Obama speechifies about the plight of Syrian refugees, but his administration’s treatment of refugees from Latin and South America says more than anything.
Donald Trump Jr. recently made headlines by making a tweet which compared Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles. “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem.”
Liberals responded to Trump Jr’s tweet with impassioned statements about the humanity of the refugees, with former Obama campaign staffer Jason Sparks tweeting, “10s of thousands of Syrian children have been killed in the war. They aren't Skittles. They're children. Like yours.” Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted a picture of a traumatized Syrian youth with the words, “Hey @DonaldJTrumpJr, this is one of the millions of children you compared to a poisoned Skittle today.” High profile Obama supporter John Legend responded to the tweet by writing, “There's a tiny chance that anyone could be a murderer. Get rid of everyone now!!! #trumplogic.”
The media framed the controversy over Trump Jr.'s tweet as a debate between liberals who support refugee rights, and conservatives who oppose them in favor of security. What is not discussed is how both liberals and conservatives treat refugees coming to the US from Latin and South America.
In recent years there has been a noticeable spike in refugees coming from the country of Honduras. Refugees from Honduras started coming to the US in the 1980s , when Honduran death squads on the CIA’s payroll began terrorizing the population. Violence worsened through the 1990s and 2000s with free trade agreements and the US led drug war, and spiked dramatically in 2009 following the US backed military coup which overthrew the left leaning government.1
As murdered Honduran political activist Berta Caceres has pointed out, the 2009 coup was successful largely because of the support it received from the Obama administration, most notably Hillary Clinton’s State Department. The coup led to a new round of (to use Dawn Paley’s term) “social cleansing”, with Honduras claiming the #1 spot in murders per capita. As the situation deteriorated, the number of Honduran families and unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally spiked, with 18,000 unaccompanied minors crossing into the US in 2014 alone. One minor from Honduras, named Oswaldo, described to interviewers the experiences which led him to flee Honduras
1998 – I was born in Honduras
1 year old – They killed my father
4 years old – They killed my grandfather
5 years old – They killed my uncle
7 years old – I went to school
8 years old – They killed my other uncle
8 years, 9 months – They shot my uncle
13 years old – I graduated from 6th grade
14 years old – They killed my uncle
15 years old – They shot at me
16 years old – We moved in with my uncle
16 years old – I left for the United States
Rather than take responsibility for his role in forcing minors like Oswaldo to flee Honduras, Obama instead responded to the increase by placing blame on the parents of the unaccompanied minors. In his July 2014 speech on the issue of unaccompanied minors crossing the border Obama remarked, “their parents need to know that this is an incredibly dangerous situation and it is unlikely that their children will be able to stay. And I've asked parents across Central America not to put their children in harm's way in this fashion.” Statements like these must seem like cruel jokes to people like Oswaldo whose father was murdered.
Obama also requested $3.7 billion from Congress for additional detention centers, border control agents, and immigration judges saying, “we intend to do the right thing by these children.”
Additionally, Obama urged the passage of legislation that would hire 20,000 more Border Patrol agents. This, despite the fact that the Border Patrol operates with impunity and treats its detainees with callous brutality. An ACLU complaint filed with the Border Patrol on behalf of 100 children alleges widespread,
verbal, sexual and physical abuse; prolonged detention in squalid conditions; and a severe lack of essential necessities such as beds, food and water. The complaint describes Border Patrol agents denying necessary medical care to children as young as five-months-old, refusing to provide diapers for infants, confiscating and not returning legal documents and personal belongings, making racially-charged insults and death threats, and strip searching and shackling children in three-point restraints during transport.
Children referenced in the complaint, many of whom fled violence and persecution in their home countries, include:
• H.R., a seven-year-old boy, was severely developmentally disabled and suffering from acute malnourishment when he was apprehended, but CBP held him in custody for approximately five days without any medical treatment. He was eventually hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery.
• D.G., a 16-year-old girl, was detained with adults. When CBP officials searched D.G., they violently spread her legs and touched her genital area forcefully, making her scream.
• M.R., a 15-year-old girl, traveled from Guatemala with her two-year-old son. Both M.R. and her son became sick while in CBP custody, but M.R.’s requests for medical attention were ignored or dismissed for approximately five days, until she and her son were finally taken to a hospital.
• K.A., a 14-year-old girl, had her asthma medication confiscated by CBP officials and proceeded to suffer multiple asthma attacks in the filthy and overcrowded CBP holding cells. After the first asthma attack, officials threatened that they would punish her if she were faking.
• C.S., a 17-year-old girl, was detained in a hielera (freezer) in wet clothes. Her clothes did not dry for three and a half days due to the frigid temperature in the holding cell. The only drinking water available to C.S. came from the toilet tank, and the bathroom was situated in plain view of all other detainees with a security camera mounted in front of it.
Children detained in these horrible conditions tell interviewers that upon their return to their home countries they fear they will be murdered or raped by the people who made them flee. And as appalling as these stories may sound, the sad reality is that the children who are detained by the Border Patrol are often luckier than the ones who die or are forced into sexual slavery or gangs along the way. Apparently Obama’s definition of “doing the right thing by these children” is to force them to flee their homes, and then after a torturous journey to the US border, apprehend them, imprison them in horrifying conditions, and then ship them home to face the violence they fled. If children are treated like this, one can imagine how adults are treated.
This is a perfect example of what Noam Chomsky calls “worthy” and “unworthy victims”. The “worthy” victims are the ones mistreated by groups the US is opposed to and therefore receive our support. The “unworthy” victims are the victims of our crimes, and they are treated as nothing more than a nuisance. In this case, the Syrians make perfect “worthy” victims. They are the victims of Bashar al Assad and various jihadi groups opposed to him. And since the US claims to be opposed to both jihadis and Assad (who is backed by Russia so double political points there), Syrian refugees are “worthy”, as they are the victims of our enemies. Thus Obama has championed their cause, urging Congress to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed to receive asylum in the US, and addressing the United Nations saying, “And together, now, we have to open our hearts and do more to help refugees who are desperate for a home.” Nice words to be sure, maybe if Obama would heed them the people of Honduras would not suffer so much.
- 1Paley, Dawn. Drug War Capitalism