What We Get for Neglecting Central America

Jul 8, 2014
8:05 AM

Considering the crisis is mostly a product of the United States itself, you would think since tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees are showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum that the best plan of action would be to invest in the region crippled politically and economically by over a century of U.S. policies.

Of course not. House Republicans have another idea: cut all aid to the already devastated countries these children are fleeing from.

That’s what freshman Republican Congressman Randy Weber of Texas believes we should do. His bill looks to “hold our southern neighbors accountable” by suspending aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the most common countries of origin for the recent arrivals.

Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX)

Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX)

It would be a fair enough idea if the existence of these refugees weren’t the United States’ doing to begin with. But Washington trying to address the crisis by focusing on the border while neglecting Central America is like an arson setting fires all over town and then calling it a tragedy when the flames finally reach his house, or like a person breaking a few pipes while trying to fix the plumbing in their house and then shoveling out the water as fast as they can without fixing the burst pipe.

For its part, the Obama administration has vowed to increase aid to the region, including $9.6 million to help the Central American governments receive the recently deported. Additional funding will go toward stemming the crime and violence tearing those countries apart—$40 million to Guatemala, $25 million to El Salvador and $18.5 million to Honduras.

But as Latin America analyst James Bosworth points out, the money being sent to improve the lives of people in our own global neighborhood, so to speak, is mere breadcrumbs when compared to the mountains of aid allocated to places like the Middle East and South Asia.

In a blog post titled “Central America deserves at least $1 billion in US assistance this year,” Bosworth asks:

Why are we spending $2 billion this year on Syria and the refugee crisis faced by its neighbors but we’re stumbling over whether CARSI funds for Central America will be $130 or $160 million? How does $20 billion for Afghanistan become a budget estimation error, yet we can’t reappropriate 5% of that estimate to our neighbors in Central America? Why do Middle East pundits get to talk about billions in additional aid to Iraqi security forces that turned and ran at the first sign of a real fight while Latin Americanists struggle to get a few million more for police reform in Guatemala and Honduras? Did you know that USAID has a $4 billion budget for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan this year; Where is that level of money for Latin America?

President Obama is fine with calling the 52,000 unaccompanied child migrants who have ventured from as far away as Choluteca to escape the bloodshed back home an “urgent humanitarian situation,” but what he doesn’t seem able or willing to do is admit what’s really going on: that these kids aren’t migrants but refugees, and that the humanitarian situation in southern Texas pales in comparison to the humanitarian crisis playing out every day in the streets of San Pedro Sula, San Marcos and San Miguel.


Yet what he and no other sitting president will ever do is look the American people in the eye and explain why it is that Central America is as dysfunctional as it is, because that would involve owning up to the fact that Uncle Sam hasn’t always acted in the name of freedom, democracy and basic human rights.

If anyone should doubt the callousness of our deporter-in-chief, they need only look at his first response to the situation. Obama initially was set to ask Congress for the authority to expedite the deportation of the child refugees, along with $2 billion in emergence funds to do so. Innocent people of all ages are being slaughtered every day on this very continent, and instead of the U.S. government applying its full weight and wealth to aid the victims, the president wanted the power to reject refugees even faster.

This whole thing reminds me of the time the U.S. government said it was “unable” to take in Jewish kids suffering persecution in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. That same year an ocean liner carrying over 900 Jews was denied entry by the United States. Even though a failed state like Honduras is no Nazi Germany, and the worst drug war violence doesn’t amount to a Holocaust, I’m simply pointing out that the U.S. government has a history of denying asylum to people who desperately need it.

And, again, there’s the whole issue of the conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras being the byproducts of U.S. policies in the region: decades of intervention and antidemocratic campaigns; a soaring drug consumption that fuels the black market; the repatriation of criminals trained in American streets and graduated from American prisons, who went on to form the very gangs currently behind the carnage; and all kinds of political and economic bullying. This time around the United States can’t even shrug its shoulders and say, “Not our problem.” It is our problem. It has the “Made in the U.S.A.” seal on it and everything.

Of course, in this ever shrinking world, the U.S. government can’t avoid any one region of the world without it coming back to tug on Lady Liberty’s stola. But surely extreme levels of violence and unstable governments in Central America causing tens of thousands of child refugees to travel to the United States —many by holding on to the tops of freight trains— deserves as much attention and aid as we devote to countries like Syria and Iraq, if not more so. Its effects on the United States are real and immediate, coming in the form of so many tiny bodies currently crammed into overcrowded detention facilities and makeshift holding centers.

Plus, if we’ve decided to go back into Iraq and throw billions more at the situation there because a terrorist group has taken over large swaths of the country we helped destroy, then why haven’t we dedicated our resources to aiding a region closer to home that we’ve helped ruin on a repeated basis for at least the past 100 years? Is oil really more important to us than the loss of innocent lives on our own continent? If so, then the president should admit to that, too.


But the president’s not ready or willing to admit any of it, because that might also involve admitting the blood on America’s hands.

Until the United States recognizes its root causes, unless the government is willing to admit that the tens of thousands of child refugees from Central America are the result of decades of Washington’s meddling in the region, the flames of this humanitarian crisis will continue to burn and a steady stream of asylum seekers will continue to flow out of Central America.


Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.