Unauthorized DHS Operation in Guatemala Highlights Flaws and Tensions in U.S. Policy in Central America

By Abby Neiser

“Tough on immigration” policies and rhetoric have undoubtedly marked the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.  From accusing immigrants of being “criminals and rapists” at his first campaign launch to the child separation policy of 2018 to allegedly sterilizing female migrants held in detention centers, the Trump administration has shown no limit to their cruelty and xenophobia with regard to its policy on the southern border (Merchant, 2020; Pilkington, 2020).  While immigration policy generally concerns what a country does at and within their borders, a recent U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) report demonstrates that U.S. immigration policy may be expanding far beyond its own territory.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) of the SFRC released a report compiled by the minority Democratic staff of the committee that details an unauthorized operation carried out by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials in January 2020 in which they “rent[ed] unmarked vans and contract[ed] local drivers to pick up migrants in Guatemala and transport them back to the Guatemala-Honduras border” (Menendez Publishes Report Exposing DHS Involvement in Reckless Overseas Operation, 2020).  These officials were stationed in Guatemala for the purpose of training and assisting local officials in carrying out their own laws (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).  However, DHS officials are “explicitly prohibited” from carrying out any operations of their own (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).  In doing so, they used State Department funds in a way that usurped interagency agreements and then lied to the State Department about how they had used this money, causing the State Department to then lie to Congress (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).

Beyond the bureaucratic missteps by DHS, the details of the operation’s execution are an even greater cause for concern.  DHS officials were unable to answer important questions about the operation, such as whether any further family separation occurred during this operation or if there were any unaccompanied minors (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).  Additionally, given the extemporaneous nature of the operation, the SFRC report charges the DHS officials with disregarding the safety and human rights of the migrants (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).  Though officials did not have an answer to this question, it appears unlikely that any of the migrants were asked if they were seeking asylum (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).  DHS removed the officials who conducted the operation from Guatemala, but as of the time of the report, they had not been fired from the agency or faced any consequences for their actions (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).

The operation has several implications for both internal and international policy.  The report argues that DHS effectively attempted to overtake the State Department’s role of managing relations with Guatemala (Democratic Staff for U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 2020).  Francisco Bencosme of the Open Society Foundation affirms this sentiment, saying that “[t]he big picture is that DHS has completely taken over foreign policy at the State Department with respect to the Northern Triangle” (MacKinnon and Saraiva, 2020).  The interagency tension caused by this may make future cooperation between the two agencies difficult, which could be detrimental in situations in which such cooperation is critical for protecting lives or U.S. interests.  Further, having an uncoordinated relationship with other countries makes the U.S. look weak and disorganized and could also lead to international confusion.  Countless examples throughout history demonstrate that mixed messages and poor communication can have devastating consequences, such as how the lack of coordination between U.S. intelligence agencies leading up to 9/11 is partially blamed for the attacks not being stopped in its tracks.  Furthermore, according to former Guatemalan interior minister Carlos Menocal, the act may have violated several Central American regional treaties, putting Guatemala in hot water with its neighbors (Abbott, 2020).

Though definitely an escalation, this unauthorized operation is not out of character with U.S. immigration policy both during and before the Trump administration.  Several experts have pointed out that U.S. policy in Central America during the past decade or so has been moving toward focusing almost exclusively on slowing immigration (Hackman and de Córdoba, 2020).  In doing so, the U.S. assisted not in addressing the root causes of migration but rather in boosting security (Hackman and de Córdoba, 2020).  They have taken the short-term approach of deterring migration through heavily restricting immigration instead of a long-term approach of making people want to stay in their home countries.  Not only that, but the Trump administration has pushed much of the burden for border policing onto Mexico and Central American countries, likely to control the optics of droves of immigrants arriving at the border during his presidency (Bernal, 2020).  The operation also highlights the increasingly large role DHS is taking on in determining Central American policy and the tension that this has created with diplomats in the State Department who tend to enact more measured, long-term strategies (Abbott, 2020; Bernal, 2020).

Perhaps the most deeply troubling and ironic part of the operation is the seeming complete ignorance of the role that the U.S. has played in creating many of the migration push factors that exist in Central America today.  The U.S. has been intervening in Latin America for almost as long as it has existed as a nation and has consistently worked in its self-interest, even if that self-interest is completely antithetical to what is best for Latin Americans.  “Banana republics” of the late 19th into the early 20th centuries essentially overtook entire economies in Central America to benefit consumers in the U.S. (Nevins, 2016).  A few decades later, the policy of containment during the Cold War was particularly detrimental.  Looking specifically at Honduras, the country of origin of the migrants in this incident, President Ronald Reagan’s policy in the 1980s funded and encouraged militarization and crackdowns on political dissent (Nevins, 2016).  Even more recently, the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quietly attempted to block Manuel Zelaya, a reformist president, from returning to power after he was overthrown in a coup (Borger, 2018).  The aftermath of Zelaya’s ouster was so turbulent that Honduras soon became one of the most violent countries in the world (Borger, 2018).

With President Joe Biden taking over the Oval Office on January 20, there may be reason to hope for accountability and improvements in policy going forward.  Biden and his Democratic Party have long been critical of Trump’s immigration policy, and Biden plans to immediately undo many of Trump’s immigration policies.  Among these plans include reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as one of his first executive orders, halting construction of Trump’s trademark border wall, reuniting families separated by the “zero-tolerance” policy, and making immigration to the U.S. easier, particularly for humanitarian reasons (Rainey and Bender, 2020).  Biden has recognized the country’s past of being a “bully dictating policy to smaller country” and intends to take a more collaborative regional approach with a focus on eliminating the factors that lead to migration from Central America (Londoño, 2020).  Nonetheless, neither Biden nor the Democratic Party have a record on immigration that is anywhere near flawless.  In particular, the massive deportation of around three million people under President Barack Obama has garnered extensive criticism, as his administration deported at an even faster rate than the Trump administration (Rainey and Bender, 2020).  While his election may have caused a sigh of relief among those concerned with Trump’s exceptional cruelty, Biden, just like anyone else, must be held accountable and pushed to enact humane and just immigration policies and not simply hide behind his kinder rhetoric.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


References

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