A Crisis of Our Own Making: U.S. Foreign Policy and Latin American Migration

Immigrants should come to the U.S. voluntarily - not because they've been forced to by conditions our government bears a responsibility for creating in the first place.

Anti-immigrant politics has been the organizing principle of Donald Trump’s project since he descended Trump Tower’s gilded escalator in 2015. By campaigning on and governing through naked xenophobia – promising to make Mexico pay for a concrete border wall, mass detention of migrants in squalid detention centers, the transparently false claims that immigrants commit more crime than the average American – Trump has stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States yet again. But it would be unjust to suggest that Donald Trump is uniquely responsible for this, or that he represents a new phenomenon in U.S. politics. This country has a long and complicated history with immigration, and an even more complex history in Latin America that has forced millions to emigrate north in order to give themselves and their families a decent life. The U.S. has long had a Janus-faced attitude toward immigration and immigrants – it simultaneously celebrates and reviles the fact that this is a “nation of immigrants” in search of the “American Dream.” This deep ambivalence about the place of immigration in U.S. society has created an endless succession of political and cultural dilemmas for well over 200 years.

U.S. Immigration History

Donald Trump is not responsible for American racism and xenophobia, which have a long and ugly history in this country. The civil rights movement made racism and other forms of overt discrimination publicly unacceptable. Trump’s “success,” as it were, is in making it once again acceptable for racists and xenophobes to express their views openly, and in a manner that recalls earlier waves of nativist politics.

In the mid-nineteenth century the American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothings,” rode a wave of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment to campaign against shadowy conspiracies to subject good American Protestants to the domination of the Vatican. The collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s gave them an opportunity to establish themselves as the main rival to the Democrats, who enjoyed the support of many Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. They won control of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1854, and nearly succeeded in establishing themselves as the second party as the nation hurtled toward civil war. But they were hopelessly split on the slavery question, a weakness that allowed the nascent Republican Party to win over their northern anti-slavery members and eventually capture the White House in 1860. 

Immigration once again emerged as a leading political issue after the overthrow of Reconstruction in 1876. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from northern and western Europe were allowed unrestricted immigration, while Jewish, Slavic, Catholic, Middle Eastern and Asian immigration was often severely restricted. Chinese immigrants in particular were targeted by anti-immigrant forces, as embodied in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883. The nativist wave of the early twentieth century reached its culmination when Congress passed the infamous Immigration Act of 1924, which set severely restricted quotas on immigration from southern and eastern Europe as well as Asia. The 1920s also witnessed the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which was viciously anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish in addition to its anti-black racism, as well as the development of isolationist and nativist currents that would later find expression in the America First Committee lead by the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.

This highly restrictionist approach to immigration policy prevailed until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system and established the current focus on family unification and the recruitment of skilled workers. The primary motivation of the lawmakers who passed it was to jump-start renewed immigration from Europe, but it had the unintended effect of encouraging a new wave of migration from Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, and more recently, Africa. It was reinforced by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which toughened penalties for undocumented immigration while also providing a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants – the “amnesty” program that is one of the few things conservatives have ever criticized Ronald Reagan for.

President Clinton oversaw enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which empowered the federal government to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants. George W. Bush was relatively welcoming of immigrants compared to many other Republicans, repeatedly referring to immigration as a “blessing and a strength.” He has criticized President Trump for his campaign against Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program Obama enacted to build a future for some undocumented immigrants in the United States. However, Bush also implemented the establishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that has operated brutal detention centers for immigrants and detained upwards of 1,500 legal U.S. citizens on false pretenses. President Obama’s legacy on immigration is also far from clear-cut. His crowning achievement in the policy area is DACA, a program that is estimated to have some 700,000 beneficiaries. Still, Obama also oversaw the largest deportation campaign in recent history, earning him the moniker “deporter-in-chief” from immigration advocacy groups. In the U.S., immigration restriction has long been a bipartisan affair.

Foreign Policy

Domestic immigration policy is thoroughly intertwined with,and often reflects the failure of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy is responsible for creating conditions in Central and South America that incentivize the many of the poorest and most vulnerable people to leave their home countries in search of a better life. The political instability that has ensued under military juntas and authoritarian, if not explicitly fascist, governments is often disastrous for the economy of these states, and in many cases even decades later their political systems are rife with corruption and general ineffectiveness. This in turn leads to a surge in organized crime, as the impoverished frequently view criminal activity as their only path to a sustainable life. All of this creates incentives for civilians throughout Latin America to attempt to find a new home in the United States.

U.S. interference in Latin American politics long predates the Cold War. The roots of Cold War-era “counterinsurgency” interventions can be traced back at least to the early twentieth century, when President Theodore Roosevelt declared the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. While the Monroe Doctrine was officially about U.S. opposition to European colonization in South America, the Roosevelt Corollary enshrined U.S. intentions to interject itself in any affairs between South American states and Europe. Scholars such as Noam Chomsky have argued the corollary suggested the U.S. government’s willingness to intervene in Latin America and use force to protect corporatist interests. Unfortunately, that is precisely the path the U.S. followed later in the century.

Following the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. concerned itself chiefly with controlling and halting the spread of Communism internationally. This was the justification for funding anti-Communist parties across Europe, involving itself in foreign wars in Korea and Vietnam, and a long list of economic, political, and military interventions throughout Latin America. Though officials would pose this as an ideological stance, framing the U.S. as a bulwark against the “tyranny” of socialism and communism, this was largely a justification for the more prosaic goal of defending corporate investments and profits. 

History of Interventionism

In many ways the history of U.S. foreign policy with regard to its southern neighbors is a history of  imperialist intervention. Though the Monroe Doctrine was nominally meant to deter European actors from continuing to interfere with their former colonies, in truth the United States often stood by and allowed the exploitation of the fledgling states of South America to continue. It was not long before the U.S. government had joined Britain, France, Spain, and other European states hoping to take advantage of the region for economic and geopolitical gain. The Ostend Manifesto, written 1854, made explicit the ambitions of American slavers to expand the slave trade into Cuba, by force if necessary. Though the incentives would change over the decades, Washington consistently had its eye on the various Latin American and Caribbean states.

The American fixation on the region was first fueled primarily by domestic imperialist interests, which pushed the U.S. government to instigate wars with Mexico and Spain, resulting in the taking large swathes of land from the possession of both states. Imperialism also motivated efforts to take over territory in Panama for the construction of a canal connecting the oceans, a grandiose gesture meant to simultaneously aid in the defense and administration of the country, as well as to project U.S. industrial and economic might.

The Cold War recontextualized how the United States viewed Latin America. Viewing the region as within its “sphere of influence,” Washington supported a variety of far-right authoritarian regimes across the region in order to both prevent the spread of socialism or communism, as well as to protect U.S. economic interests. It was this policy of propping up dictatorships that led to the rule of Pinochet in Chile and Batista in Cuba, as well as the propagation of the Nicaraguan Civil War. Collectively these dictators and the Nicaraguan Contras were responsible for decades of economic exploitation by the United States, the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and thousands more imprisoned or tortured. 

The Northern Triangle

U.S. government policy has directly fostered many of the conditions driving today’s migration crisis. In 1954, the Eisenhower administration backed a coup in Guatemala to remove the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz had ran afoul of the United Fruit Company (UFC) by enacting land reform and legalizing the communist Guatemalan Party of Labor, causing the UFC to in turn lobby Washington for his removal, including efforts by Eisenhower’s own staff members that had financial ties to the UFC. Early into the era of McCarthyism, even alleging that someone had communist sympathies was enough to draw the attention and ire of the U.S. government, something the following coup proved. Grossly overestimating the presence of communist sympathies among Arbenz’s cabinet, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to take action in Guatemala. By training, arming, and providing financial support to a force led by Carlos Castillo Armas, the CIA sowed the seeds for a coup, which is precisely what followed. Disheartened and nervous of the potential threat of the U.S. military, the Guatemalan army refused to fight back. 

Armas officially assumed power shortly after the forced resignation of Arbenz. Following his removal, the CIA attempted to find direct evidence connecting the Arbenz government with the Soviet Union, of which there was none. Under Armas and his dictatorial successors, Guatemala endured nearly forty years of civil war, during which the government conducted a campaign of genocidal violence against the Maya population and the torture and murder of political dissidents became the norm. It was not until 1996 that Guatemala would finally return to peace. President Clinton formally apologized for this intervention in 1999, the only case where the U.S. government has made even a minimal gesture toward recognizing its responsibility for the violence it has done so much to facilitate in the region.

El Salvador tells a very similar tale. Following a coup in October 1979 (which the CIA was notably not involved with), the Carter administration publicly supported the new right-wing dictatorship, again out of concerns for the potential spread of Communism in the region. In response to the coup, disparate leftist groups organized under an umbrella group called the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) waged a civil war against the dictatorship that would last over 12 years, only coming to an end in 1992. During this time period political dissidents and protesters were frequently imprisoned or outright killed, and the regime worked directly to keep peasants illiterate and subservient. President Carter began sending as much as $2 million daily to the government in El Salvador, a practice that was continued by the subsequent Reagan administration. Reagan further expanded U.S. involvement and by 1983 U.S. military officials were training government forces and effectively running the war. 

By the 1980s, Honduras was so deeply linked with U.S. financial, political, and military interests that it was nicknamed the “Pentagon Republic.” The influence that the United States had, and in some ways continues to have, allowed for a less direct but no less significant amount of interference in the area over the previous decades. Particularly under the Reagan administration, U.S. influences were powerful enough to essentially dictate economic reforms to the government, all of which were enacted to benefit the U.S. economy. These included an emphasis on exporting goods and destabilizing the coffee trade that sustained the Honduran economy, all of which weakened Honduras and made it more pliable. Honduras also suffered a coup in 2009 – with the implicit support of the U.S. government –  that resulted in the removal of the reformist president Manuel Zelaya. The coup has incited a succession of corrupt governments that has participated in political murders and the spread of organized crime. Notably, the rate of Honduran immigration to the United States continues to climb in light of these events.

Lasting Impact

The U.S. has long been willing to exploit less-developed countries in Latin America for the sake of economic gain and geopolitical domination, regardless of the cost. Though some states (i.e. Argentina or Chile) have relatively more developed economies, much of Latin America remains impoverished, and measures of social inequality in the region are still astonishingly high. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all have GDP per capita less than $9,000. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has seen poverty rates that have hovered around 50-60% (if not higher) and an unemployment/underemployment rate that until recently was approximately half of that. A lack of economic opportunities in the region has forced many to turn to less legitimate means to attempt to eke out a decent life.

Latin America has consistently rated as one of the most violent and gang-ridden parts of the world. Nearly one-third of all murders committed globally in 2012 took place in Latin America, a statistic that is deeply related to the ineffectiveness and corruption of many of the region’s governments. As Honduran congressman Jarl Dixon recently stated. most migrants are “not seeking the American Dream – they’re fleeing the Honduran Nightmare.” A good deal of the blame for this situation can certainly be placed on domestic elites who have put their own interests ahead of broad social progress and development. However, decades of foreign economic and political intervention have wrought widespread instability and slowed, stagnated, or outright reversed the economic development of much of Latin America, leaving governments unable to effectively govern their own countries.

In essence, the economic, social, and political conditions that the United States has done so much to foster have made the region unlivable for many – migration has become not a choice, but a necessity for them to survive. This has led to an influx of the migrant caravans from the Northern Triangle region, predominantly made up of Honduran emigrants bound for the United States. This most recently took over headlines in 2018 when a caravan totaling over 5,000 would-be immigrants was tracked in its journey towards the southern border, which drew a threat of military response from Donald Trump.


The main takeaways from this history are twofold. The first is that the U.S. government has not learned its lessons from Latin America, as evidenced by the disastrous invasion of Iraq, President Obama’s support for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and the efforts of the Trump administration to create an environment supportive of war with Iran. This is not a partisan issue. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have led this country into disastrous and destabilizing wars with the support of Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Only by recognizing this aspect of our history can we better understand when it is happening again, as it is now in the Middle East. 

The first step the U.S. government needs to take in addressing these problems is acknowledging and apologizing for the destructive role it has played in Latin America. To this day the United States has largely failed to acknowledge its role of spreading authoritarianism and poverty throughout the hemisphere. Officially admitting its role makes it more difficult for U.S. politicians to squirrel away responsibility for the catastrophes that occurred as a result of our government’s interference. Moreover, this would also give some room for international pressure for the United States to act in order to make amends for infringing upon the sovereignty of so many of the states throughout Latin America.

More important is taking steps towards ensuring these same disasters cannot be repeated, and that necessitates addressing the CIA in particular. The CIA is directly responsible for sowing political chaos throughout not only Latin America, but the entirety of the globe for decades up to and including today. The extent of the CIA’s reach was most recently thrust into public attention again in 2014 when it was revealed elements within the agency hacked into Senate Intelligence Committee computers while it was investigating CIA activities, bringing to light what anyone who was paying attention already knew: the CIA is a rogue agency that simply cannot be allowed to exist .The best solution to this problem is dismantling the CIA entirely and replacing it with a new agency focused on defending against covert operations, rather than committing them abroad.

This solution is much less radical than it may initially appear. As Lloyd C. Gardner writes in The War on Leakers, presidents since Truman – who officially authorized the creation of the CIA in the first place – have expressed doubts and concerns about the agency. Following the disaster of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy allegedly vowed to completely dismantle the CIA. He didn’t, and the authority of the agency has now grown to the point where Gardner refers to them as effectively the fourth policy-making branch of government. Some functions of the CIA can be placed under the purview of a new organization as needed, but creating a new agency that is already limited and checked is far easier than reigning in an already rogue set of actors. Additionally, replacing the agency can serve as a symbolic break from the history of extrajudicial operations the CIA is infamous for, and can give the new organization a sort of “fresh start” in the eyes of people in the U.S. and around the world.

The U.S. government must also take action to repair the damage it has done to Latin America. It cannot restore the dead to life, but it can and must take on the task of rebuilding economies damaged by the exploitative policies imposed by the authoritarian regimes it has supported. Establishing a fund that is regularly sent to those nations that have been directly damaged through interference from the United States would go a long way towards officially apologizing for the disastrous outcome of the aforementioned interventions. Moreover, attaching a financial liability to the consequences caused by the U.S. government might deter subsequent administrations from engaging in similar actions in the future. Steps would need to be taken to ensure that reparations don’t simply reinforce the existing, and often corrupt, status quo. An oversight committee similar in concept to the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala could be considered a starting point in working towards that end.


Despite claims from each successive president to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, each one has involved themselves in foreign conflicts that topple governments and sow discord, creating states that become economically unlivable for the majority of the population, who then migrate in search for a better life. By working to make up for past mistakes through reparations, and taking steps to ensure such a situation never occurs again by dismantling the CIA, the U.S. government can work to atone for past sins and ensure that those migrating to the United States do so voluntarily, rather than being forced to by conditions it bears a significant degree of responsibility for creating in the first place.