Immigration Justice & How We Arrived at a Human Rights Crisis

From the separating migrant children from their families under the Trump Administration to the continued use of inhumane ICE detention centers under the Biden Administration, safe immigration continues to be a pressing issue for LatinX families across the Americas amidst a backdrop of human rights abuses.

But these issues aren’t just localized at the U.S. border, they’re also occurring at Mexico’s southern border in the state of Chiapas. Migrants trying to make their way to the U.S. in search of greater opportunities include people from all over Central and South America. Many of these families are fleeing danger in the face of rising political tensions within their countries as more authoritarian regimes threaten civil rights.

H2: Political Uncertainty and The Hope of a Brighter Future

As protests for better pay, improved living and health conditions, and a more coherent response to restrictive pandemic measures erupted all over Latin America, governments responded by attacking the press, interfering with judicial independence, and murdering protesters. In 2020 under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian police killed more than 6,400 people alone — 80% of whome were Black.

Families in these countries were presented with an impossible choice: either stay in these worsening conditions, or make a dangerous trek to the United States in hopes of a brighter future. But many have been held up at the Mexican border before even making it to the U.S. border.

According to Tyler Mattiace, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Outsourcing U.S. immigration enforcement to Mexico has led to serious abuses and forced hundreds of thousands to wait in appalling conditions to seek protection.”

While immigration rhetoric from the U.S. tends to vary greatly depending on the administration in charge, taking a wide-field, holistic, and historically-rooted snapshot at U.S. policy towards Latin American countries over the last several decades will shed some much needed light on the root cause.

In late 2021, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reinforced his commitment to helping the U.S. with immigration, while also stating, “this can’t go on forever, we have to get to the bottom of the issue and that means investing in the development of poor countries.”

But why are these countries poor in the first place? What has caused such conditions decade after decade?

H2: A Brief History of U.S. Policy Towards Latin America

H3: The Creation of Banana Republics

In the early 1800’s, three centuries of colonial rule finally came to an end for most Latin American countries, yet the effects still persist today. Under colonization, Latin American countries were not allowed to produce self-sustaining multi-crops that would have created a balanced and thriving economy. Instead, they were forced to mass produce monoculture crops for their colonizers — bananas in Colombia, sugar cane in Cuba, petroleum in Venezuela, and rubber and coffee in Brazil — and experienced widespread mineral and resource extraction.

As these Latin American colonies gained much needed political independence and became sovereign nations, there was still an economic void that left these countries exposed to exploitation. Corporate interests from the U.S. and Europe swooped in to capitalize on underdeveloped countries and continue a legacy of exploitation in the form of neoliberal policies.

H3: U.S Interference in Latin American Autonomy

1970 saw the democratic election of Salvadore Allende as president of Chile and with him a movement that sought to reform agrarian society to work for the people, recognize the rights of workers to run factories collectively, and regain monetary autonomy, all through a new constitution. But the U.S. wouldn’t allow it.

The Nixon Administration responded by destablizing the Chilean economy with the launch of Operation Condor — a plot that included sinking the world price of copper (Chile’s largest export), putting pressure on the World Bank to stop loans to Chile, and spending $8 million to fund anti-Allende propaganda.

Just 3 years after President Allende’s election, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup backed by the CIA that resulted in the president’s assassination and the torture and murder of more than 300 of Allende’s supporters. Pinochet installed himself as dictator — a reign that lasted for nearly 20 years. Immediately following his coup, the U.S. sent economic and military aid, influenced the World Bank to end its ban on Chilean loans, and sent Chilean economists from the Universtiy of Chicago that were trained in neoliberal policies to take high-ranking positions in Pinochet’s government.

This is just one of many instances of U.S. interference with Latin American autonomy to create better governments and economic systems that work for themselves and has played out numerous times across the 20th and 21st centuries.

H2: The Aftermath & The Present

With decades of U.S. interference that has sought to perpetuate Latin American exploitation, what other options do families have? Any attempts to democratically improve living and working conditions in their home countries have been continually frustrated time and time again. Even before the pandemic, Venezuela was experiencing a humanitarian crisis that saw 1 in 3 citizens living with food insecurity.

As such, many families have chosen to seek better conditions by travelling to the U.S. According to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the United States is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

These issues across the Latin American world don’t just affect the migrants fleeing these conditions, but also their kin who are already residing in the U.S. Not only have families been separated by political diaspora, but many have made it here without going through the documentation process in fear of being turned away or detained. This in turn further perpetuates political uncertainty even once inside the U.S. and creates a hostile atmosphere of employment and racial discrimination that extends the shroud of fear and danger these migrants hoped to leave behind.


If we hope to make any meaningful change on this front in the U.S., we must acknowledge the dark history that created these crises in Latin America in the first place, advocate for international policy that helps Latin American nations determine their own political future, and demand justice for migrants through a humane, sensible, and efficient immigration policy.