From the very beginning, the fierce national debate over immigration has been shamefully dishonest.
During countless hours of heated discussion broadcast on television and radio, our journalists, elected officials and political pundits have repeatedly failed to tell us an essential, but difficult truth about immigration: The growing Latino presence in the U.S. is the unintended consequence of our own country’s long history of intervention in Latin America.
In fact, every major wave of Latino migration has been directly connected to aggressive U.S. actions taken to favor our corporate or military interests in the hemisphere. From the wars for territorial expansion that gave the U.S. total control of Puerto Rico, pre-Castro Cuba and half of Mexico, to the covert operations that imposed oppressive military regimes throughout the Caribbean and Central America, the complex and heartbreaking story of Latino migration has been largely hidden from the great majority of citizens in the United States.
In the absence of truth, misinformation has become reality, and our overall ignorance about the true origins of migration has allowed the voices of intolerance to dominate the national stage. Conservatives have demonized the nation’s hard-working Latino immigrants with the incessant use of such offensive terms as “illegals” and “anchor babies,” but how many of us know even the most basic facts about the brutal dictatorships our government imposed on Latin America?
Take the example of my country of origin: El Salvador. In 1980 there were fewer than 100,000 Salvadorans in the United States. Today, just a little over three decades later, there are nearly two million Salvadorans throughout the country. According to the Census, Salvadorans have already surpassed the number of Cuban Americans and become the third-largest Latino nationality in the U.S. How could such a massive population shift happen so quickly and so dramatically?
El Salvador is the smallest country in all of the Americas, with a long history of poverty and governmental corruption. If the conservative argument was correct and immigration was driven mainly by people who wanted to come and take advantage of our social services, then the U.S. would have always experienced migration from El Salvador. But this is not what happened. The historic exodus from this tiny nation did not start until 1980, as a direct result of a savage civil war largely funded by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid.
In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allowed our multinational agribusiness to flood the Mexican market with corn, rice and other products that receive heavy subsidies from the U.S. government.
The accord proved to be highly profitable for our companies, but devastated the lives of millions of small-plot farmers in Mexico whose produce was left unprotected by NAFTA. Predictably, the U.S. experienced one of the largest migratory spikes in history. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of undocumented persons in the U.S. quickly doubled after NAFTA, from 5,700,000 in 1995 to 11,100,000 just ten years later.
These are just two examples of how U.S. foreign policy is directly connected to the growing Latino presence in the U.S. As immigrants, many of us are acutely aware of this truth, but how much do our fellow citizens know about the real causes for Latino migration? How much do our members of Congress know, even as they play politics with the future of millions of Latino families?
As journalist Juan González says in Harvest of Empire, his seminal book about the history of Latino migration: “We are all Americans of the New World, and our most dangerous enemies are not each other, but the great wall of ignorance between us.”
Eduardo López is the Co-Director and Co-Producer of Harvest of Empire, an award-winning documentary that examines the history of Latino migration to the U.S. The film is based on the book of the same name by Juan González. For more information on Harvest of Empire, please visit, www.harvestofempiremovie.com.