The Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest has been holding scholarly lectures and discussions addressing the theme of turning points in history. On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the topic was Central American human displacement and migration. This webinar detailed the history of Central American migration, focusing on the roles that racialization and U.S military intervention played in emigration from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Raul Diego Rivera Hernandez moderated three scholars, Leisy Abrego, Ph.D., Amelia Frank Vitale, Ph.D. and Jason De León, Ph.D., in their discussion of the history and impact of migration from Central America. 

The first question discussed how both the political and social turbulence that plagued the Northern triangle of Central America and American intervention affected Central American migration. Abrego responded with regard to El Salvador, explaining the “long history of military repression that has marked the people and country.” She described the 1932 massacre of 30,000 mostly indigneous Salvadorians at the hands of Salvadoran soldiers for protesting oppressive government policies. She asserted that such violence, coupled with extreme government impunity, effectively silenced people. In the 1970s, the state targeted teachers, union members and racialized and indigenous people which contributed to rising emigration numbers from El Salvador. However, it was not until the 1980s, following the murder of beloved archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and the attack of many people at his public funeral, that initiated widespead migration from El Salvador. 

Vitale asserted that large-scale migration out of Honduras did not happen until after Hurricane Mitch, which destroyed the physical and social networks of the country. She also discussed how U.S. intervention impacted immigration. Vitale emphasized that the relationship between the U.S. and Honduras is “militaristic and imperial.” In 2009, there was a coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya from power, instating Roberto Micheletti. While the coup was not led by the U.S., Hilary Clinton offered clear support to the unfair election of Micheletti that followed. In 2017, Micheletti ran again knowing the U.S. would back him, further solidifying this “facade of democracy” (Vitale). In 2018, an “exodus” of Honduras exploded following these fraudulent elections.

 De León further discussed how U.S. intervention played a role in migration from Honduras and Mexico. He explained that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was “supposed to be a bilateral trade agreement,” but instead, has restricted and limited citizens to “making Levi jeans for no money.” Thus, U.S. intervention has made life unlivable for Central Americans, forcing them to migrate. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration poured money into the Honduran military with the onset of the Contras in Nicaragua. Honduras was then “primed for an American style militarization” (De León). This led to widespread kidnappings, as many were forced into the military, which ramped up violence, making life even more unlivable for citizens. In 2014, Honduras was branded a humanitarian crisis as Hondurans “poured out” (De León). 

Hernandez’s second question asked the speakers to reflect on the impact and consequences of U.S. immigration policies on migrants. De León explained that most immigrants from Central America attempt to apply for asylum but are strategically deterred by long waiting periods at border camps. He said that these deterrents are a “primary brutalization tactic” of the U.S. government. Among the many consequences of these deterrent tactics is an increase in unsafe and illegal immigration, which often leads to death and endangerment of Central American migrants. 

Vitale attributed the origin of Central American migrant caravans to safe passage through Central America. Human rights activists started these caravans in 2011, but the Guadio Nationale (Mexican National Guard) and the U.S. government have since employed militaristic tactics at caravans to effectively decrease migration. This creates an even greater increase in unsafe migration through remote areas. 

Abrego highlighted the prevalence of family separation at the border due to U.S. immigration policies beginning in the 1980s. She explained how family separation was prevalent long before the Trump administration, despite the attention it garnered under him. Abrego further discussed how there are many levels of separation, with another being detainment. Families are kept and detained in different places, which further victimizes migrants. She affirmed that such problems with U.S. immigration policy have culminated throughout past administrations. 

 Lastly, Hernandez asked the scholars to explain their thoughts regarding the racialization and legality of immigrant communities. Abrego began by explaining the racialization of Central Americans in the U.S., which she witnessed first-hand growing up in the Southwest. Abrego talked about how Central Americans are portrayed as inherently “violent people who threaten the capitalist system of the U.S.” She argued that this rhetoric developed further under the Trump administration, as he viewed Central American migrants as gang members and drug dealers. Furthermore, she highlighted that the “illegal” status that U.S. immigration policy perpetuates makes it even harder for migrants to “thrive.” 

De León explained that “migration is a highly racialized space.” He spoke about how social scientists only write about Mexican males as migrants, but “the diversity of those groups are much deeper.” De León further discussed how “indigeneity and skin tone” are often looked at with regard to migrants. He referenced the recent photo that emerged of a Haitian border patrol agent whipping a man, asserting that this was only “unique” because there was a photo, and that such acts are extremely prevalent. 

Vitale built off De León’s argument, explaining that the “illegalization of people contributes to the violence of racialization.” She described how in Mexico, Central Americans are considered “illegal and it is their lack of legal status that puts them in danger.” Vitale recounted a story from her research in Central America, in which a Honduran man was told to change his name to sound more Mexican so he would not be targeted by organized crime groups. Additionally, she argued that the intersection of an illegal status with race is not unique to the U.S., as the marginalization and criminalization of migrants, more specifically men, happens as “they move through border and immigrant systems who continue to view them as illegal.” 

This webinar served as an insightful discussion of turning points in history with regard to Central American migration. Abrego, Vitale and De León shared their extensive knowledge and research into this topic. To attend future webinars, The Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest has a website dedicated to the Turning Point Event Series.