Children as Social and Economic Refugees The complex problem of

Children as Social and Economic Refugees
The complex problem of illegal immigration to our country is particularly tragic when it pertains to
children. This compelling problem has a personal dimension for me because in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s,
my Minnesota parents took in Dust Bowl refugees in the early years, and after WWII they provided
space and care for the children of Mexican workers. These migrant workers provided hand labor in the
beet fields and apple orchards hundreds of miles north and east of our farm in southwest Minnesota.
Ted and Lillie den Ouden did not make a big deal about it. We raised our own food. Who cared if our
bedrooms were crowded when the house was filled with the laughter of children who would have spent
the summer sleeping in a converted chicken coop or hog-house and working in the fields? My parents
left no financial legacy. The testimonies at their funerals by people they took in are an inheritance so
rich that it shapes my life and that of my children and grandchildren.
In recent years our borders have been crossed by increasing numbers of economic and social refugees
from Honduras and Guatemala. The numbers coming from Guatemala during the past few years have
exceeded 40,000 per year. These countries are cursed with the horrible violence of the drug trade and
levels of poverty reaching 50-60%. Many children are forced into the trade by means of threats against
the safety of their parents and their siblings. Others try to escape and take the long trek through
Mexico, meeting with another form of extortion, i.e., the “coyotes” who promise them safe passage to
the U.S. Many do not make it and die in transit. Others are apprehended while crossing the border or
shortly thereafter and in are held in detention in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.
It is too easy to merely declare that the solution to illegal immigration is to secure our borders and to
turn everyone back who makes it into the U.S. We, as a nation, bear at least partial responsibility for the
political and social conditions in Guatemala and Honduras. This former country was ruled by the dictator
General Jorge Ubico from 1931-44. The U.S. supported him even though his regime was one of the worst
military juntas as far as civil liberties and human rights are concerned in Central America. In turn, Ubico
gave United Fruit hundreds of thousands of hectares of the best agricultural land in Guatemala. In 1944
a widespread dissident movement including progressive members of the military, intellectuals, and
students overthrew Ubico. Juan Jose Arevala was elected president and he implemented a reformist
platform including a minimum wage. He was disliked by United Fruit because they could no longer
exploit their workers. In 1950, unopposed by Arevala, Jacobo Arbenz was elected.
The U.S. intervened militarily numerous times in both Honduras and Guatemala. Between 1900 and
1913 our military was sent into Honduras six times. Most often it was to protect the interest of U.S.
owned fruit companies. In the early 1950s, one such destructive move was made to protect United Fruit
Co. in Guatemala. During this era, the Guatemalan people had held soundly democratic elections.
Arbenz promised and delivered on land reform for the campasenos. United Fruit held nearly all of the
most fertile agricultural land, but only used 10% of it. They kept poor farmers off of it so that they would
be forced to work on their huge plantations. Arbenz proposed buying this fallow land from United Fruit
and selling it at low cost to the landless farmers. United Fruit contacted the U.S. Secretary of State John
Foster Dulles and claimed that Arbenz was engaged in “land reform”, playing on the anti-Communist
paranoia of the time. The insinuation was that there was a Marxist government down here in Guatemala
that needed to be stopped. Dulles, through the C.I.A., mounted a propaganda campaign riddled with
false information in the country in question. He then organized a C.I.A. led and financed military force in
Honduras, invaded Guatemala, and toppled the Arbenz Government. Castillo Armas led these forces
under the direction of the C.I.A. He became the new head of government.
Democracy was replaced by virtual dictatorship and Guatemala has been cursed with many years of
political instability and incredible levels of violence since. From 1960-1996 Guatemala had a civil war
during which the U.S. Government trained and armed the military. Finally in 1996 after two years of
negotiations a peace treaty was signed and the U.S. agreed to stop supporting and supplying the
Guatemalan Army. During this horrific civil war, many civilians who opposed the government were
tortured and or caused to “disappear.” The Mayan population suffered the most. They were often used
as pawns by the leftist rebels and tracked down and slaughtered by government forces.
Allegedly the U.S. Government supports and promotes democracy abroad. How often have we done
just the opposite? The resulting political instability and the related violence and social vulnerabilities in
Honduras and Guatemala are a phenomenon for which our government bears at least partial
I see little hope for changing the conditions in Guatemala and Honduras. I worked with a small PVO in
Guatemala off and on during the Civil War. The paramilitary were a constant threat. More than once my
driver trembled so completely with fear that I had to take over the wheel. On one such occasion while
traveling high into the mountains to interview Mayan women as to the efficacy of small loans to create
and improve small businesses, we cautiously passed a mother and her 10-12 year old son. She was
weeping and hiding in her cloak. Her son stood in front of her with his machete raised and fiercely
stared us down. He was willing to die in order to protect his mother. When we said in Spanish and in
Mayan, “we are not the enemy” they remained frozen in terror. Are they alive today? Was the young
boy forced by the rebels to do their dirty work, or else as they often did, threaten his family with rape or
death? Did the Guatemalan Military come to their village and exterminate men, women, and children
because village members “cooperated” with the rebels. Where is the little Mayan girl whose mother we
interviewed concerning how she would use a small loan? She was being a bit of a brat as far as her
mother was concerned. She challenged her mother and said she was leaving with old Gringo with white
hair on his face! Did she survive the war or did she make the long trek el Norte?
I wish the pontificating politicians who oppose immigration reform would study U.S. History honestly or
visit the neighborhoods where these refugee children come from and where those who cannot escape,
live without hope for themselves and their families.
The recent proposal by the Obama Administration to establish a process in Honduras to screen children
and youths to discern, whether they can enter the U.S. as refugees or on humanitarian grounds, carries
some promise. It may embarrass the Honduran government into taking a closer look at the human
conditions in their country. It may also provide a safe process for leaving neighborhoods that can be
best compared to hell on earth.
Bernard den Ouden
Emeritus Prof. of Philosophy
University of Hartford
Resident of North Heath