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The Immigration Debate We’re Not Having

Central American turmoil and the drug war are fueling our immigration problems—but you’d never know it from listening to the Democrats or Republicans.

John Moore/Getty Images

At a town hall in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night, Donald Trump once again promised to build a great and “beautiful” wall along the entire length of the United States’s southern border, paid for by the generous people of Mexico. At a separate town hall in Charleston, his closest rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, bragged about having bravely led the fight to sink bipartisan immigration reform—i.e., “amnesty”—back in 2013. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, who sponsored and later opposed that bill, reassured wary conservatives that he had never been too crazy about it in the first place.

Across the country in Nevada, which holds its Democratic caucuses on Saturday, the immigration rhetoric coming from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is markedly less hostile. Nevada is 28 percent Hispanic, making it the first state in a thus-far monochromatic early nominating process in which something pundits call the Latino Vote™ is going to play a meaningful role. On Thursday night, the Democrats will be holding a town hall of their own there, simulcast en español. 

Clinton and Sanders understand immigration reform as a conduit to Hispanic voters, which is better than treating it like a button to push on the fragile psyches of whites—but still not as good as recognizing it for the complex international phenomenon it is.

Of the two Democrats, Sanders has the better immigration platform and Clinton the better polling numbers with Latinos. Tonight, they’ll both no doubt express support for comprehensive immigration reform (and the expanded use of executive authority once Congress has blocked it). They’ll both decry the recent wave of deportation raids and rising use of private detention hellholes. At some point, Clinton will probably try to tag Sanders with having voted against a (very bad) reform bill in 2007. And Sanders will go after Clinton for saying she’d deport children back to the killing fields of Central America—provided they’ve had access to a lawyer first. Because this is a special forum, Sanders may even get around to mentioning how much he hates NAFTA.

The differences between Sanders and Clinton, and between either of them and any Republican, are of vital importance to the millions of people whose lives, families, and communities hang in the balance—and, therefore, of vital importance to the country. But as we’re presented with this juxtaposition between nakedly nativist Republicans and outwardly progressive Democrats, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve been exposed to a real debate. The broad areas of unspoken consensus this campaign has solidified are as significant, in many senses, as the most polarizing resentments it has conjured.

Immigration remains a foreign-policy crisis that is wholly subsumed by the expediencies of domestic politics. And so long as that’s the case, we can expect many more years of prime-time partisan theater to look forward to.

Many people feigned shock when thousands of unaccompanied minors began pouring across the southern border in the summer of 2014. But in truth we know—and knew then—why they were fleeing their homes. We know that the dirty wars of the 1970s and ‘80s ripped the already-strained social fabric of the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—apart. We know that the individuals responsible for the most heinous atrocities of those wars—be they commanders on the ground in Central America or the ideologues backing them from Washington—were never held accountable, and that the structures of impunity that facilitated their actions remained intact as a result. 

We know that in the 1990s, having invested millions fomenting the bloodshed, the United States starved the fledgling Central American democracies of resources and encouraged them to open their shattered economies to multinational capital instead. And we know that, half a century into a global crusade that has utterly failed in its stated goal of eliminating drugs from the United States, we’ve chosen to raise the stakes militarily against the most profitable industry in one of the world’s most impoverished regions.

Because we know all this, we also know exactly how much it would take to rectify the situation. Maybe that’s why we prefer to pretend immigration starts at the Rio Grande.

For political purposes, that suits both parties just fine. Consider that toward the end of last year, at a time of seemingly unprecedented dysfunction in Washington and in the midst of the most hysterical immigration discourse since the Know-Nothings, Congress allotted $750 million in aid to Central America—$250 million less than the administration had asked for, but still $500 million more than the previous year and $450 million more than the House was prepared to provide just six months earlier. At this point, the greatest topic of contention between Republicans and Democrats regarding our foreign policy toward Central America is the proper ratio of military to civilian assistance. 

Congress fought hard, and unsuccessfully, with the Reagan administration over its enthrallment with counterrevolution and genocide. But by the mid-1990s, U.S. involvement in Latin America settled back into the bipartisan groove that had been the norm for most of the previous century. The Clinton years saw the co-opting of a neoliberal economic agenda from the right, and when George W. Bush moved to ratchet up the drug war in Mexico through the Merida Initiative, the model he turned to was Clinton’s Plan Colombia.

With the exception of its bold, back-channelled diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, the Obama administration has been preoccupied with other, more conventional foreign policy matters—like bombing the Middle East and instigating a new Cold War with Russia. Prior to the unaccompanied minor flare-up in 2014, the White House had adopted a relatively hands-off approach to Central America, fusing the trade and financial liberalization of the Clinton administration with George W. Bush’s drug-war militarism. 

Hillary Clinton has been part of the problem. As secretary of state, Clinton oversaw and advocated for the further escalation of the Mexican government’s anti-cartel offensive—which has produced some 100,000 murders and 27,600 disappearances since being launched in 2006. When the Honduran military overthrew the government in 2009, she worked behind the scenes, and against the overwhelming wishes of the rest of the region, to prevent the ousted president from returning to power.

Two decades of the Washington Consensus, following many years of civil war and despotism, have not been kind to the Northern Triangle, the point of origin for the majority of today’s undocumented immigrants. The president and vice president of Guatemala were both indicted in conjunction with a massive corruption scandal last year, and El Salvador recently overtook Honduras—currently mired in corruption scandals of its own—as the murder capital of the world.

The closest any candidate has come to addressing the present reality is Sanders—who still hasn’t come very close. He’s talked passionately, though never in a single coherent thought, about asymmetric trade, the “horrendous violence” in the Northern Triangle countries, and child migration. But just one vague paragraph in his commendably detailed immigration plan is devoted to foreign policy. His opposition to free trade is rooted in its deleterious impact on the American worker, not in the complex interplay of international exploitation. Dramatic steps would be necessary to ensure workplace dignity in countries where narco-mafias, often working in conjunction with business interests, exert a systemically repressive force on organized labor. But that hasn’t been Sanders’s concern. 

Clinton, meanwhile, has failed to lay out substantive proposals for dealing with the region’s many issues—and continues to align herself with a number of bad ones. So far in this campaign, she’s gotten plenty of mileage out of the line, “We should be arresting and deporting criminals, not hard-working families.” Which sounds sensible, except that aggressively transplanting gang members to the slums of San Salvador and San Pedro Sula is a major reason why children are fleeing those places by the droves in the first place. This, apparently, is one facet of her husband’s tough-on-crime legacy that Clinton has neither learned from nor atoned for.

In two months, the United Nations General Assembly will be holding a special session on drugs. In a country that claims to care about immigration as much ours—and in a campaign defined, early on, by a fierce sense of urgency on the issue—this might be an opportunity to engage in a serious conversation about how much longer and at what cost, human and material, we wish to maintain our worldwide prohibition regime. But this is an election year and, for now, there are votes to be won.