Before the horrific picture of the terrified crying 2-year-old or the audio of desperate "tender-age" children crying out for their mommies and their daddies, and before the dad who'd watched U.S. agents rip his toddler from his arms hanged himself in a Texas county jail cell, and before the photos of kids in cages turned America from a human-rights beacon into a global pariah, there was the caravan.
It was just three months ago — even if it feels like three years ago — that news accounts about the caravan of 1,000 or so Central Americans who'd crossed one river into Mexico and were now making the grueling trek north toward the southern U.S. border poked the national consciousness and drew the ire of President Trump, who tweeted they were "heading to our 'Weak Laws' Border" just days before his government announced a "zero tolerance" policy toward such refugees.
Lost in the presidential panic and the ensuing harsh reaction — which has now triggered what amounts to a civil war for America's very soul — is the question that lies at the crux of our continent's migration crisis and yet too rarely gets asked: What would prompt any parent to grab his or her child by the hand and lead them across raging rivers and over Mexican mountain peaks, only to face such an uncertain fate from armed U.S. law officers at the end of their odyssey?
That spring caravan, according to reporting by NBC News, included migrants like fieldworkers Magdel and Mirna Lopez and their son, not yet 2, who decided to flee their small village in eastern Honduras after narcotraffickers murdered two of Mirna's sisters. "We have rights as humans to be safe," Magdel Lopez told a journalist, "and I believe the troops at the [U.S.] border will respect that."
Alexandra Mejia was one of 20 transgender individuals in the caravan fleeing violent persecution back home. The 29-year-old said she left El Salvador's capital city after drug traffickers raped her and murdered her father. At her dad's funeral, the same traffickers told Mejia they would kill her if she didn't flee the country in 24 hours. She took their advice.
If there's a common refrain in the sad stories behind the waves of Central American migration that have buffeted America's southern boundary over this decade, it is that these refugees thought it was better to take a chance on the increasingly fraught U.S. border than to risk certain death at home.
"There are some people fleeing the gang violence in Guatemala, some women are fleeing gender-based violence" — which Attorney General Jeff Sessions just ruled out as grounds for U.S. asylum — "and some people are fleeing extreme poverty," said Elizabeth Oglesby, associate professor at the University of Arizona's Center for Latin American Studies, who has studied the region extensively.
In 2014, when the biggest wave of refugees came to the United States, including thousands of unaccompanied teens, the United Nations' High Commissioner found that 58 percent of the migrants had been "forcibly displaced" and were entitled to international protection.
It's this flood that triggered the harsh response from Team Trump, including the "zero tolerance" prosecution of migrants, as well the ensuing public outcry over family separation, and exorbitant spending on the detention centers that seem to be Trump's preferred solution. So why aren't we working harder to make the nations of Central America's Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — safe so that people can stay in their native counties?
One problem is that most experts note, correctly, that American meddling in Central American affairs has played such a critical role in leading to the region's instability and violence in the first place. Indeed, the Arizona professor Oglesby was speaking to me from the Guatemalan village of Nebaj, where she is studying the aftermath of the genocidal rule of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled in the early 1980s with strong support from the U.S. government and faced accusations that 200,000 mostly Mayans were killed by his troops.
"That's relevant," Oglesby told me, "because even after the civil wars ended in the 1990s, these criminal counter-insurgency networks morphed into organized-crime networks" — violent gangs known to burst into the homes of innocent civilians and demand payment. She noted that some form of violence — including the targeting of activists for environmentalism and the rights of indigenous people or the LGBT community — has been endemic in Guatemala since the 1954 coup that installed a military government at the behest of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA.
Neighboring Honduras has the one of the world's highest murder rates; the killing there intensified after pro-democracy forces were crushed in a 2009 military coup and a subsequent sham election — the results of which were nevertheless endorsed by the administration of Barack Obama. American meddling in El Salvador peaked during Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, when the U.S. spent millions to support the death-squad-infested government defeat leftist guerrillas. Some Salvadorean refugees learned the art of gang violence on the streets of Los Angeles, then brought it back home when America deported them for criminal activity. These short-sighted, short-term policies — inspired by a long-over Cold War or a badly botched "war on drugs" — are deeply intertwined in the present crisis.
The U.S. does spend money on addressing the root causes that have caused the Central American refugee crisis but those dollars tend to be dwarfed by what we spend on things like military patrols or privately run mass detention centers for those arrested at the border (not to mention the insane $25 billion pricetag for the border wall that was at the heart of Trump's 2016 election victory). In 2014, when the last migration wave was peaking, the $295 million that America spent on foreign aid in Central America was less than 10 percent of our overall border-security program.
Of course, no one is advocating massive political intervention by the United States — not when that's what helped cause so much of this mess in the first place. But advocates say there are smaller-bore efforts that could help bring social change, in addition to a focus on ending day-to-day corruption in the police or the judiciary, as opposed to targeting the big drug kingpins.
Oglesby suggested the United States could increase its existing support for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a UN-backed entity that was formed in 2006 and has seen some positive results in investigating organized crime and political corruption. Instead, she noted, some GOP members of Congress want to reduce U.S. assistance to the panel. In an op-ed for The Hill, Oglesby called for leaders in Congress to tour Central America in order to see the problems first-hand, and also for tying foreign aid to ending political graft.
Look, there's no way that even the most humanitarian-minded American government could undo the bitter fruits of decades of toxic U.S. policy overnight. And that's not the government we have today. But right now we're barely trying — even as we spend billions of dollars on "zero tolerance" that isn't just penny-wise, pound-foolish, but which also has become so noxious from a human-rights perspective that Nazi analogies have suddenly gone mainstream. The idea of investing several billion dollars on positive programs and focusing America's global clout on creating a Guatemala where children can sleep at night without getting robbed, beaten or raped — as opposed to a $25 billion wall to turn away desperate people — seems like the ultimate no-brainer.
Even in a moment where brains seem in especially short supply.