As President Trump rails against border crossers from friendly countries to the south, it is worth observing that, when convenient to U.S. purposes, we have brought in our Latin neighbors by the thousands, through bi-national agreements and even by force.
During World War II, the United States kidnapped more than 6,000 residents of Latin American countries, selecting those with German, Japanese or Italian roots, and transported them in ships’ holds or crowded cabins and in trains with blacked-out windows to concentration camps, mostly in Texas. There they were held, sometimes for years, for potential use in trade for U.S. civilians caught behind enemy lines in Europe and the Pacific. At the same time, under an agreement with Mexico we imported hundreds of thousands of farm workers to cover a wartime labor shortage.
The secret wartime capture operation, called Quiet Passages, is a blight on our history. The WWII bracero program, which recruited Mexicans anxious for work, was a success, ensuring a stable food supply for U.S. troops and the home front. Unlike residents of other nations caught up in the war, Americans suffered little in their daily food intake. Eventually abuses crept into the bracero program; nevertheless, some 4.5 million Mexican workers labored legally in the U.S. under the agreement until it was terminated in 1966.
When convenient to U.S. purposes, we have brought in our Latin neighbors by the thousands, through bi-national agreements and even by force.
On a spring day in 1943, six months after the bracero agreement was signed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho sat side by side in high-backed chairs at a rose-covered banquet table in Monterrey, trading viewpoints that are important, even poignant, to remember.
Geography made the border between the U.S. and Mexico , which was unfortified and undefended, “a natural bridge of conciliation between the Latin and the Saxon cultures of the continent,” said Ávila. A year later, 300 fliers of Mexican Air Force Squadron 201 trained in Texas and Idaho before making bombing runs over Luzon and Formosa during the liberation of the Philippines and ferrying aircraft from Papua New Guinea to the Pacific theater for the Allies fighting Japan. Minerals vital for military equipment and ammunition flowed from Mexico to U.S. war industries — copper, zinc, mercury, cadmium, graphite, lead.
“We have all of us recognized the principle of independence,” Roosevelt said. “It is time that we recognize also the privilege of interdependence — one upon another.”
During the Central American wars in the 1980s, a wag among reporters called the El Salvador conflict “the war you could drive to,” but the road ran both ways. At night in San Salvador, a local radio program took calls from neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which was then becoming the world’s second largest Salvadoran metropolis. To the Rivas family of Santa Tecla — thank God we have arrived. For safety and community, young Salvadoran refugees formed gangs in Los Angeles; deported members wrought violence when they returned to their homeland, which now drives other Salvadorans to the United States. The war you could drive to became a Möbius strip, endlessly traveled.
In Guatemala, Central America’s largest country, people head north with little regard for obstacles. “Ya no da,” an indigenous Maya friend of mine says about the fields near her highland village; the earth no longer “gives forth” as it did before climate change brought drought, or excessive rains.
A border wall, or even the threat of seeing their children held in cages, does not stop people from leaving. What would slow or stop them is positive change at home. Nobody wants to be a refugee.
Among efforts that have helped to keep Latin Americans from fleeing north are private programs such as one a friend founded with private donations almost 30 years ago, which has benefited hundreds of Guatemalan children and their families, providing the shoes and books they must have for school, and after school, teaching skills that can be applied to professional work. I remember the first youngsters to join; they were living in the city dump, unable to read or write. Now they have jobs in government and media and run the program themselves. (They call themselves Fotokids, after the first skill they learned, photography.) They don’t want to leave their families, or Guatemala.
Instead of blustering about asylum seekers and cutting aid to Central America, Trump should ensure that assistance goes to non-government organizations with proven records on the ground. Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services, for instance, have worked in the region for decades, providing services such as free monthly check-ups for infants, and they are present in crises, like last year’s volcanic eruptions in Guatemala. Groups like these can be trusted to know the region and bypass entrenched and corrupt elites.
Successful government programs should not be cut but reinforced. In El Salvador, violence has been reduced by 61% in municipalities where the Agency for International Development funds programs. Technical assistance to Honduran farmers has reduced soil erosion by 70,000 tons, encouraging farm families to stay put.
With or without a wall, our southern border is just a thin line winding across rivers and ranch land and enormous stretches of desert. That vast landscape is inhabited by neighbors who can each benefit the other in multiple ways. All that is required is a recognition of the interdependence of the countries of our hemisphere, of which President Roosevelt so eloquently spoke at a time when that recognition was a matter of life or death.
Mary Jo McConahay’s latest book is “The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II.”
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