This article is the second in a four-part NACLA series on migration in the Americas. (Read the other installments here, here, and here).
A May 2015 article in The Guardian suggested that the coming months would see large numbers of unauthorized migrants, many of them unaccompanied minors from Central America, crossing the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Already in south Texas, the epicenter of the exaggerated migrant “surge” of the summer of 2014, the signs of a numbers increase were visible. “Every day we’re getting more women and children than the day before,” a Border Patrol agent reported, referring to apprehended migrants. Minutes earlier, the journalist had seen a Border Patrol van carrying 13 women and children from Guatemala and Honduras who had turned themselves in to authorities.
While the number of Central American migrants did not reach the feared heights this past summer, there has been a marked increase, particularly of children, over the last few months. As the New York Times reported from Mission, Texas in late November, “Once again, smugglers are bringing hundreds of women and children each day to the Mexican banks of the river and sending them across in rafts.” It is a development, explained the Times’ Julia Preston—a reporter with a penchant for channeling official Washington’s worldview—made all the more worrisome “as Americans’ concerns about border security are heightened after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris raised fears that terrorists would try to sneak into the United States.”
Such “concerns” notwithstanding, the migrants, as suggested by the title of Juan Gonzalez’s eponymous book, are first and foremost the “harvest of empire.” People from Honduras and Guatemala—in addition to El Salvador—emigrate for varied reasons. Chief among them are the ravages of everyday life that Washington’s “foreign policy” apparatus—in its military, commercial, and diplomatic guises—and U.S.-based multinational corporations have helped to produce over time in those countries, and that help make life there untenable for many.
Instead of recognizing the need to reap what it has helped to sow, however, the U.S. government has increased the apparatus of immigrant policing and exclusion along, beyond, and within the country’s perimeter. In other words, having undermined the “right to stay home” for many—the right to a homeland in which a life of basic wellbeing is viable—Washington denies those it has effectively compelled to leave, the right to go somewhere thought to provide greater social and biophysical security.
Many migrants, of course, proceed northward nonetheless—often taking evermore costly, tortuous, and often deadly journeys to reach the United States, the desired destination of most. If they succeed, they must lead semi-clandestine lives and endure the indignities that their “illegal” status facilitates and requires—from poverty wages, to constant threat of arrest, to divided families. Or they ask for asylum upon arriving, and risk long periods of detention, eventual rejection, and deportation back to the countries from which they have fled, frequently under duress—with sometimes fatal consequences.
For these reasons and others, such as basic decency, the ability to move and to freely traverse international boundaries should be a fundamental human right. Establishing this right, in the Americas and beyond, should also be central to an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist politics.
The case for a right to move is particularly compelling in relation to Caribbean Basin countries, those located in what many have referred to as “America’s backyard.” The term “backyard,” George Black (a former NACLA editor) explains in The Good Neighbor: How the United States Wrote the History of Central America and the Caribbean (1988), characterizes a place where “one can act without inhibitions” and “where the garbage is dumped.” Moreover, it is “an area for play, experimentation, and control, a place where the owner makes his own laws, a laboratory for ideas that will be tried out later on the broader world beyond its walls.”
While U.S. relations with countries in its “backyard” are, and have been, variously fraught, few countries in the region are as emblematic of Black’s characterization as Honduras.
Long a site of U.S. multinational corporate activity and Washington’s imperial machinations, Honduras likely served as the inspiration for the writer O. Henry’s mythical country, the Republic of Anchuria, for which he coined the moniker “Banana Republic” in 1904.
U.S.-based banana interests began setting up shop on Honduras’s northern coast in the late 1890s. They “built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace,” writes historian Walter LaFeber in Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1983). As a result, the country’s Caribbean coast “became a foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston.”
A 1907 revolution overthrew the country’s president, Manuel Bonilla. In response, Sam (the Banana Man) Zemurray, the most infamous among U.S. fruit titans, allied himself with the deposed leader and a U.S. American mercenary named Lee Christmas. Together with a military force assembled in New Orleans, they toppled the new Honduran government. Washington’s consul appointed an acting president, and Christmas became commander-in-chief of the country’s army and, not long afterwards, the new U.S. consul.
Subsequently, Bonilla re-assumed the presidency and continued the provision of favorable concessions to foreign banana companies. By 1914, they owned almost one million acres of Honduras’s best land, holdings that grew through the 1920s to such an extent that, asserts LaFeber, Honduran peasants “had no hope of access to their nation’s good soil.” Over a few decades, U.S. interests also came to dominate the country’s banking and mining sectors.
Central to this domination was the Honduran military. By the mid-1960s, according to LaFeber, it had become the country’s “most developed political institution,” an institution that Washington had played a key role in shaping as part of a mutually beneficial May 1954 agreement that promised U.S. military assistance. Honduras in turn pledged “to facilitate the production and transfer” to the United States of its “raw material and semi-processed materials” required to address any deficiencies in the U.S. resource supply.
The pact facilitated Washington’s use of Honduras as a staging ground for interventions elsewhere—most notably in the overthrow of the progressive Arbenz government in Guatemala one month after its signing, and in the campaign of terror aimed at destabilizing Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during the 1980s. At the same time, Honduras became a favored site for export processing factories. What many came to call during the Reagan era the “U.S.S. Honduras” remained a country scarred by military-dominated governments, systematic human rights abuses, and pervasive poverty.
Yet there were also liberalizing tendencies in the succession of governments. These openings coupled with strong grassroots organizing—particularly by workers and peasants—culminated in a rare ray of hope in the form of the election of liberal reformist Manuel Zelaya in 2006. His progressive measures, however, incurred the ire of the country’s oligarchy, leading to his U.S.-backed overthrow by a military coup in June 2009.
Since that time, writes historian Dana Frank, “a series of corrupt administrations has unleashed open criminal control of Honduras, from top to bottom of the government.” Organized crime, drug traffickers, and the country’s police are virtually one and the same. Impunity reigns in a country with frequent politically-motivated killings, and that today has arguably the highest murder rate in the world, one in which violent gangs plague urban neighborhoods throughout the country. Meanwhile, post-coup governments have imposed an increasingly neoliberalized capitalism that makes life unworkable for many.
Out of this context the so-called surge—at least its Honduran component—emerged.
A key measure in the U.S. government’s response has been to “thicken” the U.S.-Mexico boundary, by enrolling Mexico in its regime of exclusion. While Mexico has long cooperated in Washington’s efforts to prevent unauthorized migrants from reaching U.S. territory, the collaboration has reached new levels over the last year. As Daniel Ojalvo, a worker at a migrant shelter in the Mexican state of Oaxaca explains, “The U.S. border starts at Guatemala now.”
The United States has pushed its control efforts far southward by pressuring Mexican authorities to strengthen the policing of the web of train lines called La Bestia (the Beast), freight trains on top of which Central Americans—often hundreds at a time—would ride to the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. It is a highly dangerous mode of transport, because of gang, and sometimes police or military, attacks on migrants, but also because people fall off and are run over by the train. Untold numbers have died in this manner, and many more have lost limbs.
A year after last summer’s surge, train transport is now available to very few. A combination of efforts by Mexican authorities and train company private security and the installation of infrastructure and deliberate speeding up of trains to make it more difficult for migrants to hop on, has radically reduced the number of riders. Yet many still head northward, taking even more dangerous routes than before.
From a liberal human rights perspective, such an outcome should be unacceptable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” asserts the right of all “to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (Article 14, 1). It also enshrines the right of exit from a country (Article 13, 2), but says nothing about a right of entry—except into one’s own country—as the document’s framers had no intention of challenging the ability of nation-states to regulate movement from without.
The effect is to deny many their most basic human rights. In a world of pervasive poverty, unprecedented inequality, and widespread instability and insecurity, the power to move across national boundaries is tied to the ability to realize those rights. They include a right to life, a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, and a right to work under just conditions—all of which are contained in the UDHR.
National territorial boundaries thus often have life and death implications. The global poor and disadvantaged, in their great majority those historically constructed as people of color, are typically forced to subsist where there are insufficient resources. Or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, they are compelled to try to leverage authorized access to the national spaces of privilege—the odds of success of which are extremely small—or risk their lives trying to overcome boundary controls put into place by countries that reject them—at least officially.
This is what many deem “global apartheid” given that all nation-states, especially relatively wealthy ones, regulate mobility and residence on the basis of, among other factors, geographic origins and ancestry—foundations of supposed racial distinctions. On a similar basis, Apartheid South Africa sought to limit black mobility and to ensure a sufficient supply of black labor in nominally white areas, while denying those workers political rights and making their presence conditional and reversible.
Eliminating the restrictions over mobility and residence will not put an end to social, economic, and political disparities, just as the end of Apartheid in South Africa did not terminate the country’s profound inequities. But, again as in South Africa, the demise of such restrictions will enhance the space to struggle for greater levels of social and economic justice—in this case across national boundaries. This is especially important for countries that have intense and unjust ties between them, such as Honduras and the United States. To deny these ties is to produce more suffering and, often, premature death.
Historical injustices coupled with the rapacious consumption and dispossession associated with colonizing and imperialist powers is why so many in Honduras and elsewhere across the world today do not enjoy a right to stay—in places of origin rendered inviable. Remedying this requires, among other things, a right to move (i.e. migrate), but more expansively, it necessitates what we might consider “a right to the world.”
A right to the world complements a “right to the city”—the right to radically remake places and those who inhabit them in ways that are inclusive and socially and environmentally just and sustainable—that many on the political left champion. A right to the world envisions more than a right for those who already inhabit a place, however. It also seeks a right to a just share of the earth’s resources and to a sustainable “home,” and a right to traverse global space, especially for the globally disadvantaged.
Only by realizing such a right to the world for all can we put an end to the seemingly endless migration-related “crises” that occur within and along the territorial boundaries of the United States, as well as the various forms of violence and injustice in Washington’s backyard and beyond that underlie them.
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008), and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).