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The Border Crisis Is America's Chance to Repent for Past Mistakes in Central America

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Americans should cheer instead of lament the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children at their doorstep. It means that the people of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico still believe in the “American Dream.” This historic opportunity to revive the idea of the United States as a land of opportunity should not be squandered.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and youth of Central America took up arms with their families to combat the violent dictatorships which ruled their countries propped up by the U.S. government. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians died in the civil wars which wreaked havoc in the region.

The grassroots demands for popular democracy were eventually defeated. Guatemala today is ruled by a retired military general, Otto Pérez Molina, who was a leader of the Kaibil death squads during the civil war. Honduras is governed by the political coalition which came to power in 2009 when the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a coup d'état validated by the U.S. government. In 2012, the old authoritarian Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) returned to power in Mexico and has governed with an iron fist fully supported by the Obama administration. El Salvador and Nicaragua have presidents nominally sympathetic to the popular movements of the past, but in practice their policies have come up far short of expectations.

Instead of resenting and repudiating the U.S. for its role in the defeat of the democratic principles which their parents struggled for, the new generation of Central Americans has decided to risk life and limb to travel north with a message of peace. It would be an enormous mistake to respond to this gesture with a slap in the face.

The geopolitical context makes the situation even more delicate. South America has escaped from the orbit of Washington. The presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Bolivia all forcefully defend their counties' political autonomy and economic sovereignty. The leaders of Russia, China, India and South Africa met in Brazil recently for an historic meeting of the BRICS initiative in which they agreed to create a new development bank, an emergency currency reserve fund, as well as mechanisms to conduct international trade without having recourse to the U.S. dollar. Vladimir Putin made stops in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Argentina on his way to the meeting. Chinese President Xi Jinping is currently on his own whistle-stop tour through the region.

The U.S. should be looking for opportunities to humbly amend for the past instead of being arrogantly defensive about the present. Glenn Beck, of all people, is right when he says, “When America stops being good, we are no longer able to great." It is crucial that the U.S. response to the border crisis be both generous and humane.

It is, for instance, a grave mistake to approach the situation in search of ways to teach paternalistic lessons to migrants and their families. Texas Governor Rick Perry has written that “the people contemplating sending their children on a perilous journey to America must know that our border is secure and that endangering their lives will not be rewarded.” David Gergen's proposal to set up militarized “safe zones” in Central America is equally irresponsible. The last thing that these countries need today is a return to the U.S. military interventions of the past.

Instead of expediting deportation and building walls, policy should emphasize family reunification and sustainable development. Admittance should be granted not only to those children who can demonstrate their “refugee” status, but also to those whose parents or guardians already live and work in the United States.

If President Barack Obama and the Congress had acted to pass comprehensive immigration reform, a great number of the children today suffering in detention centers would have been able to legally apply for residency from their home countries. Instead of filling the coffers of human traffickers in order to cross the border, their families could have used these same resources to pay for their children's visas and education.

An emphasis on family reunification would kill two birds with one stone. It would save time and resources by allowing immediate processing of large numbers of migrant children. It would also create safer communities on both sides of the border by reducing the number of children who grow up in broken families.

An important complementary action would be for the U.S. to allow democratic politics to develop freely in Mexico and Central America by withdrawing its support for the local oligarchs. And the U.S. could make a significant contribution to peace in the migrants' home countries by cracking down on the exportation of lethal weapons south of the border.

Both the historic legacy of the Obama administration and the role of the U.S. in the world are at stake. In Latin America, there is widespread mistrust of Washington grounded in a long history of mistaken policies in the region. A false step today could seal the case for anti-Americanism among those who still would like to give the U.S. a chance.