‘What Happens to These Hundreds of Thousands of People That Are Being Deported?’

Janine Jackson interviewed Suyapa Portillo about deportations of Central American refugees for the May 20, 2016, episode of CounterSpin.

Suyapa Portillo

Suyapa Portillo: “If the US were to acknowledge Central Americans, it’s almost like the State Department would [have to] acknowledge its complicity with the level of violence that has been happening, not just right now, but over a hundred years in the region.”


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Janine Jackson: “If you come from some place because someone wanted to kill you, if you go back they are going to kill you.” Disturbing words from a young woman explaining to Al Jazeera why she made the perilous trip from El Salvador to the US. After being kidnapped and assaulted at age 16 by armed men, she became one of tens of thousands of children coming into the US without a guardian from the three Central American countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle. Most are fleeing a level of violence that’s hard to fathom, but the Obama administration is stepping up raids and deportations, which officials tell the New York Times are aimed mainly at Central American mothers and children.

What’s going on here, and what could journalists be asking about it besides what effect it might have on the election? Suyapa Portillo is assistant professor of Chicano/a- Latino/a transnational studies at Pitzer College. She joins us now by phone from California. Welcome to CounterSpin, Suyapa Portillo.

Suyapa Portillo: Thank you for having me.

JJ: Well, let’s talk about why people come from these Central American countries that are being targeted right now for deportation. It isn’t because the journey is easy or because life is easy once you get here. And, indeed, they aren’t mainly coming here, despite the impression one might get; they’re mainly trying to go to Belize or Costa Rica or Panama. But why do so many feel that they have to leave?

SP: Looking at the individual countries, they have such a different history, right? Guatemala and El Salvador saw a protracted conflict. In Guatemala since 1952, 1954, with over 200,000 murders, and many, many more disappeared by the state and by US collusion with the state. El Salvador saw over 70,000 murders by the military, again with US involvement, in the 1980s. And the peace accords were signed in 1996 for Guatemala, 1992 for El Salvador, so that was really recent. And then you see these countries go from that, thrust into neoliberal politics, export-processing zones… Peace meant a transition into this ultra-capitalist system.

What happens is, those people couldn’t find jobs, right, going from the war. Either they had to migrate because of death — so many of them lost family members and came in the 1980s; and so the kids now want to reunite with those people that came in the 1980s, their parents, right? So that’s one issue.

The other issue is, what are these graduates going to do, these people that were children in the 1980s that are now adults, where are they going to work? At a maquiladora, sort of a sweatshop, which does not respect labor rights? That is what I think is at the crux of this.  Everybody else is talking about violence and all this stuff, but, you know, that is violence, when you go from an extreme authoritarian system into this free capital system. These countries haven’t had a chance to transition into any kind of peace, or any kind of normal functioning.

So when we think about why people are coming, well, people have been coming since the 1980s, it’s just that they were coming and living in the shadows in the 1980s to escape the violence. Over 97 percent of asylum claims in the 1980s were denied political asylum. And, you know, that continues today with Central America. So it seems like if the US were to acknowledge Central Americans, it’s almost like the State Department would [have to] acknowledge its complicity with the level of violence that has been happening, not just right now, but over a hundred years in the region.

JJ: I want to pull out a point that you made in the midst of that, which is that while the US was in the midst of the dirty wars in Central America under the Reagan administration, you said that over 97 percent of Central Americans were denied political asylum at that time.

SP: Exactly.

JJ: And that there’s a sense that to acknowledge that they were fleeing and were deserving of asylum would have meant talking about the US’s role in creating the situation that they were fleeing, and in some sense that is still the case today.

Well, let’s come up to today. Because when I read what coverage there is, I see Department of Homeland Security representatives telling folks, telling the New York Times, well, we’re just enforcing the law “consistent with our priorities.” And another official told the Guardian, we have to deport these people, essentially, because we can only grant asylum when a person’s fear is based on specific grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or of a political opinion.

SP: I would say the last two, membership in a political group and the protected category of belonging to a social group, are critical here for Central American mothers and children. To apply for political asylum, you have to prove a couple of things. You have to prove credible threat, meaning if you received threats via email, cell phone…. Nowadays we have so many more ways to receive threats. Back in the day, it was a white hand painted outside your door, or just someone telling you, hey, they’re going to come after you, and then people had to flee. It’s really hard for people to have to prove, particularly Mayan Guatemalans, who didn’t even speak Spanish sometimes. And there was no coverage in the newspaper, because the newspapers are controlled by the elite and the right wing, right?

It’s really hard to provide that sort of material evidence in wars that have been covert, in documents that are sitting at our State Department archive that are blacked out. Massacres that happened…. We know that over 50 US military advisors were in Guatemala in the 1980s, right? They were writing reports. Those reports are sitting in those archives. But we don’t have access to them. So how do we prove, yeah, there was a massacre?

JJ: Exactly. Even folks like Nancy Pelosi are coming forward and saying, this is not the approach, you know? I mean, [even] if we’re not going to acknowledge the US’s role in creating the instability and the violence in these countries, sending these people back to it is just no kind of solution. You’re talking about gender, which I think is also fascinating: It’s not listed as a protected category, and yet US asylum officers spoke with like 16,000 women from the Northern Triangle and Mexico, and found 82 percent had credible fears of persecution and torture. And yet this is not enough to make them refugees.

But let’s come to the present moment  and to what folks are trying to do. I know there’s been a lot of anger and resistance to this surge of raids and deportations, but what are folks calling for? What do we see as the other response? What else could we do?

SP: The most important thing to do is to demand, from your local legislators, demand that they stop the deportations. To begin to link the issues of Central American women and children, gang members, LGBT trans women. Because for so long, we’ve been talking about immigration in the context of families, right? The president said, you know, we don’t want to deport families, we want to deport felons. But we really need to band together here, as all deportable people, right? To really begin to demand from our elected officials some clear and strong resistance to what the Obama administration is doing.

[Immigrants are] not lying; they’re coming from—the modern Hondurans are—neoliberal, right-wing governments, that are not doing anything for people, that are not creating jobs, that are not bringing peace, that are not enforcing security or even prosecuting any of the murders.

I’ve been talking about women in Honduras. In 2012, there were over 600 murders of women. Not one of those has been prosecuted. Two hundred murders of LGBT folks since 2009, not one has been prosecuted or brought to investigation. It is a completely flawed judicial system. The country’s in chaos.

In Guatemala, we saw the protests just a few months ago; that corruption runs all the way up to the presidency. In Honduras, we see protests. All of these messages that Washington’s not picking up on, that they’re being tone deaf about, and they’re not really listening, that the people are not supporting those governments and that those governments are excruciatingly painful for people, and that that’s why they’re leaving.

The other thing is, because these countries were in war for so long, the ability to rebuild society. After World War II—maybe for many Americans, they may think, well, it wasn’t World War II, you know. But for us Central Americans, it was the most devastating situation to have ever lived. The majority of my mom’s lifetime as an adult, she lived under military dictators. I was born during a military dictatorship. We experienced not being able to freely travel from one city to another, military presence in our cities, right?

So for us to rebuild our countries is going to take some time, and it’s not going to happen through military intervention. It’s going to happen through assistance and programs and listening to what people need.

Europe didn’t rebuild itself. Everybody helped rebuild Europe after World War II. What is the US doing to help rebuild Central America after their involvement in the 1980s? Absolutely nothing.

JJ: What would be one question that you would like reporters to be asking right now about this that they’re not?

SP: What are the countries doing to receive [deported] immigrants? The Latino press, the Spanish press, covers this a little bit. $350 million went down to the Northern Triangle from the US to help receive people, to provide services and school programs for deported kids. But I think they’re pocketing that money, because I haven’t seen one program. I read the Central American newspapers every morning. I haven’t seen one program to surface, right? Usually the government promotes their programs. You know, there’s supposed to be a shelter, but the shelters are limited, they only give people one day to sleep and a sandwich. That’s what I’ve heard.

So I think an interesting story would be, well, we’re sending people back, but what is the government doing for them over there? Like, how are they assisting them to reintegrate into society? We talk a lot about integration here, but we don’t talk about integration there. I think that would be cool to cover in English, because I see a little bit in Spanish. My assumption is these governments are just pocketing that money and they’re developing, like, quote unquote, security, right? Like military police.

I’m shocked that we’re sort of just looking at our navel and we’re not thinking, well, what happens to these hundreds of thousands of people that are being deported and how are they reintegrating and — not just being killed but, you know, what is the government doing for them?

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Suyapa Portillo of Pitzer College. I’d like to thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Suyapa Portillo.

SP: Thank you so much.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.