Friday, February 05, 2016

Abandoning El Salvador

In the United States, neither the people in general nor the media in particular are known for a long attention span. I have always assumed that Mexican poet Octavio Paz was thinking of acts of intervention when he famously wrote "Alas, poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" But the sentiment applies equally to our sins of omission -- our ability to forget one day what was demanding all of our attention the day before.

A recent example is the success of  Daesh/ISIS in distracting presidential contenders and much of the media and general public, through horrific acts in Paris and California. Both our angst and our xenophobia shifted quickly. The fear of migrant children from the South that had commanded so much attention in the summer and early autumn dropped away. But Central America and Mexico remain our close neighbors, and it behooves us to continue paying attention.
Senator Kennedy challenged young people to international service while he was a presidential candidate. The birth of the Peace Corps is considered to have started during this campaign appearance in 1960.
All of this is by way of preamble for several stories about U.S. connections to the region that warrant our attention. One is the announcement earlier this month that the United States is removing Peace Corps volunteers from El Salvador because of escalating violence there. The Obama Administration insists that the decision does not signify abandonment of the region, and cites ongoing spending on development. It is not clear, however, how development funds will be spent effectively without the involvement of those who work most closely with Salvadoran communities. The removal of volunteers may have been necessary, but it is also deeply concerning. It also takes place in the context of an administration that has missed many opportunities to promote justice in the region, despite its progressive reputation.

The decision also highlights concerns about deportations that continue to return young people to a region where their safety is far from assured. It also reminds us of the dark history of U.S. contributions to ongoing violence in the region itself and in deportation policies that enabled the growth of criminal gangs that now operate as close to home as Boston.

My interest in El Salvador began in the 1980s when I was working in a church in Silver Spring, Maryland that was part of a broad, interfaith movement that was providing sanctuary to refugees who in many instances needed protection while awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims. Under the Geneva Convention, many -- perhaps most -- of the 200,000 refugees who had reached the Washington, DC area were eligible for asylum.

But the Department of State usually insisted on deporting them as "economic migrants" and returning them to a war zone, even as migrants from far safer situations in Eastern Europe were granted asylum. I remember clearly a diplomat's answer to my question about this during a meeting with students at my university: to grant Salvadorans asylum would be to admit that the government we supported in their country was as violent as they claimed. So church people rallied around these refugees -- both in D.C. and on the Mexican border -- using their churches as the safe havens they have been for centuries. We eventually learned that U.S. allies in El Salvador had little regard for such niceties, as they began assassinating priests and nuns on church properties, eventually killing the Archbishop himself in a hospital chapel.

All of this is very relevant background for today's excellent discussion of Latino participation in U.S. politics on a recent hour of the On Point radio program. Three-quarters of Latinos in the United States are Mexican-American and most are not migrants, so the discussion is much broader than the question of Central American migration, and is essential to understanding the interplay between politics and demographics.

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