Since the day Donald Trump began his run for the presidential office, he has promoted the idea that people who flee to the U.S. are bringing their problems here.
But as his administration takes ruthless steps to discourage asylum-seekers, experts and advocates are working to remind Americans — and the world — that some of the violence driving people to seek shelter in the U.S. has its roots in American foreign policy.
Take domestic violence. Today, a large proportion of people trying to enter the U.S. across the Mexican border are Central American women and children fleeing abusive family members. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the U.S. would no longer recognize domestic violence as a valid basis for an asylum claim, saying, “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”
But domestic violence in Central America is not the product of random misfortune, advocates for these asylum-seekers say. The region’s civil wars, which became bigger and more brutal because of U.S. intervention, created a generation of abusers and decimated the institutions that ought to have kept survivors safe.
The steady flow of migrants fleeing Central America “is not something that is independent from what the United States has done in the past,” explained Cecilia Menjívar, a University of Kansas professor who studies the causes of Central American migration to the U.S. “It’s very much a consequence of the actions of the United States.”
For many decades, but particularly in the 1980s, the United States funneled billions of dollars in military aid to authoritarian Central American governments with the stated goal of combating communism. The funding, equipment and training transformed civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador into conflicts of exceptional brutality. Government forces, sometimes trained by the United States, often exterminated whole villages. In El Salvador, a country of a few million people, 75,000 people died; roughly a fifth of the population fled. In Guatemala, a truth commission would later blame the degree of brutality on training military officers received at the U.S.-run School of the Americas.
“U.S. funding, equipment and training transformed civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador into conflicts of exceptional brutality.”
Today, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where the majority of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border come from, have some of the highest rates of deadly violence against women on the planet.
“We enabled something to get bigger; we enabled a great deal more violence, than would have happened otherwise,” said Terry Karl, a professor of Latin American studies at Stanford University.
The violence today is the aftershock, Karl said. Those conflicts allowed gangs to seize control of large parts of the region and establish a vast network of trafficking routes, while also compromising or destroying the countries’ social institutions. Many of those gangs even originated in the United States – they are a product of violence in Los Angeles that caused an earlier wave of migrants to form their own gangs for protection, only to later return to their home countries. Today, police and the judiciary are struggling to keep extreme levels of crime in check.
Experts have argued that not punishing perpetrators of wartime atrocities fuels the current cycles of violence that plague these countries. In 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the failure in Guatemala to hold people accountable “is one of the most important factors contributing to the persistence of such violations, as well as criminal and social violence.”
“Since these crimes were never punished and the state [of Guatemala] has refused to acknowledge its responsibility for these acts, these sadistic practices became ‘normal’ to thousands of men who were asked to carry out these orders,” Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, the former Attorney General of Guatemala, argued in a recent declaration supporting a woman’s asylum claim. “It is possible that some of those responsible for the widespread violence against women (and others) in Guatemala today are the same perpetrators from the war.”
“We enabled something to get bigger; we enabled a great deal more violence, than would have happened otherwise.”
The characteristics of many domestic abusers, she continued – “their sense of power and their presumption that they would never be held accountable for their crimes” – are essentially the same as those people who committed atrocities during the war. “This has contributed to the creation of a climate of impunity, and the message that these types of crimes are not considered to be of any importance either to the society or to the state.”
Many asylum cases have made the connection between the violence of the wars and domestic violence explicit.
In 1982, a Salvadoran woman named Olimpia Lazo-Majano fled to the United States after escaping an army sergeant in her small town who repeatedly raped and beat her. According to court documents, the sergeant, identified as Rene Zuniga, told her his job was to kill “subversives,” a term used by the government to describe civilians that the military or state-backed security forces had tortured or killed for their perceived sympathies toward guerrilla forces.
Zuniga held her at gunpoint with his service weapon the first time he raped her; other times, he held a pair of hand grenades to her forehead and threatened to blow her up with a bomb. If he killed her, he said, “I can just say that you are contrary to us, subversive.”
“Zuniga had his gun, his grenades, his bombs, his authority and his hold over Olimpia because he was a member of this powerful military group,” wrote a panel of judges who ordered a lower court to grant her asylum. “Persecution is stamped on every page of this record.”
Rody Alvarado Peña, whose case helped inch the United States toward accepting domestic violence as a valid basis for an asylum claim, said her husband’s violence stemmed from the time he served in the Guatemalan army. Alvarado, who fled to the United States in May 1995 and asked for asylum, said her husband’s military service loomed large during many of his beatings. “To scare her,” according to her court files, “he would tell her stories of having killed babies and the elderly while he served in the army.”
Her road to asylum was a long one. For 14 years, her case was batted back and forth between immigration court, the country’s top immigration court, and two U.S. attorneys general. None of them could come to an agreement on whether domestic violence qualified her to claim asylum, until 2009, when she was finally granted permission to stay.
One of the courts noted how it struggled to describe how abhorrent they found her husband’s abuse and marveled that she was even able to escape. Often, when he used stories of his military service to frighten her, he said the same connections would allow him to find her anywhere in Guatemala. “You can’t hide,” he once said. “Even if you are buried underground, you can’t hide from me.”