Almost 25 years have passed since the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war, a conflict that left a staggering 80,000 civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Yet, despite nominally being at peace, El Salvador is no more free from the oppressive atmosphere of extreme violence that dominates now than it was a quarter of a century ago. Today, El Salvador enjoys the dubious honour of having the highest homicide rate of any country that isn’t a warzone. Unsurprisingly, the U.S.’ Trump administration has responded to an influx of Salvadorian immigrants with the kind of predictable rhetoric that has characterized its general attitude towards asylum seekers from Central America: that these people – a large proportion of whom are genuine refugees – are criminals and bring with them the threat of gang violence. While gang violence in the U.S.’ El Salvadorian immigrant communities is a pressing social concern, the government’s rhetoric and policies towards immigrants from El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America are fundamentally hypocritical.
Successive U.S. administrations have long painted undocumented immigrant communities with an extremely broad brush. Despite evidence to the contrary, the architects of U.S. immigration policy frequently seize on easily quotable factoids (for example, that 22% of the population of federal prisons are immigrants) to paint undocumented immigrants as dishonest, dangerous criminals wanting a slice of American prosperity. This proverbial smokescreen of hyperbolic conservative rhetoric does an extremely good job of concealing a fundamental historical fact: the U.S. itself has been complicit in creating the conditions that have allowed criminal gangs to thrive and forced many to flee El Salvador. From the inception of El Salvador’s civil war to its end, the U.S. provided consistent and substantial financial support for El Salvador’s oppressive rightist military junta. In the interests of preventing the fall of El Salvador to an emergent socialist resistance, the U.S. stood by as the El Salvadorian regime killed, tortured and raped its own citizens, again and again. It turned a blind eye as El Salvadorian government militia tortured and executed the entire 800 person population of El Mozote village, and went on to deny this fact as ‘rebel propaganda.’
Bemoaning rampant gang crime in El Salvadorian immigrant communities, President Trump and former ‘Deporter in Chief’ President Obama have relentlessly pursued El Salvadorians who illegally immigrate to America, refusing to acknowledge the role of the U.S. in propping up the biggest criminal gang of all – the El Salvadorian regime that so utterly destroyed El Salvador’s social fabric with its extreme violence. The irony would be funny, if it were not for the tragic legacy that El Salvador’s civil war and the U.S. support that prolonged it has left. Gang violence in El Salvador has claimed the lives of 679 people in the last 47 days – it doesn’t take much of an imagination to work out why El Salvadorians are risking deportation and a criminal record to flee to the United States. The U.S. has a responsibility to do better than lumping all illegally entering immigrants from El Salvador into the same moral category as violent gang criminals. Its backwards policies – for example, the Trump administration’s recent cancellation of a program to reunite children in El Salvador with their legally settled parents in the United States – deserve to be condemned.
Worse still, there is little evidence indicating that the uncompromising stance taken towards undocumented immigrants from El Salvador helps the administration achieve its stated goals. For a government whose current president is so zealous about his goal to “enforce our laws, protect our borders and support our police like they have never been supported before” that he tacitly encourages police brutality, this seems to be a very surprising revelation. In a White House press briefing in July, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) emphasized that any operations conducted by ICE targeting gangs working in El Salvadorian immigrant communities depended in large part on the immigrant community being willing to “assist [ICE] in identifying the most heinous criminals.”
Yet, in the same breath, the Acting Director refused to confirm what protections would be made available for informants, and whether ICE would not disproportionately target undocumented immigrants who were not gang members. This seems to be an odd way to build the kind of trust necessary to enable cooperation with a vulnerable, injured community that faces reprisal from gang elements if they work with authorities. As Walter Barrientos, an organising director for an immigrants rights group operating in New York pointed out in a VICE article in August, deportations aren’t a sufficient solution to what he views as essentially a complex social problem. In his estimation, the long-term solution to gang violence and organized crime in El Salvadorian immigrant communities can’t come from the threatening them with removal. His suggestion? “Add 10,000 social workers and teachers instead.”
Of course, America’s assembly of conservative apparatchik respond to these kinds of proposals with predictable howls of indignation, claiming that the proponents are being ‘too soft’ on immigration. Rarely do these politicians seem to demonstrate any genuine interest in finding a long solution to gang crime in immigrant communities. Instead, they appear far more concerned with the bountiful political currency to be had from demonizing entire undocumented communities for the crime of a few, and agitating for their deportation en masse. After all, President Donald Trump came to power on a raft of promises to enforce tough new immigration laws against “the illegals,” perpetuating the conservative myth that all undocumented immigrants are selfish criminals. The political value of xenophobia towards Central American immigrants – especially El Salvadorians – is clearly too high to be set aside.
As politically convenient the claim is, solving the issue of gang violence in undocumented Central American immigrant communities in the U.S. is not as simple as mass deportation. The kind of strongarm tactics that U.S. immigration authorities believe will compel immigrant communities into cooperation appear to be utterly blind to the social and economic disadvantage that allows criminal gangs like El Salvador’s MS-13 to thrive. The utterly shameful legacy of the U.S. in El Salvador’s internal affairs has had a large hand to play in creating this disadvantage should in theory compel some serious self-criticism and compassion for those fleeing violence. Instead, the rest of the world watches – disappointed, but not surprised – as another administration perpetuates the arrogant, historically blind proposition that this problem is not its responsibility.
Author’s note: if you would like more background information about the violent oppression of El Salvadorian people by its U.S.-supported government during the civil war, see the U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador’s report, ‘From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador’, available at: https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/ElSalvador-Report.pdf
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