American exceptionalism was on full display in Guatemala yesterday. As Vice President Kamala Harris marched to the podium at a press conference after meeting with the Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei, you could almost hear Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance playing in the background. Her straightforward, ominous message for those considering making the dangerous voyage north felt like a watered-down version of Trumpism whenshe proclaimed: “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.”
Harris has been ordained with the Sisyphean task of improving the “root causes of migration” from central America, and it’s a task she will inevitably fail at, though through no fault of her own. Regardless of whether she was given talking points or ad-libbed onstage, her statements yesterday were out of sync with US federal immigration, asylum and refugee law, international customary law, international human rights law and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which lists the US as a signatory.
This lamentable position also stands in stark contrast with the very words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) reacted to the VP’s statements in a tweet saying, “This is disappointing to see. First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
AOC is absolutely right: Programs like the Mexican president’s laughable tree-planting initiative or the US’s issuance of H-2 temporary worker visas dance around the real problem and only stand to create more. As founder and executive director of Centrode los Derechos del Migrante, Rachel Micah-Jones, said in an op-edlast week, “The children and families huddling on international bridges at the border, waiting in long lines after dangerous journeys, need the safety and permanency that asylum can provide — not temporary work visas.”
And when Harris stated that those who come will be “turned back”, she broke a pillar of international refugee law, the principle of non refoulement (meaning that a country cannot turn back refugees and asylum seekers that are at risk in their countries of origin). This fundamental concept has become so accepted internationally, it is now what experts call “customary law”, meaning it is the law whether a country decides to integrate it into their legal system or not.
Chicago-based civil rights and immigration attorney Christina Abraham explained, “She [Harris] is a priori determining that all people seeking asylum and refugee status will be denied. Right there you know the process is not going to be fair; she is saying the government is not interested in applying the law as it stands...This shows a complete disregard for the plight of people outside the US, especially Central Americans, and a complete ignorance of how US policy decisions over the years have helped to create a perfect storm for people needing to flee those countries.”
The US holds significant responsibility for the current human rights crisis in Central American countries, including in Guatemala. As documented in StateDepartment files, in the 1950’s the CIA stepped in to remove the country’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, because they saw him as part of a growing bloc of communist-sympathizing nations in the region. That covert military intervention set off a series of events that would play out for nearly 100 years in the form of human rights abuses, oppression, poverty and migration.
For example, accordingto the Washington Office on Latin America, one of the world’s most dangerous street gangs, MS-13, which has at least 60,000 members across Central America, was established in the 1980’s in Los Angeles. Central American migrants who had fled the deadly civil wars that played out after various US military operations in the region were then deported back to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, only to bring the very American import of US-style gang culture to these Central American countries. Now, migrants looking to come to the US are largely not members of MS-13; rather, they are fleeing this US-created problem.
“This is a fake conversation about immigration that we keep having and it places the blame for the factors behind migration on the migrants themselves,” attorney Christina Abraham continued. “People don’t leave everything behind because they are frivolous. People leave because they feel like they have to, because they have governments that aren’t protecting them. Meanwhile, US companies profit off of undocumented migrant labour — people who are underpaid, overworked and their rights systematically denied… Rather than addressing these issues it shows that this administration has no intention of doing things differently. While it is solvable, nobody has any political interest in resolving these issues.”
In the canonical book ‘The Open Veins of Latin America’, the late author Eduardo Galeano writes of an eerie statement made by a Guatemalan foreign minister over a century ago, who said, “It would be strange if the remedy should come from the United States, the same place which brings us the disease.”
The US’s feigned attempts to remedy corruption, human rights abuses, poverty and a climate crisis that it has helped create are laughable at best and dangerous at worst. We can hardly stage another intervention in a mess that we made and ask that our wishes to be respected, let alone lauded. If we’re not going to open our doors to those fleeing the consequences of our nation’s mistakes, then perhaps it is time to retire Lady Liberty after all.