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Trump, Deportations, and El Salvador’s Violent Crisis

By Taylor Marvin

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump’s appeal is not entirely, or even primarily, due to his harsh stance on illegal immigration: prospective Republican primary voters value his belligerence and apparent business competence, and are perhaps influenced by the reality TV-fueled perception that “he’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability,” in Kevin Drum’s words. However, calls to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the southern border are the centerpiece – literally; it remains the only issue detailed on the “Make America Great Again!” website – of Trump’s unconventional campaign, and a major part of his allure.

Deporting over ten million undocumented immigrants is an ugly prospect. As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, hunting down millions of immigrants would require an expanded police state and civil liberty violations that Americans – hopefully – find more acceptable in theory than in practice. Ending birthright citizenship is widely thought to require a constitutional amendment, and the muddled unstated implication that Trump will “keep families together” by forcibly deporting the US-born, American citizen children of undocumented immigrants is certainly unconstitutional, as well as barbaric.

Beyond its domestic impact, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants would likely have a severe destabilizing effect on their countries of origin, especially smaller Central American states. This dynamic has occurred before.

El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates,* with spiraling violence between the small Central American country’s two leading gangs producing a murder rate comparable to literal war zones. Last month the criminal organizations attempted to pressure the government by shutting down the country’s mass transit, killing eight bus drivers and transportation workers who violated the order not to work. Citing the threat posed to public safety and state authority, this week the Salvadoran government deemed the gangs terrorists, regardless of whether individual gang members have committed any crime (via Mike Allison).

What does El Salvador’s chaos have to do with Trump’s vision of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants? As a recent story in the Guardian and background articles by InSight Crime detail, El Salvador’s current conflict was in large part precipitated by US immigration policy.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the country’s destructive civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. An inability to gain formal asylum in the United States – in the 1980s “approximately 2 percent of applications were approved while the majority found their applications were considered ‘frivolous,'” Sarah Gammage writes – led many refugees to remain in the US illegally, often in Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods. Members of the newly-arrived Salvadoran communities in these gang-ridden areas organized their own gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha. Then a minor player in the US gang landscape, the mara allied itself with the more powerful Mexican Mafia, or la M; today Mara Salvatrucha is commonly called MS-13, “M” being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

In the late 1990s the Clinton administration, influenced by some of the same tough on crime and anti-immigration attitudes Trump draws on, began deporting foreign nationals convicted of less serious crimes than had previously merited deportation. These deported criminals included members of Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, another Latino street gang with origins in Los Angeles. The effect on the weak states of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – was disastrous. As InSight Crime writes:

Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities. The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society. They often turned to what they knew best: gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool spawned the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Unsurprisingly El Salvador’s criminal violence has flown back into the United States, just as it did during the civil war. Many of the Salvadorans seeking undocumented entry into the US fear for their safety back home. Both Calle 18 and MS-13 operate in the US, and there are strong links between the gangs’ leaderships in El Salvador and branches in the United States.

US deportation policy is not the only, or perhaps even most important, cause of El Salvador’s crisis of violence. The Salvadoran civil war devastated the country and, again as InSight Crime relates, left a cadre of veterans experienced in violence, some of whom turned to crime. The wider roots of Latin American violence, like the drug trade, also apply to El Salvador. Additionally, the Salvadoran government has also pursued harsh “Iron Fist” strategies to combat the gangs, which despite their widespread support – “those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all,” said one Salvadoran woman recently quoted by The New Yorker’s Daniel Alarcón (again via Mike Allison) – have likely worsened the crisis. By throwing young people who have only joined gangs to survive or aren’t affiliated with gangs at all in fetid, violent prisons, harsh policing strengthens and perpetuates criminal organizations.

To be sure, there are legitimate questions about whether the US should be responsible for imprisoning non-citizens who commit crimes, and American officials and the public were not unjustified as seeing the deported convicts as someone else’s problem. But even through a narrow lens focused only on US interests, nearly two decades on it is reasonable to question whether deporting convicts who contributed to El Salvador’s destabilizing crisis has been a net loss for the US.

Of course, the main reasons to object to Trump’s deportation proposals is that many are flatly immoral, nonsensical, or unconstitutional. Migrants fleeing the Central American violence that US policies helped create should be treated as the refugees they are.

Beyond their immorality, commentators should remember that Trump’s policies could cause serious social problems in Latin American countries beyond the halted flow of remittances. Importantly, American deportation policies’ impact on El Salvador’s crisis centered on deporting convicts, and the vast majority of those deporting under Trump’s nominal plans would not be criminals. Even so, suddenly throwing hundreds of thousands to millions of deportees – some convicted of crimes, some with little knowledge of or no social networks in the distant country of their birth – into already strained societies would be disastrous. Since even extremely harsh enforcement is probably unable to seal the US border entirely, feeding economic and violent instability today will likely worsen the flow of undocumented migrants tomorrow.

Many Americans will not care about these consequences, or view them as much less important than the domestic impact of deporting millions of immigrants. But given the intimate economic, criminal, and social linkages between Mexico and Central American and the United States, these risks should not be forgotten.

*El Salvador’s homicide rate recently moved to the unenviable position of the world’s highest outside of wars, but there are reasons to question the accuracy of this ranking.

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