way of avoiding the critical underlying truth: The United States itself bears much of the responsibility for the horror show in Central America.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Guatemala and El Salvador were in the midst of massive popular uprisings against repression. In those struggles, the right-wing forces killed hundreds of thousands of people. In Guatemala, for example, the people won the ability to democratically elect a progressive government but were met with a U.S.-staged military coup launched essentially at the behest of the United Fruit Company in 1954. With its monopoly produce profits jeopardized by a progressive government, it demanded action from the U.S. government, which all too happily obliged. Left-wing President Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown in a CIA covert operation.

What happened in El Salvador was quite similar at the time. The surge of progressive and left forces in the region was matched by the growth of demands for land reform and an end to decades of military repression in El Salvador. The people’s and peasant movements were met with violent crackdowns at the hands of a secret police regime backed by the U.S.

Honduras did not experience the same type of uprising, but it was later used as a staging ground for the Contras, a far-right guerrilla group backed by the Reagan administration in neighboring Nicaragua in the 1980s. These bloody wars—backed by U.S. intelligence agencies—destabilized the region and subjected generations to a cycle of corrupt dictatorial regimes, extreme poverty, and gang violence.

Today, 50 or more years later in some cases, the corrupt right-wing governments have allowed murderous gangsters to thrive in Central America. And here, too, there is a large measure of U.S. responsibility. Who can forget Trump’s ranting and raving about the vicious MS-13 gang? Many have forgotten, however, that MS-13 got its start in Los Angeles in the 1980s and, through the sweeping and unjust U.S. deportation policies of that decade, the gang was able to make its way out of the U.S. and into Central America, where it became a welcome part of the violent right-wing infrastructure being built in those countries. So the people terrorized by that gang have not just their local governments but also the U.S. to thank for the lives of terror they endure.

Demonstrators protest in front of the National Palace in Guatemala after the meeting between Harris and Giammattei, in Guatemala City, June 7, 2021. |Oliver de Ros / AP

It is hypocritical at best for the government in Washington to say it is doing anyone in these countries a favor or extending an act of charity by allowing them to come to the United States. Allowing them entry is the very least that our country can do.

U.S. support for multinational capitalist firms like United Fruit, its backing of right-wing dictators in Central America, and its role in helping create the conditions for rampant gangsterism have all translated into real disasters among which, for example, is the highest rate of female homicide in the world.

The Northern Triangle states are among the most dangerous places on the planet for women. Rape is business as usual. Women are raped and then their children are torn from their arms and trafficked around the region and the world. If the women and their children don’t bend to the will of the vicious gangs, they are simply exterminated. And then people ask why the Guatemalans don’t stay home? This is the type of information it would have been great for Vice President Harris to explain at her press conference Monday. How long before the truth can be told?

The United States must acknowledge the role it has played in destroying life for the people of Central America. It is both a moral and political responsibility. There is a humanitarian disaster unfolding south of our border, and we must figure out every possible way that we can help solve it.

But more importantly, we cannot tell people they can’t come here. We must be willing to take in the victims—Central American refugees who would not be refugees had we not participated in the criminal destruction of their countries. These are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses to whom we proclaim ourselves as their place of refuge. We must live up to that message on the Statue of Liberty penned by Emma Lazarus.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article represents the opinions of its author.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.