Is the US immigration court system broken?

A man has his fingerprints scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait their turn. Reuters/Jeff Topping
A man has his fingerprints scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait their turn. Reuters/Jeff Topping

Is the US immigration court system broken?

Lindsay M. Harris, University of the District of Columbia

In the U.S. today, a single immigration case takes an average of 677 days simply to get to the initial scheduling hearing. The Conversation

There are more than half a million cases in the system, and just over 300 judges working on them. The Trump administration’s push to aggressively enforce immigration laws will make this backlog worse.

Since 2002, funding for immigration enforcement has more than quadrupled, from US$4.5 billion to $20.1 billion in 2016. During the same time period, resources for immigration courts have increased by much less – 74 percent.

President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal 2018 and request for supplemental funds for fiscal 2017 indicate he will continue this trend of funding immigration enforcement but not adequately funding immigration courts.

His budget requests would add to the more than $40 billion that the Department of Homeland Security will receive this year. It would include $4.1 billion to start building a border wall and $2.65 billion to increase the number of immigration detention beds. In comparison, the fiscal 2018 budget requests $80 million to add 75 new immigration judges.

As a law professor, I have devoted my career to representing asylum seekers and studying our nation’s immigration courts. I witness the daily effects of the immigration court backlog on the lives of immigrants.

Backlogged immigration courts

The U.S. has 57 immigration courts nationwide. The judges in these courts preside over cases in which an individual is in the U.S. and the U.S. government alleges that they may be removable. This includes immigrants who have recently arrived and are seeking asylum protection, lawful permanent residents rendered potentially removable due to a criminal conviction and undocumented immigrants who may be allowed to stay in the U.S.

An asylum seeker outside immigration court with his lawyer in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
An asylum seeker outside immigration court with his lawyer in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In 2015, the TRAC Immigration Project out of Syracuse University estimated that full resolution of cases in the backlog would take from 2 to 6 ½ years. Asylum applicants who are seeking U.S. protection from persecution in their home countries may wait five or more years simply for an interview to assess their claim.

The backlog has arisen largely because of an increase in the number of Central American women and children seeking asylum. Many families without authorization are sent to detention centers to be held while they undergo expedited removal.

The expedited removal process was created to bypass the immigration court system and allow for the swift removal of undocumented immigrants. However, if those immigrants say they’re afraid to return home, the Department of Homeland Security must give them a “credible fear interview” to determine if they are eligible for asylum. These individuals can then take their cases to immigration court.

Asylum officers are sent to detention centers to conduct credible fear interviews. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of families interviewed are granted the right to present their case in immigration court.

Asking asylum seekers to present their cases before both asylum officers and judges is repetitive and time consuming. It would be more efficient to either allow asylum officers to grant asylum after a credible fear interview when they see a strong case, or simply bypass this step and allow all asylum seekers to present their cases in court.

As of February 2017, there were only 527 asylum officers working in the nation’s eight asylum offices, even though the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has authorized hiring as many as 625. The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates that 272 of those officers are needed just to conduct credible fear interviews.

Effects of the backlog

As I have detailed in my work, delays in processing immigrants cause hardships for asylum seekers.

While an asylum seeker is awaiting a decision in their case, they often face financial instability, difficulty finding employment and prolonged separation from immediate family members. Years of delay also make it more difficult for immigrants to find pro bono legal representation.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has cited the “historic backlogs” in immigration courts to justify increasing expedited removals.

There’s evidence that such expedited removals circumvent due process for asylum seekers. In some cases, U.S. border officials have even failed to properly implement safeguards to protect asylum seekers from being returned to harm or death. Recently, the U.S. government did not attend a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding Customs and Border Patrol illegally turning asylum seekers away from our southern border.

The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates that the U.S. needs at least 524 judges working to address the immigration court backlog, in addition to more law clerks and administrative support.

More asylum officers are also needed. Human Rights First estimates that with 800 asylum officers on the job, we could get rid of the backlog by 2022.

Solving the problem of our nation’s backlogged immigration courts should be a priority for any administration to ensure that the system functions in a timely and efficient manner.

Lindsay M. Harris, Assistant Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump’s Immigration Ban: Will it Undercut American Soft Power?

Activists in Portland, Oregon, protest President Trump’s ban. Clinton Steeds/Reuters
Activists in Portland, Oregon, protest President Trump’s ban. Clinton Steeds/Reuters

Jason Lane, University at Albany, State University of New York

The Trump administration moved over the weekend to ban all immigration from seven Muslim nations, including stopping the entry of students and scholars with valid study and work visas from those countries.

A large number of students come to study in the United States from these nations: Iran ranks 11th on the list of countries that send students to the United States. Iraq and Syria participate in a student leaders program supported by the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative. The program brings students to the U.S. to “expand their understanding of civil society, as well as the democratic process and how both may be applied in their home communities.”

Iraq also has an active Fulbright program – an international exchange program meant to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange.”

As a scholar of international education, I have seen the impact of American higher education abroad. While conducting field research in the United Arab Emirates on development of American branch campuses in the Middle East, I was struck by the response of the residents after George Mason University closed its UAE-based campus in 2009.

The setting up of the university campus was heralded as an expansion of American values overseas, and its closure was viewed as an example of “America withdrawing its support” for the region. I was asked, “Why did America choose to pull out of the region?”

In a region where higher education institutions are largely controlled by the government, it was difficult to explain that it was a decision of a single institution, not of the American government.

The fact is that over the decades America has made considerable investments in building goodwill around the world through higher education exchange efforts. Evident in the responses of the people in UAE was how the action of a single institution could erode those sentiments.

So, what might Trump’s ban mean for the U.S. role in international education? And will it undermine the use of international higher education as a soft power tool for the United States?

A soft power tool?

First, let’s look at the role higher education has played in expanding American influence and in building stronger relationships between nations.

In 1945, Senator William Fulbright from Arkansas sponsored a bill to fund a program to support “international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.”

A statue of Senator William Fulbright at the University of Arkansas.
Clinton Steeds, CC BY

Today, the Fulbright program is probably the most widely recognized initiative in the world supporting international exchange, facilitating the movement of more than 360,000 students and scholars across more than 160 countries during its history. Its value is more symbolic – it represents the United States’ view about how international education can support democracy and encourage positive relationships between nations.

The free flow of students and scholars has served well the interests of the United States, including students from those with differing ideologies.

One of the most famous alumni of the Fulbright program was Russian student Alexander Yakovlev, who came to the U.S. to study at Columbia University in 1958 – the period of the Cold War. That same person would return to the USSR to become a close ally of Mikhail Gorbachev and eventually become the “father of glasnost,” the political philosophy (along with “Perestroika”) that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain.

More recently, during a standoff between the United States and China over the future of blind Chinese political dissident Chen Guangcheng, New York University stepped in to offer him a visiting scholar position in New York, thereby diffusing a tense situation.

Time and again international education has been a critically important soft power tool.

Students from banned nations

Coming back to international exchange –– it has played a significant role in promoting peaceful relations between nations for decades.

For most of the 1970s, Iran sent more students to the U.S. than any other country. The peak year was 1979-1980, when more than 50,000 Iranian students came to study in the U.S.

After relations between the two nations deteriorated following the fall of the shah of Iran, the number of students coming to the U.S. dropped dramatically, until there were fewer than 1,700 students in 1998-1999. However, in the 2000s, as relations with the two nations began to warm, the trend finally began to turn around, with the number of students more than doubling from 2010 to 2015.

The other nations on the banned list do not have nearly as robust numbers as Iran, yet they do send students to the U.S. Those numbers are growing overall. Both Iraq and Libya have more than 1,000 students currently studying in the U.S. Although other nations send fewer (there are only 35 Somali students) in total, there were more than 17,300 students from the banned countries studying in the U.S. last year.

What is noteworthy is that was a 7 percent increase over the previous year and a more than 300 percent increase from 15 years ago, when there were only about 4,000 students from those same nations. Iran led with more than 1,800 students, and Syria was number two with more than 700.

In fact, more than 10 percent (about 108,000) of the international students in the U.S. come from the Middle East and North Africa regions, the home to most of the banned countries. When they return home, these students serve as ambassadors of the U.S. and, while here, help us gain a greater appreciation for their culture.

Declining enrollments?

How these actions will impact the students is not clear, but we do know that major events can have lasting impact on international education numbers.

For about five years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the total number of international students studying in the U.S. declined. Much of this decline came from students in Muslim majority nations, who could either not obtain a visa or chose not apply for it. They also feared they would not be welcomed in the United States.

And this was at a time when the American president, George W. Bush, argued that “Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith. But ours is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.”

Data have already suggested that the rhetoric of the current administration has weighed on the minds of students considering where to study abroad. A study by international student recruiting companies prior to the election found that 60 percent of the 40,000 students surveyed in 118 countries would be less inclined to come to the U.S. if Trump won the election (compared to only 3.8 percent who would be less inclined if Clinton won). And that was before the rhetoric turned into reality.

Even though the U.S. still retains the largest global market share of international students, that market share has been declining gradually. This is due to the increased competition from other nations and international student concerns about safety, cost and hospitality in the United States: In 2000, about one quarter of all international students globally came to the United States. Within a decade, that number had shrunk to 19 percent, and by 2012, the number had dropped to 16 percent.

Where is this all going?

An early policy paper by the Trump team seemingly called for the elimination of J-1 visas, which allow for international youth to pursue temporary work in the U.S. And the current administration has sent signals indicating that it would make it more difficult for immigrants to receive H-1B visas, awarded to individuals with specialized skills.

Both of these programs are used by universities to support student and scholar exchanges. It is not yet clear if the current administration will pursue policies in these area that will affect universities in the same way the ban has done.

A Temple University student holds up her sign during a protest in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Corey Perrine

What is clear is that the recent ban has already sent a chilling effect across colleges near and far. Within one day, there were reports of students being trapped overseas and in the U.S. An Iranian Ph.D. student at SUNY Stony Brook was detained at JFK and almost deported.

Another Iranian, pursuing his Ph.D. at Yale, was traveling internationally to conduct research, and feared that he might not be able to return to his studies even though he was a green card holder (the administration subsequently reversed its ban on permanent residents from those nations). There is no telling how many others are blocked from returning having been away on break between semesters.

Protecting our nation is one of the most important roles of the federal government, and we do need to be thoughtful about how to establish effective immigration polices. However, the broad-based nature of the ban flies in the face of decades of support for the power of international exchange. Even a foreign policy hard line approach would typically be softened by an ongoing support of international exchange.

As Senator Fulbright said,

“Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.”

The motivation for this ban is the concern that we might let in a terrorist. But what if we turn away the next great scientist or peacemaker?

The Conversation

Jason Lane, Chair and Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership & Co-Director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team, University at Albany, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump’s Immigration Order is Bad Foreign Policy

A rally against President Donald Trump’s order that restricts travel to the U.S. AP Photo/Steven Senne
A rally against President Donald Trump’s order that restricts travel to the U.S. AP Photo/Steven Senne

David FitzGerald, University of California, San Diego and David Cook Martín, Grinnell College

President Donald Trump banned the entry of people from seven majority Muslim countries last week. Leaders as far apart ideologically as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Bernie Sanders warned the ban could become a recruitment tool for terrorists.

In addition, the U.S. risks straining or losing important diplomatic ties and fragile relationships. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even Theresa May have warned about the geopolitical effects of a ban on immigrants and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. Iran has already promised to take “reciprocal measures” after Trump’s immigration order, although the exact measures remain to be specified.

 

Just last December, the al-Qaida affiliate in East Africa, Al-Shabab, used footage of Trump’s call for a ban on the entry of Muslims as part of a recruitment film.

Banning immigration from seven majority Muslim countries and selectively admitting Christians is a bad idea for many moral and legal reasons. A long history shows such policies also threaten national security. Our research for the book “Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policies in the Americas” shows the perils of policies targeting particular nationalities.

Losing hearts and minds

From the 19th century to 1965, the United States discriminated against various groups. In the 1920s, the U.S. established national origins quotas that set the number of immigrants who were allowed to enter the U.S. from certain countries. These quotas were designed to restrict the entrance of southern and eastern Europeans because nativists like famed eugenecist Harry Laughlin and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge feared the newcomers were likely to be criminals, and even anarchist or Bolshevik terrorists. Anti-Catholic sentiment played a role as well.

The laws kept out Asians altogether on grounds that “no alien ineligible for citizenship shall be admitted to the United States” (43 Stat. 153. Sec. 13 ©). Asians were ineligible for citizenship because of their race. The quotas gave 51,227 of the 164,667 annual spots for immigration to Germans, 3,845 to Italians and zero to Japanese.

Bipartisan coalitions ended this discrimination in large part because it hurt U.S. national security at key moments during World War II and the Cold War.

A presidential commission after World War II found that U.S. exclusion of Japanese immigrants had contributed directly to the growth of Japanese militarism and helped motivate Japan’s attack on the United States in 1941. When the quotas ending Japanese immigration passed in 1924, the press in Japan declared a “National Humiliation Day” to protest the law. Seventeen years later, as the Japanese navy steamed toward Pearl Harbor, Commander Kikuichi Fujita wrote in his diary that it was time to teach the United States a lesson for its behavior, including the exclusion of Japanese immigrants.

During World War II, China became a major ally of the United States. Japan tried to drive a wedge between the Chinese and the Americans by portraying Japan as the defender of Asians against U.S. racism. The fact that the United States had banned Chinese immigration since 1882 through the Chinese Exclusion Act helped make the case. Japanese media in occupied China pointed to the hypocrisy of the Americans, who presented the United States as a friend of the Chinese while banning their entry.

A broad U.S. coalition called for Congress to end Chinese exclusion. President Franklin Roosevelt argued that repeal would “silence the distorted Japanese propaganda” and be “important in the cause of winning the war and of establishing a secure peace.” Congress halted the ban on Chinese naturalization in 1943 and allowed a symbolic annual quota. China remained the key U.S. ally in Asia during the war.

During the Cold War, the quota system posed a new national security problem. The Soviet Union and United States were competing to win the hearts and minds of Asians in battlegrounds like Korea and Vietnam. Radio Moscow’s broadcasts to Asia pointed out that U.S. law continued to treat Asians as inferiors. How could Asians take the side of a country that shunned them?

During the Korean War, Sen. William Benton of Arkansas highlighted the folly of spending billions of dollars and suffering 100,000 U.S. casualties while continuing to restrict the entrance of Koreans. In 1952 he told the Senate:

“We can totally destroy that investment, and can ruthlessly and stupidly destroy faith and respect in our great principles, by enacting laws that, in effect, say to the peoples of the world: ‘We love you, but we love you from afar. We want you but, for God’s sake, stay where you are.’”

By 1956, the Republican and Democratic party platforms both endorsed ending the national origins quotas. Congress finally ended the system in 1965.

Post-9/11

Americans saw the challenge of singling out nationalities again after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) required male citizens of 25 countries who were in the United States on nonimmigrant visas to register with the government. With the exception of North Korea, all of the countries were predominantly Arab or Muslim. More than 1,000 immigrants were detained. None was convicted of terrorism.

Governments in the Middle East and South Asia that had been working with the United States to counter terror were outraged by the harassment of their citizens. It’s hard to work together when one part of the team feels denigrated by the other. The NSEERS program was suspended in 2011 by the Obama administration. Officials concluded that NSEERS had fueled the impression that the United States was hostile to Muslims without stopping criminal acts.

History shows that humiliating national or religious groups on the world stage by restricting their entry makes it harder to keep our allies. It can create new enemies. This ban may put the United States at risk.

The Conversation

David FitzGerald, Theodore E. Gildred Chair in U.S.-Mexican Relations, Professor of Sociology, and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego and David Cook Martín, Professor of Sociology and Assistant Vice President of Global Education, Grinnell College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Counting 11 million undocumented immigrants is easier than you think

A line of people outside the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
A line of people outside the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Jennifer Van Hook, Pennsylvania State University

News organizations widely report that there are 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. But where does this figure come from?

Donald Trump has falsely asserted: “It could be three million. It could be 30 million. They have no idea what the number is.”

In the third debate, Hillary Clinton said, “We have 11 million undocumented people. They [undocumented parents] have 4 million American citizen children. 15 million people.”

The confusion is warranted. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, so how can we know much about the unauthorized foreign-born population?

Well, demographers have figured out a simple and effective way to estimate the number of unauthorized immigrants. In the last five years, my colleagues Frank D. Bean, James D. Bachmeier and I have conducted a series of studies that evaluate this method and its assumptions. Our research on the methods used to estimate the size of this group indicates that these estimates are reasonably accurate.

Here’s how it works.

A simple formula

Beginning in the late 1970s, a group of demographers consisting primarily of Jeffrey Passel, Robert Warren, Jacob Siegel, Gregory Robinson and Karen Woodrow introduced the “residual method” for estimating the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the country. At the time, Passel and his collaborators were affiliated with the U.S. Bureau of the Census and Warren with the Office of Immigration Statistics of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Much of this work was published in the form of internal reports, but some of it appeared in major journals.

The residual method uses an estimate of the total foreign-born population in the country (F), based on U.S. Census data. Researchers then subtract from it the number of legal immigrants residing here (L), estimated from government records of legal immigrants who receive “green cards” minus the number that died or left the country. The result is an estimate of the unauthorized population (U):

F – L = U

Various adjustments are typically made to this formula. Most adjustments are minor, but a particularly important one adjusts for what researchers call “coverage error” among the unauthorized foreign-born. Coverage error occurs when the census data underestimate the size of a group. This can occur when people live in nonresidential or unconventional locations – such as on the streets or in a neighbor’s basement – or when they fail to respond to the census. Coverage error could be particularly high among unauthorized immigrants because they may be trying to avoid detection.

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Hispanic Center are the two major producers of estimates of the unauthorized foreign-born population. This report, compiled by Passel, who now works at Pew, summarizes many of the estimates. It shows that the estimated number increased steadily from 3.5 million in 1990 to 12.2 million in 2007, but declined between 2007 and 2009 and has since stabilized at around 11 million.

How accurate are the estimates?

The residual method has been widely used and accepted since the late 1970s. Within a reasonable margin of error, it predicted the number of unauthorized immigrants to legalize under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which, among other things, granted permanent residency status to unauthorized immigrants who had been living in the country since 1982. The residual method predicted that about 2.2 million met the residency requirement and the actual number to come forward was about 1.7 million.

Both Department of Homeland Security and Pew have used the residual method to produce estimates of the unauthorized population since 2005. Despite using slightly different data and assumptions, Pew’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s estimates have never differed by more than 600,000 people, or 5.5 percent of the total unauthorized population.

Nevertheless, many skeptics question a key assumption of the residual method, which is that unauthorized immigrants participate in census surveys. Both Pew and the Department of Homeland Security inflate their estimates to account for the possibility that some unauthorized immigrants are missing from census data. Pew inflates by 13 percent and the Department of Homeland Security by 10 percent. But is this enough?

Young undocumented brothers from Mexico at their home in Paramount, California.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

My colleagues and I estimated coverage error among Mexican immigrants, a group that composes 60 percent of all unauthorized immigrants. Even if they are not counted in a census, populations leave “fingerprints” of their presence in the form of deaths and births. Because people give birth and die with known regularity regardless of their legal status, we were able to use birth and death records of all Mexican-born persons to determine the number of the Mexican-born persons living in the U.S. We also looked at changes in Mexican census data between 1990 and 2010 to gauge the size of Mexico’s “missing” population, most of whom moved to the United States.

We then compared these estimates based on births, deaths and migration with the number of estimated Mexican immigrants in census data.

Based on this analysis, we found that the census missed as many as 26 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the early 2000s. We speculated that this could have been due to the large numbers of temporary Mexican labor migrants who were living in the United States at the time. Because many worked in construction during the housing boom and lived in temporary housing arrangements, it may have been particularly difficult to accurately account for them in census surveys. However, when the Great Recession and housing crisis hit, many of these temporary workers went home or stopped coming to the U.S. in the first place, and coverage error declined. By 2010, the coverage error may have been as low as 6 percent.

If current levels of coverage error for all unauthorized immigrants were as high as 26 percent, then the number living in the country could be as high as 13 million. But if coverage error were as low as 6 percent, then the figure could be as low as 10.3 million.

What this boils down to is that we have a pretty good idea of the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. It most likely falls within a narrow range somewhere between 10.3 million and 13 million. If coverage error has declined as much as we think it has, then the truth is at the lower end of this range. Despite widespread beliefs, unauthorized immigration is not increasing out of control and certainly is not as high as 30 million. Instead, it has probably really has stabilized somewhere around 11 million.

The Conversation

Jennifer Van Hook, Liberal Arts Research Professor of Sociology and Demography, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How US policy in Honduras set the stage for today’s mass migration

U.S. Marines in Honduras in July 2016. Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Marines in Honduras in July 2016. Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Nevins, Vassar College

Central American migrants – particularly unaccompanied minors – are again crossing the U.S.-Mexico boundary in large numbers.

In 2014, more than 68,000 unaccompanied Central American children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico boundary. This year so far there have been close to 60,000.

The mainstream narrative often reduces the causes of migration to factors unfolding in migrants’ home countries. In reality, migration is often a manifestation of a profoundly unequal and exploitative relationship between migrant-sending countries and countries of destination. Understanding this is vital to making immigration policy more effective and ethical.

Through my research on immigration and border policing, I have learned a lot about these dynamics. One example involves relations between Honduras and the United States.

U.S. roots of Honduran emigration

I first visited Honduras in 1987 to do research. As I walked around the city of Comayagua, many thought that I, a white male with short hair in his early 20’s, was a U.S. soldier. This was because hundreds of U.S. soldiers were stationed at the nearby Palmerola Air Base at the time. Until shortly before my arrival, many of them would frequent Comayagua, particularly its “red zone” of female sex workers.

U.S. military presence in Honduras and the roots of Honduran migration to the United States are closely linked. It began in the late 1890s, when U.S.-based banana companies first became active there. As historian Walter LaFeber writes in “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America,” American companies “built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace.” As a result, the Caribbean coast “became a foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston.”

By 1914, U.S. banana interests owned almost 1 million acres of Honduras’ best land. These holdings grew through the 1920s to such an extent that, as LaFeber asserts, Honduran peasants “had no hope of access to their nation’s good soil.” Over a few decades, U.S. capital also came to dominate the country’s banking and mining sectors, a process facilitated by the weak state of Honduras’ domestic business sector. This was coupled with direct U.S. political and military interventions to protect U.S. interests in 1907 and 1911.

Such developments made Honduras’ ruling class dependent on Washington for support. A central component of this ruling class was and remains the Honduran military. By the mid-1960s it had become, in LaFeber’s words, the country’s “most developed political institution,” – one that Washington played a key role in shaping.

The Reagan era

A U.S. military advisor instructs Honduran troopers in Puerto Castilla, Honduras, in 1983.
AP Photo

This was especially the case during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. At that time, U.S. political and military policy was so influential that many referred to the Central American country as the “U.S.S. Honduras” and the Pentagon Republic.

As part of its effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua and “roll back” the region’s leftist movements, the Reagan administration “temporarily” stationed several hundred U.S. soldiers in Honduras. Moreover, it trained and sustained Nicaragua’s “contra” rebels on Honduran soil, while greatly increasing military aid and arm sales to the country.

The Reagan years also saw the construction of numerous joint Honduran-U.S. military bases and installations. Such moves greatly strengthened the militarization of Honduran society. In turn, political repression rose. There was a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations, “disappearances” and illegal detentions.

The Reagan administration also played a big role in restructuring the Honduran economy. It did so by strongly pushing for internal economic reforms, with a focus on exporting manufactured goods. It also helped deregulate and destabilize the global coffee trade, upon which Honduras heavily depended. These changes made Honduras more amenable to the interests of global capital. They disrupted traditional forms of agriculture and undermined an already weak social safety net.

These decades of U.S. involvement in Honduras set the stage for Honduran emigration to the United States, which began to markedly increase in the 1990s.

In the post-Reagan era, Honduras remained a country scarred by a heavy-handed military, significant human rights abuses and pervasive poverty. Still, liberalizing tendencies of successive governments and grassroots pressure provided openings for democratic forces.

They contributed, for example, to the election of Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformist, as president in 2006. He led on progressive measures such as raising the minimum wage. He also tried to organize a plebiscite to allow for a constituent assembly to replace the country’s constitution, which had been written during a military government. However, these efforts incurred the ire of the country’s oligarchy, leading to his overthrow by the military in June 2009.

Post-coup Honduras

The 2009 coup, more than any other development, explains the increase in Honduran migration across the southern U.S. border in the last few years. The Obama administration has played an important role in these developments. Although it officially decried Zelaya’s ouster, it equivocated on whether or not it constituted a coup, which would have required the U.S. to stop sending most aid to the country.

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Honduran foreign minister in 2010.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular, sent conflicting messages, and worked to ensure that Zelaya did not return to power. This was contrary to the wishes of the Organization of American States, the leading hemispheric political forum composed of the 35 member-countries of the Americas, including the Caribbean. Several months after the coup, Clinton supported a highly questionable election aimed at legitimating the post-coup government.

Strong military ties between the U.S. and Honduras persist: several hundred U.S. troops are stationed at Soto Cano Air Base (formerly Palmerola) in the name of fighting the drug war and providing humanitarian aid.

Since the coup, writes historian Dana Frank, “a series of corrupt administrations has unleashed open criminal control of Honduras, from top to bottom of the government.”

Organized crime, drug traffickers and the country’s police heavily overlap. Impunity reigns in a country with frequent politically-motivated killings. It is the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists, according to Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization.

Although its once sky-high murder rate has declined, the continuing exodus of many youth demonstrates that violent gangs still plague urban neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, post-coup governments have intensified an increasingly unregulated, “free market” form of capitalism that makes life unworkable for many. Government spending on health and education, for example, has declined in Honduras. Meanwhile, the country’s poverty rate has risen markedly. These contribute to the growing pressures that push many people to migrate.

While the next U.S. president will deliberate about what to do about unwanted immigration from “south of the border,” this history provides lessons as to the roots of migration. It also raises ethical questions as to the responsibility of the United States toward those now fleeing from the ravages U.S. policy has helped to produce.

The Conversation

Joseph Nevins, Associate Professor of Geography, Vassar College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.