One of the recurrent arguments I’ve seen in the debate over the Trump administration’s inhumane child separation policy is that Central Americans are primarily motivated by economic opportunism. The argument goes that people are trying to take advantage of a “loophole” and that U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be more lenient if adults arrived at the border with children in tow. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even claimed that the influx of asylum seekers was due to the previous administration giving people immunity from prosecution if they were accompanied by a minor:
“Word got out about this loophole, with predictable results. The number of
aliens (edit: ‘people’) illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000 — that’s a five-fold increase — in just the last four years.”
A gaping hole with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the United States is not the only country that has seen an increase in asylum seekers from Central America. Instead, the pattern seems to be motivated primarily from “push” factors such as rising levels of violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras than by “pull” factors in the United States such as easier border crossings.
If Sessions’ claim were true, then we would expect that the increase in refugees and asylum seekers would only be seen in the U.S. But that is not what we’re seeing. For example, the number of asylum applications in Mexico increased dramatically from 2,000 in 2014 to more than 14,000 last year, primarily from Honduras. In the case of Honduras, homicide rates nearly doubled a few years after the President was removed in a coup in 2009. That led to a series of counter-protests, followed by “a wave of political violence that targeted a range of activists, including journalists and human rights defenders.” On top of that, instability allowed gangs and drug cartels to flourish, and a broken legal system has allowed men to kill women at some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, without fear of incarceration.
This is a brief follow-up from the last post I wrote about the cruelty of separating children from their parents. According to a poll by The Economist and YouGov, a substantial number of Americans approve of the Trump administration’s recent policy to separate children from their parents who cross the border without documentation. The good news is that a plurality of people responded that they strongly disapproved of the policy, but about a third of those polled approved of it at least somewhat, while roughly one-fifth strongly approved. The results of Question # 31 were as follows:
Do you approve or disapprove of separating families from each other, including minor children, when the adults are arrested for crossing the border into the United States without proper documentation?
•Strongly approve … 18%
•Somewhat approve … 14%
•Somewhat disapprove … 15%
•Strongly disapprove … 38%
•Not sure … 15%
This is disappointing.
Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness the company of life
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.
(Tao Te Ching: 76)
Early in life, our bodies are like unmolded clay, ready to be shaped by our experiences. For some of us, that matching process can create problems. If circumstances change, we could end up poorly adapted to our adult environment. A child born into harsh conditions, though, may have to take that risk in order to make it to adulthood at all.
The Hmong in French Guiana may be an example of this process. They are a fascinating population for many reasons, the most obvious being that they are there at all. A few dozen refugees from Laos first resettled in French Guiana in 1977, a few years after the Vietnam War, after they and the French government agreed that life in small, ethnically homogenous villages in a tropical environment was a better option than acculturating to the cities of Métropole France. The experiment paid off. Today, more than two thousand Hmong are farmers in the Amazonian jungle, producing most of the fruits and vegetables in the country. The result is a level of economic autonomy and cultural retention that is likely unique in the Southeast Asian refugee diaspora.
Scenes from Hmong villages in French Guiana. (Clockwise from top left: fields of Cacao, young men going on a hunting trip in Javouhey, swidden agriculture of Cacao, a street lined with farmers’ trucks in Javouhey.