The Importance of Foreign Policy in Immigration Reform (OPINION)

Nov 16, 2016
8:56 AM


Immigration reform was once again used during the recent presidential election as a platform by the bipartisan system to either woo the Latino vote or to persuade the anti-immigrant electorate. The GOP’s xenophobic message of border protection as a national security threat flies in the face of actual evidence, while the Democrats “fix our broken immigration system” mantra has separated thousands of families and deported over 2.4 million people. However one might choose to approach the issue, something is certain: the nativism (on both sides) encapsulating the immigration debate has failed to mention the conditions fomented by United States foreign policy as a key promoter of Latin American migration.

Addressing the implications of failed foreign policy towards Latin America needs to become part of the immigration debate. Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras comprise between 71 to 80 percent of unauthorized migrants in the U.S. South-to-north migration is the result of widespread poverty, crime, hunger, unemployment and ill-distributed wealth, resulting from economic policies advanced by obsolete financial institutions. Enclave economies established in Central America through U.S. foreign policy are part of the root cause of the Central American exodus.

For decades, Latin America has endured military coups, economic warfare and neoliberal austerity measures designed and implemented to serve transnational interests. The socio-political paradigm shift occurring in Latin America should not be met with a Cold War Era attitude. The unethical use of developing nations as battlegrounds for proxy wars will continue to fuel south-to north migration. An honest reassessment of U.S. foreign policy must occur in order to reform the immigration system. Genuine diplomacy based on mutual recognition, respect and sustainable development is vital to immigration reform.





After the Great Depression, Mexico’s protectionist policies and industrialization through ISI (Import Substitution Industrialization) boosted production, increasing economic growth to an average of 6.1 percent per year during a period known as the “Mexican Miracle.” By the 1970s, Mexico had achieved agricultural self-sufficiency. But the miracle did not last. Inward industrialization failed to nurture a workforce capable of competing with foreign industries, and reckless government spending and social unrest proved to have adverse effects. Mexico’s economy inevitably declined and further industrialization and development had to be financed by the U.S.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government provided financial and military aid to Latin American nations willing to undertake neoliberal economic reforms. Mexico’s projected oil revenues made it a perfect candidate for foreign aid, but this assistance proved inadequate since it was not in sync with regional needs. Unilateral economic hegemony was established. U.S. agribusinesses scattered heavy-industry factories throughout the land.

Mexico’s “Lost Decade” proved fatal: prolonged financial chaos marked by the overvalued currency and followed by devaluation was an inevitable welcome to the “Tequila Crisis.” Trade liberalization and privatization led to NAFTA in 1994—subsidized U.S. agricultural products entered en masse, leaving three million farmers jobless. Recession exacerbated by debt, armed rebellion, corrupt banking practices and a weak fixed exchange rate resulted in a widening economic gap. Poor people were hurt most.

Sixty percent of the extremely poor living in rural Mexico depends on agriculture: corn is grown on 50 % of the arable land. Influx of lower-priced NAFTA corn undermined Mexican agriculture and workforce. The wide gap in U.S./Mexican incomes and the 2,000-mile Southwest border shared by the two countries make immigration an inevitable reality.

In 1993, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, said that NAFTA would allow Mexico to “export goods and not people.”  Currently, 52% of unauthorized migrants in the U.S. come from Mexico, where about 53% of the population lives at the national poverty line.



Ravaged by the second largest civil war in Central America, with 31% of the population living in poverty and high homicide rates, El Salvador is the second largest source of unauthorized migrants to the U.S. from Latin America.

In 1932, the government’s massacre dubbed “La Matanza” began a pattern of systematic massacres, displacements, civilian disappearances and a 50-year military rule supported by the U.S. government, through its assistance of the paramilitary force known as ORDEN, which were trained by the U.S Green Berets.  By 1980, the FMLN (The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) was established to counterattack the violent regime. In response, the U.S.-backed death squad, Atlacatl Battalion was also established. On January 1981, the FMLN launched its “General Offensive” strategy against the military junta, igniting the 12-year Salvadoran civil war.

Eighty-five percent of the human rights violations committed during this period were attributed to State agents and approximately 5% of the violence was attributed to the FMLN. Continuous violence and poverty arising since the civil war have been defining factors in increased migration to the U.S., which historically has had a failed foreign policy in El Salvador.



During his inaugural speech in 1951, Guatemala’s democratically-elected President, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, asserted that he would convert his nation from a “a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state.”  His promise was somehow fulfilled: Guatemala became a true banana republic. Concentration of wealth in the hands of few, racial exclusionism and structural injustice birthed a 36-year civil war: the longest in Latin America, and the most atrocious genocide against the Mayan peoples. Guatemala is the third leading source of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S.

Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world: 59.29% of the mostly indigenous population lives in poverty, and resides mostly in rural areas.

During the 1920s, the Guatemalan government conceded 100 kilometers of uncultivated land to the United Fruit Company. In 1936 the company and the government signed a 99-year concession, leading to the company’s second plantation and establishment of a monopoly.

Between 1944 and 1954, continuous exploitative labor practices by United Fruit led to the implementation of a new labor code, which the company declared as “communistic” as it did not serve its best interest, therefore it threatened to leave. Agrarian Reform Law Decree 900 enabled the government to expropriate about 209,842 acres of uncultivated lands owned by the company to redistribute to landless peasants. United Fruit was compensated with governmental bonds worth $627,572 based on the company’s declared tax value of the land. In the U.S., the company embarked on a public relations against Árbenz Guzmán, which led to the U.S-backed coup known as Operation PBSUCCESS, making way for ethnic conflict between Mayans and wealthy Ladinos. Poverty and inequality led to civil war and genocide, with lasting effects. Today, those same persistent conditions have led to the Guatemalan exodus.



The original banana republic historically plagued by military rule but blessed with fertile soil, Honduras was the perfect recipe for agrarian capitalism. Home to the oldest unbelievably-acquired foreign debt and also United Fruit, the country’s resources have been foreign-controlled since post-colonial dependency, promoting the unethical use of leverage by foreign capital and forming the current socio-economic mechanism in which 64.5 percent of Hondurans experience poverty.

Poor U.S. foreign policy in Honduras has fomented adverse conditions, leading to structural problems such as money-based politics, violence, no development, poverty and political instability. Such problems have always and will always be part of the immigration issue not only in Honduras, but all over Latin America.


Therefore, it is time to stop considering mass deportations as a viable solution since it would cost billions of dollars, time and separation of families.  Likewise, it is time to stop promoting the militarization of the border, since it is creating more violence. Migration intent is fueled by the consequences of devastating pasts and the desire for better futures.

Comprehensive immigration reform starts with responsible foreign policy. Interventionism is not the answer. Instead, we must push for genuine diplomacy based on mutual recognition, respect and sustainable development. That is vital to fixing the this country’s immigration system.

Reform U.S. foreign policy. Now, more than ever.


Dariana Arias graduated from The George Washington University with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy. She is currently chronicling unfolding events in Venezuela, her homeland.