"Finding Refuge from Racism and State Violence, or just More of the Same? The Impact of Obama and Trump Era Immigration Policies on Central American Garifuna Asylum Seekers"
The purpose of this research project is to understand how Honduran Garifuna patterns and experiences of immigration have been impacted by changes in US immigration law and events in Honduras over the last 20 years that have led to increased levels of violence towards them by both state and non-state actors. The Garifuna are an Afro-Indigenous population who live in villages along the Caribbean coast of Central America from Belize to Nicaragua. They have been migrating to the US since the 1940s, and up until the 1990s, were largely documented and travelled frequently between the US and their home communities in Central America. Though this migration was associated with some social problems, it was largely seen as positive by the community as it enabled Garifuna to earn money in the US which they invested in their villages in the form of houses, businesses, and education for their children. Migrants actively participated in the political and cultural life of the home community and frequently visited. However, several events at the turn of the 21st century have changed this migration from simply a strategy of upward mobility (sacar adelante a mi familia) to an urgent matter of life and death. First, one of the worst hurricanes in the history of Central America hit in 1998 killing tens of thousands of people, destroying crops, infrastructure, and homes. Then in 2009 there was a coup d’etat that overthrew democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya and has led to massive levels of political repression, violence, and corruption. In particular, the new regime created legislation that has opened the Caribbean coast of Honduras to foreign ownership for agribusiness and mega-tourism projects leading to severe conflicts over Garifuna land. In addition, the northeastern coast of Honduras has become dominated by drug cartels that use the isolated beaches and rain forests as places to land their planes and boats, intimidating and threatening the local community to sell their land and/or participate in the business. The Honduran military and government have connections to these cartels leading many to refer to Honduras as a “narco state.” Though Garifuna have attempted to fight against these processes of dislocation, impoverishment, and criminal violence, the state has responded with its own brand of violence by assassinating, threatening, and criminalizing Garifuna leaders. Thus, many Garifuna, like other Hondurans, are making the decision to migrate in response to an immediate threat to their lives, and do not have the time to go through the legal routes of applying for visas and family reunification as they had done in the past, but are rather coming undocumented, many in search of asylum. Unfortunately, since 9/11 in 2001, US immigration policy has become much stricter about who can enter legally, much more draconian in its treatment of the undocumented population, and more unfriendly to asylum seekers. Many scholars have referred to the current detention and deportation regime of the US and the militarized US/Mexican border as a form of state violence that is highly racialized as it tends to disproportionately target peoples from certain parts of the world, Central America being one of them. Thus, the Garifuna, like many asylum seekers, are caught between two forms of state violence: that of their own countries that is literally expelling them through marginalization and persecution, and that of the US that uses “racialized filters” to make entry to the US and receiving asylum extremely difficult for certain types of people.
For this project I travelled in July to New Orleans and Houston where I conducted interviews with Garifuna who had migrated to the US within the last 10 years to hear their stories of why they decided to migrate, what their experience was like passing through Mexico and the US/Mexican border, and how they were treated by US immigration officials. I heard stories of people migrating due to poverty, death threats, and political persecution, and having to pass through many “filters” created by harsh Mexican and US immigration policies, corrupt officials, and organized crime along the way. Some of the earlier migrants came as single adults but all of the more recent migrants came as families, often with very small children. After collecting these stories I am able to see the way that immigration from Central America has generated a whole system of state and non-state actors who benefit financially from the expulsion of Central Americans from their communities (which makes their land available for corporate investment), their vulnerability during their passage to the US border (which makes them easy prey for extortion), and their difficulty in regularizing their legal status in the US (which makes them vulnerable to the detention and deportation industrial complex). In the case of the Garifuna this is made even more acute by the fact that they are an Afro-Indigenous population whose culture, territory, and rights are supposed to be protected by numerous international conventions acknowledging the special value and vulnerability of indigenous and Afro-descent peoples. Many Garifuna experience this dislocation from their communities as the third expulsion that they have suffered as a people: first from Africa, then from St. Vincent, and now from Central America. And yet US asylum policy is also hostile to their claims to seek refuge in the US, forcing them to remain undocumented and vulnerable to expulsion from this country, completing the circle of state violence against them.