The Caravan Is a Stark Reminder of the US’ Legacy of Cruel and Dehumanizing Policies in Central America

Junior, an immigrant from Honduras, waves the American flag while standing with other immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border fence on November 25, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

“We ran, but when you run the gas asphyxiates you more.” With those words, Ana Zuniga, a 23-year-old from Honduras, explained to the Associated Press what it felt like to run away after US Border Patrol fired tear gas at hundreds of Central American immigrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States. The distressing scene unfolded on Sunday, as hundreds of asylum seekers protested near the border. Some reportedly tried to enter through a gap and threw rocks at the US side, and the government office responded by throwing tear gas and then closing one of the country’s busiest border crossings.

In a series of heartbreaking videos and photos, the expressions on the faces of several Central Americans denote the same emotions: fear, anguish, and confusion. One particular image – one of a young mom frantically grabbing two young girls wearing diapers – has struck a chord with many. While the photo may have served to anger many, it likely won’t bring about change because the US government doesn’t see Central American immigrants’ humanity.

Across Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle, many have left their countries because of poverty, environmental issues, and gang violence – the latter of which the United States has directly impacted. However, despite creating or playing a role in the conditions that cause Central Americans to flee, the US does not welcome them as it should. On Sunday, this callousness manifested itself through the use of tear gas to disperse the crowd. Following the downright shameful use of the chemical weapon, Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott defended the agency’s actions.

“One of our primary missions is to make sure we keep the border safe and secure,” he said on CNN. “I kind of challenge that this was a peaceful protest or that the majority of these people were claiming asylum… Similar to what we saw of the first wave of the caravan that came about a week or so ago, the group immediately started throwing rocks and debris at our agents, taunting the agents. So once our agents were assaulted, the numbers started growing. We had two or three agents at a time initially facing hundreds of people at a time. They deployed tear gas to protect themselves and to protect the border.”

Not only does Scott intend to paint them all as criminals, he also doesn’t explain that part of the reason things reached a boiling point is because the US is trying to change asylum laws so they can be kept out of the country. The immigrants who reached the border on Sunday pled with officials to make the process faster. By Monday morning, Trump threatened to close the border permanently.

Even the sight of people in visible pain isn’t enough for the government to treat Central Americans like humans. Ron Colburn, the president of the Border Patrol Foundation, tried to downplay the damage the border agents caused. “To clarify, the type of deterrent they used is OC pepper spray,” he said on Fox & Friends. “It’s literally water, pepper, with a small amount of alcohol for evaporation purposes. It’s natural. You could actually put it on your nachos and eat it. So it’s a good way of deterring people without longterm harm.”

Tear gas, which is often used to control crowds, has been banned in conflict since the late ’90s. Colburn makes it sound like a harmless topping, but people were choking and desperately looking for ways to protect themselves and their small children. While tear gas may be employed regularly, it doesn’t mean it’s any less ethical. These are vulnerable people looking for a better future. But with Trump having often called Central Americans “criminals” and “animals,” this is the kind of behavior the government condones. Last week, Chief of Staff John Kelly signed a memo authorizing US service members – who he has no control over – to use “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention, and cursory search.”

As Trump pushes for the deportation of these immigrants, it’s important to remember that mistreatment of Central American immigrants is not unique to his administration. For years, the US has essentially extended its reach to Mexico’s southern border, making it difficult for Central Americans to properly seek asylum (they have to reach the US border to do so). Two years ago, Mexico deported more than 140,000 Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans – twice as much as the US deported. The United States has earmarked at least $100 million in funding to block Central Americans from reaching the US. The Instituto Nacional de Migración, according to The Guardian, said it’s never seen any of the US’ money.

If you look further back in history, you’ll see more examples of how the US’ interventionism and harmed Central Americans. In the ’80s – a time when the US feared that these countries would fall under communist rule – intervened and provided military aid and training to authoritarian governments. “At that time, Honduras wasn’t going through a war,” Hinojosa said in an episode of Latino USA. “The United States, though, began to use it as a kind of home base for all the military activity that it was doing in Central America, and all of this set off a wave of refugees that fled from Guatemala and El Salvador to the United States.”

This came decades after the CIA overthrew Jacobo Árbenz, Guatemala’s democratically elected president, and put in place Carlos Castillo Armas, which resulted in a decades-long dictatorship and civil war.

So when we look at what happened on the border on Sunday, it’s infuriating, but not exactly surprising. The United States has a long history of stripping Central Americans of their humanity, and this was just another example.