by Tom Webb, Pax Christi Northern California

Justice and dignity for all immigrantsAs the debates among contenders for the Republican and Democratic nominations for president rage on, it’s clear that the immigration will be one of the more closely watched issues in next year’s political campaigns.  Positions range from Donald Trump’s “deport them all” to those who argue that expanding border security by making the entire country of Mexico a buffer zone to stem the flow of immigrants are laid out as options.

But in August a group of seventeen interfaith clergy and lay religious leaders from across the United States made a ten day pilgrimage to Honduras and Guatemala organized by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Our purpose was to learn from clerical and lay leaders of Catholic and Protestant denominations and academics who provided direct services or researched immigration issues.about the deeper, unreported causes of the violence and poverty.  What we learned  paints a far darker and complex picture than aspirants for political office and those in positions of political power may offer,

Faith leaders in northern Honduras near the city of San Pedro Sula posed these problems to us.  How does one respond when a consortium of U.S.-based hydroelectric interests  who are part of the Central American Electrical Interconnection System (SIEPC) forcibly drive people from their small, rural communities into crime-ridden and desperate urban neighborhoods in a wild plan to subvert water from four rivers for a dam which in seventy or eighty years may provide electricity to the United States?  And when leaders of these faith communities begin organizing community members against these interests and discover their lives are threatened on multiple levels, who is to blame?

And what may one say when Chinese and U.S. mining interests in Honduras eager to explore for gold, silver and lead destroy the ecological systems which have sustained rural communities for generations?  And when such interests are granted impunity to mine without cost create environmental collateral damage who should bear the burden of the cost?

Or one may consider the plight of the Garifuna people who are simple fishing people or rural farmers who’ve lived in Honduras and Guatemala since the mid-18th century.  In Honduras they are now being driven from the villages on the Caribbean coast by armed, government forces and accused of “environmental terrorism”.  Meanwhile,  a newly-built five star is spewing waste into nearby water systems.  Over half of the villagers had left many of whom had either immigrated to tried to immigrate to the U.S. to seek a new opportunities.

How may one respond when land reform in both countries has been routinely undermined to benefit big agriculture interests ranging from the now defunct United Fruit Company and its heir Chiquita not to mention African palm growers whose palm oil find their way into products ranging from Doritos, dietary supplements and Mazzola products?  And what country has been covertly involved in supporting such interests?

Or consider textile firms in Honduras some of whom are given unimaginable liberties reign in so-called “free trade zones” to open up the 21st century equivalent of sweatshops.  They pay abhorrent wages by any reasonable standard and employ and discard young women as they see fit to compete in the global market?   

In Honduras and Guatemala rampant corruption on multiple levels in the national government has been endemic for generation.  We were told  “…they’ve stolen everything from us even our fear”.  And that desperate fearlessness contributed in early September to the resignation of their former Guatemalan president Otto Perez-Molina and  his entire entire cabinet..  He has since been incarcerated  on scandalous charges of skimming money from customs which amounted to 30% of the national budget.  Over sixty thousand people had demonstrated weekly since April to protest the arrogance and now proven culpability of national leaders for their crimes.

In Honduras each Friday and Saturday thousands of citizens poor and middle class alike pack the streets of eighty cities, towns and villages across the country participating in the “Anatorches” marches. They gather to protest the corruption of the president Juan Hernandez who came into office following the coup tacitly supported by U.S. interests which forcibly removed democratically-elected President Zelaya from office in 2009. They march to protest the blatant abuse of public trust where evidence points to kick-back scandals where national leaders have literally stolen millions of dollars from the nation’s healthcare system.  

And when a country is driven to such depths by such outrageous practices which collectively crush it’s poorest citizens what are they to do?  According to the Catholic Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of Huehuetenango, 98% of Guatemalans are unemployed depending on the informal economy or part-time work to sustains themselves.  Should it surprise anyone that $5.2 billion a year in remittances is sent from the United States from Guatemalans living here to their families?  Aren’t they “acting on behalf of their own best interests” by immigrating according to the paradigm espoused by our contemporary economic scions?

In the over twenty meetings we had during our visit every single group with whom we met fervently urged us to oppose the Obama Administration’s proposed Alliance for Prosperity.  Modeled after one promoted in the early 1960’s by President Kennedy it would in fact promote radical insecurity. Of its proposed $1.2 billion in aid to the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, 60% would be given for “security” purposes.  While companies like Lockheed-Martin, Bell Helicopters,  AM Sales and Colt will certainly benefit, the promised security will inevitably crack down on civilian dissent while the drug traffickers closely aligned with national political interests will continue unimpeded.  Another 30% will be doled out to transnational corporations to contribute to their looting of human and natural resources.

We beseech and urge our fellow citizens to educate themselves about the real root causes of immigration from Central America.  And in doing so that accusatory finger pointed at undocumented people may slowly need to be re-directed to those who are truly accountable for the immigration crisis.

Tom Webb is a member of Pax Christi Northern California’s regional council, a staff member of the Oakland Catholic Worker and a participant in a ten day pilgrimage last August to Honduras and Guatemala organized by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. He is also a journalist writing for the Oakland Voices project of the Oakland Tribune.

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