The US is still a ‘shining city on a hill’ for many

Published 9:42 am Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.” — Brother Luke to 10-year-old Robin, from the book “A Door in the Wall” (1949) by Marguerite de Angeli.

In his farewell address to the nation in 1989, Ronald Reagan elaborated on his idea of the United States as a shining city on a hill. His dream, he said, was “…a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

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Today there is heart and will, if few other possessions, among tens of thousands of children entering the U.S. at the end of a grueling and dangerous journey from Central America. These children, sometimes accompanied by their mothers, see America as a place of refuge and promise.

While the U.S. has its problems (what great country doesn’t?), lawlessness like what some of the children are fleeing is not among them. The fact that so many of the children are being held in detention shows that the immigration law George W. Bush signed in 2008, which was meant to protect children from outside Mexico and Canada from sex-trafficking, is being enforced.

But the roots of this migration go back much further than 2008. From the early 1900s through the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. repeatedly intervened militarily in the three main countries involved — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which together cover an area not much bigger than Minnesota — on behalf of U.S.-based fruit companies operating there. The actions favored rigid income inequality that remains in place today.

Fearing the advance of communism as renewed peasant rebellions sought political and economic reforms, the U.S. fought proxy wars with the Soviet Union in El Salvador and Guatemala in the early 1980s. Government forces — with U.S. money and CIA training — murdered and disappeared hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and political rivals. Honduras, while relatively peaceful during this time, endured a notorious CIA-trained death squad known as Batallion 316.

These conflicts cut deep personal scars, weakened civil society, and displaced millions of people. At one point during the 1980s, about one-fifth of El Salvador’s population lived in the U.S. as refugees, particularly in California. Some of the youth, for various reasons, started and joined gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and 18th Street (Mara 18).

Here is where the U.S. drug war intersects with the story. The U.S. deported many gang members convicted of drug crimes to El Salvador, some of whom hadn’t set foot in their homeland since they were children. Local authorities were unprepared for their return, and the young men soon turned to gang activities for survival. Their tactics escalated to include brutal torture and murders reminiscent of the violence during the country’s recent civil war.

The gangs spread to Honduras, Guatemala and other countries, and gang members in the U.S. were deported to these places as well. Con Air flights to Honduras land in San Pedro Sula, which is now the most dangerous city on earth, with a murder rate of about 175 per 100,000. (The U.S. homicide rate is 4.8; Britain’s is 1.0.)

The U.S. also destabilized the Colombian drug trade as part of the drug war starting in the late 1980s. When the Medellin and Cali cartels were disrupted along the Caribbean corridor, Mexican cartels took over the flow of cocaine and heroin to lucrative U.S. drug markets using overland routes through Central America.

Drug trafficking has brought increased violence as rival gangs fight for control of smuggling routes. They operate with little legal sanction and effectively control swaths of the countries, especially Honduras, which is the poorest and barely has a functioning government after a 2009 coup. People don’t go to the police for fear of retaliation — the police are corrupted by gangs as well.

Thus, a strict “send the children back” policy does not pass any moral test. People are illegally crossing the U.S. border in response to dire circumstances they have little power to influence. Without government institutions at home to rely on, they rely on themselves.

In perspective, our borders are not “under siege.” Illegal border crossings are down overall, and there are twice as many border patrol agents as there were 10 years ago.

Can we acknowledge that the U.S. helped shape this current humanitarian crisis and shelter the children we determine to be refugees?

Or, will small-mindedness and fear prevail? Have the children managed to find the door in the wall only to have us slam it shut on them?

For all our shortcomings and divisions as a country, I hope we still believe, as Reagan did, in that shining city on a hill with doors in its walls.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.