Members Only | February 7, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

When it came to immigration, legal and illegal, Donald Trump was his own worst enemy

María Isabel Puerta Riera explains why "America First" put America last.

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Political and economic crisis used to be the main reason migrants left Latin America. But recent changes in migration patterns suggest that something else is going on. It turns out other circumstances (violence, food insecurity) or other combinations of factors (corruption, poverty and climate change) also inspire the decision to leave.

In 2016, more than 66 percent of the population in Honduras lived in poverty. Guatemala occupied fifth place in the top 10 list of poorest economies in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018. Although El Salvador has been suffering from persistently low levels of economic growth, it has shown minor improvement, though violence continues to be one among the main incentives for people to migrate.

The Trump administration’s stance on immigration policy was not only anti-immigrant. It was anti-scientific, too.

But in recent years, it has become evident that the impact of climate change on the region is critical to a situation that’s forcing families and unaccompanied minors to leave the country and seek asylum in the United States. These countries have felt the direct consequences of climate change in their agriculture-based economies.

Between droughts and floods, crops are lost, as are the livelihoods of people who have traditionally depended on agriculture or fishing to make a living. Climate change is particularly devastating in countries characterized by poor governance and corruption, where the lack of institutional response throws families into food insecurity.

In addition to the loss of agriculture as a way of life, and the high levels of malnourishment that come with that, violence is another trigger for migration, especially in El Salvador, with one of the highest rates of homicides in the area of the Northern Triangle. Also, among migrants from Honduras, and in less proportion Guatemala, insecurity is among the main reasons to leave. Governments incapable of addressing climate change and violence conspire with powerful gangs and drug trafficking to create conditions by which vulnerable people are pushed out. 

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In response, multilateral efforts led by the United States and the Inter-American Development Bank, based in Washington, were designed to provide assistance to countries experiencing significant migration. Resources were assigned, not only to control migration, but to improve people’s lives. A series of programs targeting climate change, prosperity, economic security and governance were part of a strategy to build conditions needed to minimize effects leading to sustained migration cycles.

These programs, like the Climate, Nature, and Communities of Guatemala, were successful under the Barack Obama administration and offered encouraging outcomes in response to climate change with crop diversification, water conservation and reforestation. But in 2017, the Donald Trump administration cancelled them.

Trump’s decision, in 2019, to cut aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala came as no surprise, but it failed to prevent migrants from coming. Moreover, the lifeline those funds provided to the most vulnerable population in the region left no alternative: leaving the country was their only hope to survive food insecurity and violence. 

Trump’s fear-mongering of immigrants, whether he was referring to Muslims or Central Americans, reflected a more disturbing feature that unfortunately is shared by many of his followers. Ironically, a base that touts Christianity as a sign of moral superiority supported child separations at the border, banning people for religious beliefs, and cutting aid to prevent those seeking help from reaching the country.

Having made immigration his main campaign promise in 2016, it was clear undocumented immigrants were not the only target. Stephen Miller drastically curbed legal immigration. Asylum seekers were blocked at the border while affirmative asylum cases suffered a significant backlog (up to eight years in some cases!) due to the pressure put on the system by defensive asylum cases. Moreover, the Trump administration radically reduced the number of refugees allowed in the country.

Miller’s proposals to reduce legal immigration were so harsh it got no traction among Republicans. So the administration just went ahead and made it harder to enter. These changes caused backlogs in employment-based visas, altering the procedures that had been in place for years, contributing to the buildup in the vetting of Green Cards as well. However, it didn’t stop there, Trump also explored the possibility of revoking citizenship when his administration created a “denaturalization task force” aimed at reviewing granted citizenship. All of this, in other words, was an effort to make legal immigration impossible or it threatened to create a path to second-class citizenship.

Even if we just try to approach it from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, without any suggestion of empathy or solidarity, it would have made sense to continue Obama’s assistance program in Central America. If Trump had been determined to prevent a crisis in the asylum system, the decision to cut aid had the opposite effect. Indeed, it triggered a much more significant cycle of migrants heading to the United States.

This is not just a blatant anti-immigrant stance; this is also an anti-scientific perspective. Decisions by the Trump administration to roll back environmental policies are the strongest statement of a shared contempt for climate change awareness. Supporters are merely protecting the interests of wealth tied to the polluting industry creating conditions driving people out of Central America.

María Isabel Puerta Riera

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a political scientist, currently adjunct professor at Valencia College (Florida), and former associate professor at the Universidad de Carabobo (Venezuela).

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a political scientist, currently adjunct professor at Valencia College (Florida), and former associate professor at the Universidad de Carabobo (Venezuela).

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