All They Will Call You Will Be Detainees

Child migrants, Ixtepec, Mexico (photo: CIP Americas Program)

Child migrants, Ixtepec, Mexico (photo: CIP Americas Program)

One of corporate journalism’s bad habits is framing international stories on the premise that news is what happens to the US. There is no better recent example of this than the story of tens of thousands of children fleeing Central America for refuge in other countries, including, but not limited to, the US. With some exceptions, this story is covered as the US’s “border crisis,” and the latest installment in our supposed immigration debate, with the children little more than nameless  symbols of a troubled policy.

The framing of the refugee crisis as a domestic political story can be read in the headlines: “Obama, on Texas Trip, Will Face Immigration Critics” (New York Times, 7/10/14); “Obama Hardens Tone on Border” (Washington Post, 7/8/14); “In Border Crisis, Obama Is Accused of ‘Lawlessness’ for Following Law” (Washington Post, 7/9/14).

Some reporting has bucked the trend and attempted to look beyond US borders. In “Fleeing Gangs, Children Head to US Border” (7/9/14), New York Times reporter Frances Robles reported on the root causes for a refugee crisis that could see 90,000 reaching the US border by the end of this year. Violence, gangs  and poverty are mentioned, and that’s good, as far as it goes, but these stories don’t ask some obvious questions. Like, why are almost all the children from three Central American countries?  The largest number of child refugees are from Honduras, with El Salvador and Guatemala accounting for almost all others. Why these three countries?

Homicides per 100,000 People, Central America (Vox)

Central American homicide rates, via Vox.

And why aren’t children streaming out of Nicaragua, which suffers from “staggering poverty, but not a pervasive gang culture or a record-breaking murder rate,” as the Times‘ Robles notes, but does not attempt to explain? According to the the landmark 2013 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Nicaragua, with 11.3 homicides per 100,000 population, has a homicide rate about one-eighth that of world leader Honduras (90.4), and roughly a quarter of that of El Salvador (41.2) and Guatemala (39.9). Why is Nicaragua so much safer?

Here’s where it might come in handy to quote Central Americans and experts on the region. But these vital groups are nearly invisible in coverage, particularly in the large number of stories that treat it as a domestic or political story.

If journalists interviewed University of California/Santa Cruz Honduras expert Dana Frank, they would learn that in the nation with the highest crime rate on Earth, the criminal gang culture extends into every level of government. This includes the US-allied federal government that came to power following a US-backed coup (Guardian, 6/29/12) that removed a popular, democratically elected president (Extra!, 9/09). As Frank wrote last Wednesday in “Who’s Responsible for the Flight of Honduran Children?” (Huffington Post, 7/9/14):

Missing from the discussion about Honduras, though, is the post-coup regime governing the country that is largely responsible for the vast criminality that has overtaken it. Equally absent is the responsibility of the United States government for the regime. Yes, gangs are rampant in Honduras. But the truly dangerous gang is the Honduran government. And our own tax dollars are pouring into it while our top officials praise its virtues.

Mexico City-based writer Laura Carlsen suggests other US policies have also served as important drivers in the flight of the children. Carlsen takes on US reports that cite the laxity of US immigration policies, the lure of social welfare programs and the irresponsibility of the children’s parents, by pointing out how US drug war and trade polices have made conditions increasingly unlivable. In “Child Migrants and Media Half-Truths” (Americas Program, 6/23/14), Carlsen writes:

So why does the mainstream press seek to place the blame on the parents and a supposed softening of immigration policy?

Because the alternative to blaming migrant families themselves is unpalatable to them.

The alternative is to accept that the Central American and North American Free Trade Agreements have left thousands of youth with no economic opportunities.

It is to accept that US security aid for drug wars has armed and aggravated violence in Mexico and Central America.

It is to understand the high cost of supporting the Honduran coup and how the Honduran people and the US population continue to pay that price, as out migration has surged over 500 percent in the past two years, and human rights violations, instability and violence are skyrocketing.

Veteran Latin American correspondent James North writes in the Nation (7/9/14) that the White House is “showing little concern for international law, and none at all for Washington’s own historic responsibility in Central America,” by “asking Congress to change the law so America can deport the refugee children more quickly.” North explains the US’s responsibility:

The United States has a particular moral responsibility in the Central America refugee crisis that goes even deeper. Americans, especially young Americans, probably know more about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda than they do about how their own government funded murderous right-wing dictatorships in Central America back in the 1980s. The Reagan administration’s violent and immoral policy included $5 billion in aid to the military/landowner alliance in El Salvador, which prolonged an awful conflict in which some 75,000 people died–a toll proportionally equivalent to the casualty rate in the American Civil War. But once shaky peace agreements were signed in the 1990s, the United States walked away, leaving the shattered region to rebuild on its own.

This history is virtually never mentioned in reports on the refugee crisis. In addition to the loss of blood and treasure caused by the US during the Reagan era, the US-supported governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras targeted popular democratic organizers and institutions, flooded those nations with guns, and interrupted political and social development. The three countries sending almost all of the refugee children abroad are the same three in which death squads flourished and where US policy became most deeply embedded in the political culture.

Nicaragua, whose political development has taken a different trajectory–seldom in lock step with Washington, its agencies and military advisers–is not experiencing astronomical crime rates or a refugee problem. It’s still very poor, but far less violent.

But there is virtually no media discussion of how “our border crisis” might be somewhat of our own making–“blowback” resulting from US policy going back to the 1980s.

Are US journalists interested in the actual roots of Central America’s refugee crisis? Or are they ignoring them because they confer moral responsibility on the US, and that discussion would spoil a swell debate about just how quickly the kids should be returned to their homelands?

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.