For months, thousands of children and families from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been turning themselves in at the southern U.S. border, fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption in their communities. This influx of refugees has strained the resources of front-line responders and evoked both humanitarian responses from community groups and local unions and xenophobic backlash from right-wing politicians and activists.
As lawmakers play political football with the lives of these families, the labor movement, faith groups and community and migrant rights organizations have sought to shift the focus of the debate by urging the U.S. government to craft a humanitarian response to the current crisis while taking action to address its root causes.
On Thursday, the AFL-CIO Executive Council passed a historic resolution standing up for this country’s proud tradition of welcoming those fleeing repression and violence. It urged the Obama administration to ensure all children who have survived trauma or persecution are afforded refugee status. In response to proposals from both Democrats and Republicans to roll back protections for victims of trafficking and expedite deportation proceedings, the council rejected changes to current law that would limit due process or run counter to established U.S. and international norms regarding the detainment of children and refugees.
Indeed, the situation for workers in Central America is dire. In both Honduras and Guatemala, the AFL-CIO and its labor movement counterparts in those countries have filed complaints under the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), alleging that those governments are complicit in serious violations of workers’ rights. Trade unionists have reported that the governments of Honduras and Guatemala have done little to stop ongoing threats, retaliation and even the murder of labor activists. Guatemala is the most dangerous country in the world for trade union activity and Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world for a country not at war.
While U.S. government representatives are in the process of assessing the situation in Guatemala, for more than two years the U.S. Labor Department has failed to act on the Honduras complaint. This prompted a renewed call last week from the AFL-CIO and the Honduran labor movement for the U.S. government to respond to complaints, issue a report on findings and begin a process to address the violations.
More than any other Central American country, Honduran workers and their families have been fleeing an acute jobs crisis and systemic violence, which their own government has perpetuated failing to protect its citizens’ rights to join together in trade unions and collectively improve their working conditions. Had it acted promptly to address the failures of the Honduran government to protect workers, the U.S. government already could have been on the way to addressing many of the “push factors” involved in the current refugee crisis.
To complement this ongoing work, the AFL-CIO and Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) recently hosted a briefing for congressional staff discussing how U.S. trade, foreign and development policies have negatively affected the countries from which children are fleeing.
The panel shared first-hand accounts of how labor exploitation, violence, failed development strategies and the legacy of civil war in Central America has left the region devastated, while CAFTA, specifically, has done nothing to improve conditions and has only exacerbated displacement. The speakers urged lawmakers and their staff to turn away from short-sighted solutions and consider measures to improve U.S. trade policies, promote decent work and prevent future funding for corrupt military and police forces in the states most affected.
The AFL-CIO Executive Council committed America’s labor movement to provide support for refugees and stand with workers in Central America. Unions will continue working with civic leaders, clergy, refugee and immigrant rights groups and other community organizations to ensure children’s health, educational, safety and legal needs are met. In the months ahead, AFL-CIO unions also will organize a high-level labor delegation to investigate the root causes of the crisis and develop recommendations for addressing them. Until the U.S. government can craft an appropriate, long-term policy response that tackles problems on both sides of the border, there will be no end in sight for the current refugee crisis.
Charlie Fanning writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog, where this post originally appeared.