Small Wars Journal

The Walled City Upon a Hill: Why the US is Responsible for the Deaths of Migrants

The Walled City Upon a Hill: Why the US is Responsible for the Deaths of Migrants

Bryan Baker

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."

- - John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”[i]

John Winthrop penned these famous words aboard the Arbella in 1630 as that ship made its slow and perilous journey across the Atlantic. It was the start of the Great Migration of Puritans from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Puritans were, of course, leaving England due to religious persecution, among other reasons. They had decided that life in England was so bad that they were willing to risk the hostile Indians, potential starvation, and terrible epidemics that came standard with life in the New World. And so they became migrants, coming to a new land that others occupied, desperate to make a new life for themselves.

And they did make a new life for themselves. They conquered the wilderness and they pushed the Indians westward and they made for themselves the sort of society they thought was best—a society they thought was exceptional.

While this founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony was not really the founding of the United States (that would come over 140 years later), it was the beginning of the idea of American Exceptionalism. Since the Puritans, and since Winthrop's sermon we, as Americans, have largely considered ourselves to be the “city upon a hill” that Winthrop mentioned. And so has the rest of the world.

Thus, even to this day, the poor, oppressed and persecuted of the world look to the United States as the bright shining light that cannot be hidden—and they take terrible risks to make it to that light. Witness the Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter that recently drowned in the swift currents of the Rio Grande.[ii] Witness the thousands of women and girls who journey north from Central America, knowing full well they will be raped along the way.[iii] Witness the thousands that have died of heat stroke crossing the Sonoran Desert.[iv] And yet they still come. But why?

These migrants keep coming—despite the risks, and despite President’s Trump's immigrant crackdown—because they have decided that life at home is so dangerous that they would rather risk death than stay there. And, of course, they are right. Central America (from which most of the current migrants originate) is a gangland nightmare. MS-13, Barrio 18, and other illicit groups have displaced and corrupted Central American states (especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) and turned that region into one of the world’s most violent.[v] Citizens have little to no protection from these groups. Their sons are forced to become murderers in gangs, their daughters are forced into prostitution, and the average citizen lives a Hobbesian nightmare where there is “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[vi]

This is (likely) why that man was willing to brave the swift currents of the Rio Grande with his young daughter—he was trying to save that young girl from either violent death or a life of exploitation and abuse. He was striving to bring her to the safety of the city upon a hill.

Now, many American readers will undoubtedly say at this point, “it is very sad that that man and his daughter died (not to mention countless others), but it is not our fault he decided to leave El Salvador and tried to enter the US illegally.” This statement is the result of an American citizenry that is woefully ignorant of Latin American history—the US is directly responsible for creating the conditions that push migrants like this man northward. Let’s investigate this claim through the history of one Central American nation, El Salvador; though the reader should note that the United States has meddlled similarily in dozens of Latin American countries.

American Meddling in El Salvador

Marshall Eakin writes that throughout the 20th Century the people of El Salvador lived in serf-like conditions—they were relentlessly exploited and violently oppressed by the so-called Fourteen Families that dominated the country economically and politically. By the late 1970s, the people of El Salvador had had enough of government-sponsored massacres and repression. They embraced Liberation Theology and launched a Marxist insurgency against the government. The United States sided with the brutally oppressive Salvadoran regime (providing massive amounts of military aid that prevented the fall of the government) because the conflict was seen through a Cold War lens.[vii]

This conflict—which raged until 1992 and killed 75,000 people[viii] —sowed seeds of instability and violence that are still imposing massive human security costs on El Salvador. The fighting caused massive refugee flows north to the United States.[ix] These refugees then formed or joined gangs—like MS-13 and Barrio 18—in American cities. And when the Clinton administration pursued mass deportation of these gang members in the 1990s El Salvador was flooded with violent gang members.[x] These gang members exploited the culture of violence and the fragile institutions left behind by the civil war, and they recruited from the massive numbers of men in El Salvador that had been demobilized after the conflict—these violent and sophisticated gangs dominate El Salvador to this day and make it a violent a lawless place.[xi] In fact, this gang activity has produced violence surpassing the levels seen in the civil war.[xii]

This violence has also caused massive personal security issues for Salvadorans. And, of course, children are especially vulnerable in these conditions. Here is what life is like, according to Elizabeth Kennedy, a scholar studying El Salvador:

“First and foremost, extreme violence is a regular part of many children's lives from an early age. They lose friends and family members. They hear gunshots. They see beatings, rapes, and murders. Fourteen of the 322 children I interviewed between January and May had at least one parent who had been murdered. Plus, they are forcibly recruited into gangs, or they are targeted by police and military for being young.”[xiii]

It is impossible to deny that the United States is at least partially responsible for creating these terrible conditions because the United States 1) supported the oppressive regime that exploited the Salvadoran people, causing the civil war, and 2) the US provided massive amounts of lethal aid to the Salvadoran regime, which prolonged civil war and severely damaged the country’s institutions (making it much easier for violent gangs to take over).

Conclusion

When a Salvadoran man and his daughter tragically die in their attempt to flee violence in Central America, US citizens cannot really say it is not their problem. In fact, a strong argument can be made that US citizens are precisely the problem. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said:

 “... I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[xiv]

And while Dr. King was referring to the United States in this quotation, I believe in our globalized, interconnected world his idea now transcends borders. The US should embrace the fact that it is in part responsible for this crisis. America should do everything it can to help Central American migrants. This injustice must be corrected if the United States is to live up to its great legacy as the city upon a hill.

Bibliography

Burnett, John. "After Grim Deaths In The Borderlands, An Effort To Find Out Who Migrants Were." NPR. May 21, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/21/724946559/after-grim-deaths-in-the-borderlands-an-effort-to-find-out-who-migrants-were.

Denvir, Daniel. "Deporting People Made Central America's Gangs. More Deportation Won't Help." The Washington Post. July 20, 2017. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/07/20/deporting-people-made-central-americas-gangs-more-deportation-wont-help/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.068e5c528f28.

Eakin, Marshall C. The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Fernandez, Manny. "'You Have to Pay With Your Body': The Hidden Nightmare of Sexual Violence on the Border." The New York Times. March 03, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/us/border-rapes-migrant-women.html.

Gallón, Natalie. "A Woman Watched Her Husband and Daughter Drown at the Mexican Border, Report Says." CNN. June 26, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/26/politics/mexico-father-daughter-dead-rio-grande-wednesday/index.html.

Hobbes, Thomas. Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. Vol. XXXIV, Part 5. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/34/5/

King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. April 16, 1963. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

Labrador, Rocio Cara, and Danielle Renwick. "Central America's Violent Northern Triangle." Council on Foreign Relations. June 26, 2018. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-violent-northern-triangle.

Menjívar, Cecilia, and Andrea Gómez Cervantes. "El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration." Migrationpolicy.org. January 16, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/el-salvador-civil-war-natural-disasters-and-gang-violence-drive-migration.

Nusbaum, Rachel. "Armed Guards at Every Home: The View from El Salvador." American Civil Liberties Union. August 21, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/blog/human-rights/armed-guards-every-home-view-el-salvador.

Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." Teaching American History. 1630. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/a-model-of-christian-charity/.

End Notes


[i] Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." Teaching American History. 1630. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/a-model-of-christian-charity/.

[ii] Gallón, Natalie. "A Woman Watched Her Husband and Daughter Drown at the Mexican Border, Report Says." CNN. June 26, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/26/politics/mexico-father-daughter-dead-rio-grande-wednesday/index.html.

[iii] Fernandez, Manny. "'You Have to Pay With Your Body': The Hidden Nightmare of Sexual Violence on the Border." The New York Times. March 03, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/us/border-rapes-migrant-women.html.

[iv] Burnett, John. "After Grim Deaths In The Borderlands, An Effort To Find Out Who Migrants Were." NPR. May 21, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/21/724946559/after-grim-deaths-in-the-borderlands-an-effort-to-find-out-who-migrants-were.

[v] Labrador, Rocio Cara, and Danielle Renwick. "Central America's Violent Northern Triangle." Council on Foreign Relations. June 26, 2018. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-violent-northern-triangle.

[vi] Hobbes, Thomas. Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. Vol. XXXIV, Part 5. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/34/5/

[vii] Eakin, Marshall C. The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Denvir, Daniel. "Deporting People Made Central America's Gangs. More Deportation Won't Help." The Washington Post. July 20, 2017. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/07/20/deporting-people-made-central-americas-gangs-more-deportation-wont-help/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.068e5c528f28.

[xi] Labrador, Rocio Cara, and Danielle Renwick. "Central America's Violent Northern Triangle." Council on Foreign Relations. June 26, 2018. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-violent-northern-triangle.

[xii] Menjívar, Cecilia, and Andrea Gómez Cervantes. "El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration." Migrationpolicy.org. January 16, 2019. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/el-salvador-civil-war-natural-disasters-and-gang-violence-drive-migration.

[xiii] Nusbaum, Rachel. "Armed Guards at Every Home: The View from El Salvador." American Civil Liberties Union. August 21, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/blog/human-rights/armed-guards-every-home-view-el-salvador.

[xiv] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. April 16, 1963. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

 

About the Author(s)

Bryan Baker is a Captain in the US Army Reserve, branched military intelligence. Between drill weekends Bryan teaches AP courses in American History, World History, and American Politics at a secondary institution in the Phoenix area. Bryan writes on politics and national security and his essays have been featured in Small Wars Journal, Task and Purpose, RealClearDefense, and E-International Relations. He also podcasts at KeepingTheRepublic.orgBryan has undergraduate degrees in political science and history and he is currently pursuing an M.A. in International Security through the University of Arizona. He tweets @CPTAmericanHist. The views represented in his articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of any government or organization with which he is associated.