U.S. needs to take responsibility for violence and instability it helped cause in Central America


Here’s something we can agree on: People should take responsibility for their actions. Likewise, I believe a government of, by, and for the people should also take responsibility for its actions. When it comes to the migrants fleeing Central America, we must recognize and hold ourselves accountable for our role in the violence and instability in the region.

In 1904, President Teddy Roosevelt laid out a vision of the US as an international police power by stating: “We would interfere with them only in the last resort, and then only if it became evident that their inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.”

Roosevelt delivered this speech to Congress a year after sending US warships to aid Panama in its bid for independence from Colombia, which had rejected a treaty giving the US control over the construction and management of the Panama Canal.

In 1932, US interests in El Salvador’s coffee export and railway industries prompted the US to send warships to aid against rebelling peasants, many of whom were indigenous. Since then, El Salvador has seen numerous struggles between democratic movements and US-backed military juntas and far-right regimes. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration subsidized the authoritarian government with millions in military aid and support. One of the darkest deeds was committed when a US military-trained battalion massacred as many as 1,000 men, women, and children. Since then, El Salvador has entered free trade agreements that favor multinational corporations over domestic agriculture.

US involvement in Honduras traces back to 1911, when American entrepreneur Sam Zemurray helped orchestrate a coup against President Miguel Dávila. Dávila campaigned on making foreign businesses subject to domestic laws, regulations, taxation, and to limit the amount of land foreign interests could own. In 1912, Dávila was ousted and Manuel Bonilla was installed. As a result, US companies like Dole (previously Vacaro Bros. and Co.) and Chiquita (then known as United Fruit Company), were rewarded with natural resources grants and tax incentives. Later in the 1980s, fearing leftist movements in the country, the Reagan administration sent millions of dollars and thousands of US troops to help train Contra right-wing rebels. Like El Salvador, Honduras signed onto trade agreements that favored American corporate interests over local agriculture and small farmers.

In Guatemala, the US sent troops in 1920 to ensure that the government would continue to favor US corporate interests, as was the case in the previous Guatemalan administration. A series of populist and democratic movements involving the redistribution of land and progressive labor laws, opposed by the United Fruit Company, led President Eisenhower to direct the CIA to overthrow the democratically-elected government. Once the new authoritarian government was installed, the US continued to support US-friendly regimes. Like El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala has entered free trade agreements that heavily favor US interests.

The migrants are fleeing the violence and volatility that we helped create. Their pain, desperation, and hope for a better life is something my family understands all too well having endured the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, whose rise to power was aided by US bombing raids during the Vietnam War. But the US response then was drastically different: Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act, championed by the late-Senator Ted Kennedy, and 158,000 Cambodian refugees, like my family, got a second chance in the US – far from the violence and upheaval in Cambodia, which has toiled under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s dictatorship.

Like we have done countless times before, we, as a nation, ought to take responsibility for our actions. In the short term, instead of sending troops, we need to follow the laws on the books and allow migrants and their families into the US to seek asylum in the US. This means devoting more resources to hire more asylum officers and immigration judges to reduce administrative backlog. It also means putting an end to family separations and indefinite detentions. In the long term, we need compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform and a foreign policy that doesn’t contribute to the global refugee crisis.