Photo Caption: “Annie Moore” | Credit: The Irish Times
People from all over the world came to the United States because of a combination of two circumstances: they were suffering in their home countries, and they had a quality of imagination that enabled them to envision a better life.
They came here with the hope to join their families, to work, and to live peacefully. They sought safety and protection from genocide, civil war, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and natural disasters. These hopes are as alive today as they were in our ancestors in prior centuries.
The US immigration system has changed since a teenager named Annie Moore was processed on January 1, 1892, at Ellis Island, an immigrant from County Cork, Ireland.
Today our attention has turned to the border between the US and Mexico. The would-be immigrants, like those who came before, are coming with the combination of suffering and imagination.
The desire for immigration across our southern border has created a number of challenges for the US in its relationship with Latin America. These challenges include the economic problems of Latin America, the immigration problem, the drug problem, the issue of trade, and the mistrust that Latin American people and governments have toward the U.S.
Before President Reagan’s amnesty program in 1986, people crossed the border, worked, then went back home with their wages. Most of them didn’t want to stay in the United States. US fruit and vegetable growers never mechanized their industries because the supply of cheap labor was so plentiful. But after amnesty the borders were closed, forcing immigrants to come and stay. In the US there are many conflicting opinions about this issue, which has made it hard to come up with a policy.
Some Latin Americans are aware that many Anglo-Americans look down on Latinos and dislike their increasing numbers in the US. But other Americans, who are more connected with their immigrant roots, want a more lenient immigration policy. So do many industries who want to employ the immigrants.
Meanwhile the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse. The US has attempted to close its southern border out of fear that immigrants who came through might bring the virus into the United States.
The administration of President Donald Trump decided to hold Mexico accountable by creating the Migrant Protection Protocols. Through this policy certain foreign individuals entering or seeking admission to the US from Mexico—illegally or without proper documentation—may be returned to Mexico where they must wait outside of the US for the duration of their immigration proceedings. Meanwhile Mexico must provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay.
Many Latin Americans, and human rights activists worldwide, resented this policy. Meanwhile, more violent means have been used by those patrolling the border with Mexico. Drones have also been used, which is very offensive to Latin Americans. This is not a war zone. These are immigrants fleeing violence; they are not criminals.
Drug trafficking is another problem for the US. This is largely fueled by economic problems in Latin America. Demand for illegal drugs in the United States is enormous, and the US has not succeeded in solving the problem by reducing supply. The US has attempted to reduce demand by providing more drug treatment. Meanwhile drug trafficking has caused an enormous criminal problem in Latin America, with cartels struggling for power and using the most violent means to hold onto money and power.
There have been attempts to support economic development in Latin America through trade agreements. When the US is involved in these plans, its policy has been to control, to keep the upper hand, to make sure that it gets the most favorable position in these agreements. Many Latin American countries are not so willing to agree to these arrangements. There is a lot of mistrust in Latin America for the US.
The issue of mistrust is a huge issue that affects all the others. The United States has had a long interventionist history in Latin America, and there is much resentment because of this. For example, the US has used covert operations to manipulate and control governments. Notable examples are the recent relationships between the US and Venezuela and Bolivia.
These major challenges—economic instability of Latin America, immigration, drug trafficking, and the mistrust of the United States that many Latin Americans have—can be better addressed if the United States government changes its strategy. It would be much more effective if the US and Latin America could make a genuine commitment to work together for the mutual benefit of everyone.
Keeping the upper hand is not as important as solving these problems that affect everyone in the Western Hemisphere.