Throughout the twenty-first century, there has been a rapid increase in Central American emigration, especially from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, known together as the “Northern Triangle.” The Migration Policy Institute found that in 2019, out of all the Central American immigrants in the United States, 37.3 percent (1,412,000 people) were from El Salvador, 29.4 percent (1,111,000 people) were from Guatemala, and 19.7 percent (746,000 people) were from Honduras. Migrants have flooded the United States-Mexico border to the point where President Biden is faced with overcrowding, a lack of resources, the separation of families, and minimal protection of immigrants. The Washington Post describes this influx as “the biggest surge in twenty years,” and Rio Grande Valley’s Border Patrol Chief tweets, “There is no end in sight.” This widespread migration continues to challenge the United States’ foreign and domestic policy, but this immigration crisis primarily reflects the failures of U.S. intervention in foreign affairs.
The U.S.-Mexico border is overwhelmed, with the borders flooded with migrants, underfunded, and understaffed. Border Patrol Sector Chief of Yuma, Arizona Chris Clem explains that “there’s just so many of them that it is posting a challenge to the workforce” and estimates that almost 1,000 migrants are detained in his sector daily. These challenges are harmful to the safety and health of the migrants themselves, as investigations into the conditions of migrant camps along the border have exposed the poor resources and environment of these facilities. Reports have indicated that children are being fed raw meat and becoming ill, waiting hours for medical care, and being laughed at for asking for medicine and aid. Mass outbreaks of lice, COVID-19, and other viruses have also been reported at these camps An anonymous employee said that approximately 800 young girls were quarantined for a month because of a lice breakout. There are also many reports of sexual abuse being rampant within detention centers, especially those for women and children.
The crisis occurring at the borders today reflects the consequences of selfish, failed U.S. foreign policy, especially for migrants from the “Northern Triangle.” The United States’ interference in Guatemala primarily began during the Jorge Ubico’s term as president from 1931 to 1944. Ubico aligned himself with the largest landowner in the county at the time, the United Fruit Company (UFCO). UFCO is a U.S.-owned company that held significant power and influence under Ubico’s rule and is known for selling bananas. According to the Zinn Education Project, Ubico had enforced laws that pushed poor laborers, mainly homeless Mayans, to work for big landowners such as UFCO and granted the company an extensive amount of land. In addition, he had imprisoned or killed anyone who opposed him. Since UFCO benefited greatly from these actions, the United States is quoted to have “simply ignored it so long as U.S. investment in the country flourished.” In 1944, the Guatemalan middle class launched a democratic uprising against his oppressive rule. Such political pressures forced Ubico to resign and to be replaced by President Juan Arevalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected leader.
After six years in office, Arevalo was succeeded by disciple Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz furthered Arevalo’s liberal agenda by taking on a “spiritual socialism” that called for social and economic reform. One of his main initiatives was redistributing land to peasants and the landless. At the time, “only 2 percent of the landholders owned 72 percent of the arable lands,” according to the Zinn Education Project. Arbenz aided the Guatemalan Congress in passing Decree 900, which ordered all uncultivated land greater than 600 acres to be distributed to the poor and landless. The original landowners would be compensated with government bonds based on the land’s tax value, and “of the 341,000 landowners [in Guatemala at the time], only 1,700 holdings came under those provisions.” Despite the seemingly insignificant impact on land holdings, this decree was viewed as a threat to the U.S. since it negatively impacted UFCO’s holdings. They had “owned some 600,000 acres, with most of it unused.” Arbenz offered the UFCO $1.2 million for a large section of land,, refusing the company’s counteroffer for $16 million for the land which the U.S. State Department approved. With the confiscation of land and the presence of the Communist party in Guatemala, U.S. President Eisenhower and his administration, who had ties to UFCO, decided that Arbenz needed to be removed from office. Even though Arbenz himself was not a communist, he became the scapegoat of the Eisenhower administration to conceal their true motivation of greed in controlling the banana trade over democracy.
After deeming Arbenz and his policies to be against American interests, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to start planning operation PBSUCCESS, which worked to overthrow Arbenz. The mission was a coup that included spreading propaganda around Guatemala about Arbenz’s communist involvement and poor leadership to undermine his people’s support for him, supporting and arming the rebel of rival Carlos Castillo Armas, and backing Armas’s invasion and presidency. Despite his illegal rise to power and the destruction of Guatemala’s democracy, the U.S. quickly supported and recognized Castillo’s authority. He returned over 1.5 million acres to UFCO and prohibited more than 500 unions. In addition, Castillo reversed all the work Arbenz and his predecessor had done, allowing the oppression of thousands of poor farmers to continue. Democracy was destroyed under the United States’ influence, despite being a country founded on spreading democratic liberal ideals.
Castillo’s coup and rise to power divided the state, resulting in a 36-year civil war with dictators coming into power and constantly being overthrown. The resulting power gap within the state allowed organized crime groups to gain power and influence with no consequences or punishment by the government. The violence and insecurity that stems from a cartel-ruled country is detrimental to the state’s citizens and is why thousands of Guatemalans are fleeing and seeking safety in the United States. The United States government’s choice to prioritize the domination of the banana trade and policy power has greatly influenced the conditions inciting the current mass migration of Guatemalans to the United States.
For several years, Mexican drug cartels have encouraged poor indigenous farmers in western Guatemala to replace their regular crops, such as corn and potatoes, with poppy plants used to make heroin. Then, when faced with pressure from the U.S., the Guatemalan government began destroying all the poppy seeds they could. Afterward, with “no other high-value crop to replace the poppies, and no program available to help replace farmers’ income,” farmers began to fall into poverty. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in 2019 was 47.8 percent of the population and increased to 52.4 percent during the pandemic. Indigenous communities are most impacted by poverty, “with 79 percent living in poverty, on the less than $5.50 a day, and 40 percent living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day.” The current living conditions faced by Guatemalans raise the question that if Decree 900 was never removed and Castillo never rose to power, would a good portion of Guatemala’s population still live off $1.90 a day? Also, if the U.S. government asked the Guatemalan government to remove poppy fields and then offered aid for the farmers, perhaps fewer migrants would feel less insecure in their economic opportunities. Instead, Guatemalan migrants feel forced to depart their country in hopes of a better life in the United States.
Another contributing factor to the mass migration from Guatemala to the US is food insecurity and widespread malnutrition. The Washington Post reports that in Guatemala, “the chronic child malnutrition rate hovers around 70 percent, higher than any country in the world.” In 2015, the Obama administration tried to offset waves of migration by providing a $1 billion aid package to tackle food insecurity. However, the aid increased the malnutrition rate due to natural disasters, economic setbacks, and an uncooperative government. Carlos Carrera, the country director for UNICEF, said, “at this pace, it will require 100 years for Guatemala to eradicate chronic malnutrition.” As prices continue to rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the supply chain crisis, less food is available, more families and children are starving, and more people feel that their only option for safety is to migrate from their home country.
The connection of failed U.S. foreign involvement leading to poor living conditions and mass migration is common throughout all the countries encompassing the Northern Triangle. For example, during his term in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and his administration decided to support the El Salvadorian government during the country’s civil war . This decision was based on the Communists gaining a foothold in Nicaragua at the time and the fact that the El Salvadorian government was already known for brutal violence. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had withheld aid to El Salvador years before Reagan took office because the government sanctioned the rape and murder of four U.S. missionaries. Despite the risk, Reagan had decided to support the government of El Salvador and granted aid in the form of monetary and military support. The domestic tension within El Salvador eventually came to a head. With the United States’ support, the El Salvadorian military committed severe humanitarian and war crimes against its people and started 12 years of instability within the region. In 1993, the United Nations released a report documenting the human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran army.
As a result of the violence inflicted upon the El Salvadorian people, a rapid amount of them began to migrate North to the U.S. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “in 1980 95,000 Salvadoran immigrants lived in the U.S., compared to 1.17 million” in 2015. The migrants came to the U.S. with little to no education and money, and most fell prey to the gang culture prominent in the poor areas of large American cities, such as Los Angeles. As more people fled the instability and violence of their motherland, there was a spike in organized crime activities within the U.S. In 1996, the U.S. government decided to resolve this issue by deporting Salvadorians back to the environment they were fleeing, thus continuing and adding to a constant cycle of violence. An unintended consequence of these actions was the U.S.-style gang culture spreading across El Salvador and strengthening its unstable and violent political and social environments. In a paper featured in the American Economic Review, Maria Sviatschi conducted a study about the correlation between U.S. deportation policies and the prevalence of gang violence within El Salvador. Sviatschi found a substantial correlation between the two factors, stating that “this gang-related violence in areas of El Salvador increased child migration to the United States.” The United States’ decision to use deportation techniques is as useful as placing a bandage on a gunshot, influencing more and more Salvadoran refugees to flee to the United States, further contributing to the current border crisis. The conditions in El Salvador reflect a pattern of short-lived United States foreign policy, South American countries war-torn and impoverished after a domestic interest was fulfilled.
This same trend is also seen in the relationship between the United States and Honduras. Like Guatemala, a large portion of Honduras’s land was owned by United States fruit companies that specialized in selling bananas. Also, in the 1960s, Honduras was a prominent ally of the United States and received American troops from former President Ronald Reagan to train Nicaraguan rebels in the Iran-Contra affair. With President Reagan’s aid, more Honduran-U.S. military bases were established, political repression became prominent in Honduras, and many economic reforms took place that shook up the agricultural norms and increased poverty among farmers. However, after President Reagan left office and U.S. interests were focused elsewhere, Honduras was left with an abusive military, a divided public, growing poverty rates, and a failing democracy that officially ended after a military coup in 2009. Abandoned by its main ally, Honduras crumpled into a land of corruption, violence, and oppression, driving more migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border every day.
Physicians for Human Rights reports that “in the four months following the coup, there was a 4,000 percent spike in human rights violations.” Such poor humanitarian conditions, coupled with growing poverty within the region, have caused many Hondurans to trek to the United States. Also, more migrants found the journey worth it under Biden’s administration since his immigration plan is less restrictive than his predecessor Donald Trump.
These circumstances of today reflect failed U.S. interventions in foreign policy. As President Biden and his administration continue to battle with this aftermath, they are faced with either increasing involvement in South American politics or allowing today’s current crisis to continue. Children are starving, people are barely surviving in poverty, nations are governed by violence and organized crime, and people are migrating to the United States at a rate the United States border control cannot keep up with. These factors all directly result from non-sustainable, United States foreign policies that pursue intervention and benefits short-term U.S. interests with little regard for the safety and stabilities of countries affected by said policies. President Biden is faced with the choice of finally addressing the consequences of these failures or following in the steps of his predecessors.