The image shocks itself into memory: A father and his daughter, just short of her second birthday, face down in the murky waters of the Rio Grande. They’re flanked by shocks of blue detritus —an aluminum can, a bit of plastic. The man’s name, it would later be revealed, was Oscar Alberto Martinez. The baby, Angie Valeria. They were from El Salvador, the tiny Central American nation that, along with Guatemala and Honduras, comprises the infamous “Northern Triangle” from which millions of migrants have fled for their lives over the last several decades.
In Canada and throughout the world, the snapshot called to mind a similarly unshakable image, of a tiny boy’s lifeless body crumpled onto a Turkish shore, which in 2015 underscored the dilemma of so many casualties of conflict — those who elect to embark on the unthinkable, in retaliation against the horrors of the mundane. Unlike the recent photo, however, the political repercussions of the former were — at least in Canada — immediate and profound.
The logical question one might ask is, ‘Why the difference in response?’ One probable reason is the tendency of prosperous nations to skirt responsibility for resettling refugees fleeing non-state actors of violence — gangs, for instance, instead of armies. Then there are the inevitable pitfalls of navigating diplomacy with powerful allies, like the United States, who happen to also be serial Central American interventionists — and from whom Canada seeks constant political and cultural validation. Altogether, what seems most plausible is that Canada’s political leaders suffer a grave, collective case of misplaced backbone.
An asymmetry of indignation
The 2015 image of Alan Kurdi — a Syrian toddler who’d drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and captured international attention — would set the course of that autumn’s Canadian federal election. In late summer, news broke that the child had earlier been denied a refugee claim by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. The revelation brought into sharp relief the human toll of the Harper government’s torpid handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, which had drawn vocal criticism from immigrant advocacy groups and, perhaps loudest of all, from Harper’s political opponents.
With Kurdi fresh on Canadians’ minds, a new talking point became central to the campaigns of Harper’s opponents in the 2015 federal election: The Conservative government’s failure to uphold Canada’s international role as a safe haven.
“All different stripes of governments in Canada have stepped up in times of crisis to accept people fleeing for their lives,” Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau said after the photo became public, and reupped his proposal that Canada resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees immediately.
“Canadians get it,” he continued. “This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.” (By early 2016, the Trudeau government would reach its target, admitting 25,000 Syrian refugees. By January 2019, the number of Syrians resettled in Canada under Trudeau’s government had surpassed 50,000.)
The photo of Oscar and Valeria Martinez also comes on the heels of a federal election in Canada, amid a refugee crisis even closer to home. Yet, it has thus far failed to elicit a Canadian response that even approaches those of 2015. Trudeau has not yet mentioned the haunting image in any of his public social media accounts.
There are, of course, key differences between the two stories. Unlike the Kurdi boy, the Martinez family had not applied for — nor been subsequently denied — Canadian asylum. They were instead headed north through Mexico and into the US, where they would have been among the more than 250,000 Central Americans that are expected to enter the country, by way of its southwestern border, in 2019. (In 2018, that figure exceeded 271,000.)
A more cynical observer might point out that the Martinez family tragedy was less immediately exploitable for Canadian political favour than the death of Alan Kurdi, which may have ultimately swung the 2015 election for the Liberals. Nevertheless, Ottawa’s silence seems out of step both with Trudeau’s impassioned calls to action during the 2015 campaign, and with the national self-perception to which his calls appealed. Perhaps the near constant deluge of asylum-adjacent headlines in the intervening years has desensitized the voting public.
Regardless of this moment’s political calculus, it stands to reason that “living up to the values” that Canadians “cherish as a country” must include efforts to absorb at least some of the Central American migrant families pouring over the American border, into a hostile political landscape that’s infrastructurally unequipped to handle the flow.
The United Nations is placing its bets on Canada’s sense of humanitarian duty. In May of this year, the Mexico representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged Canada to “take the pressure off Mexican authorities” to process vulnerable Central American migrants “and resettle them to Canada.” The UNHCR emphasized the urgency of resettling LGBTQ people, women and children, in particular. It was the organization’s second such request of Canada regarding Central Americans in as many years.
This isn’t to say that Trudeau has wholly reneged on his nation’s open-armed reputation. On the contrary, Canada took in 28,100 refugees in 2018 alone — more than any other country last year.
It is in this context that inaction over the conflict in Central America has so bewildered critics. Canada’s continued adherence to the Safe Third Country Agreement — which is being challenged in an ongoing federal court case — has been cited by some experts as yet another example of how the federal government is “looking away” from the migrant crisis in its own backyard. And, this June, an article in Maclean’s chided “Canada’s political leaders” for their “missing outrage” over ongoing revelations of abuse in child prison camps at the US border.
But things weren’t always this way.
A tangle of interests
My own story echoes Canada’s complicated, triangular ties with Central America and the US. From the vantage of a person with connections to each, I’ve spent the whole of my life watching the threads of their diplomatic web unfurl.
I lived in Canada for more than 11 formative years of my adult life, an American expat with limited allegiance to my country of origin who’d opted to study in Toronto on a whim. It wasn’t until I took a commercial DNA test, shortly after I relocated to New York City at age 30, that I learned I’d had family in my adopted home the entire time. These weren’t distant relatives many generations removed, either. In most instances, they were second or third cousins, and they numbered in the dozens.
Some of them were descendants of a relative who had moved from Western Germany to Western Iowa to a tiny farming community near Calgary. The majority, though, had surnames like Ramos, Romero, and, eerily, Martinez — names common in my mother’s extended Salvadoran family, and probably many others — and they lived everywhere. My mother confirmed the existence of primos in Montreal, but 23andMe insisted there were more. Hamilton, the GTA, central Alberta: I had Salvadoran DNA relatives across Canada. Some, my mother recognized. Most, she did not.
It was by fluke of circumstance (notably, my Polish-American paternal grandfather’s childhood connections with stringently anti-Communist Wisconsin Congressman Clement Zablocki) that my mother’s branch landed in the American Midwest. One by one, through the 1980s and 1990s, my uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins joined us in Milwaukee. They were escaping the war back at home in El Salvador, but not as refugees. Rather, they became a quintessential case study in so-called “chain migration.” Led by my parents, they arrived by way of legal familial sponsorship, one beloved at a time.
Given my young father’s Milwaukee roots and political connections, this approach made the most sense for my immediate family. For our relatives without such advantages, Canadian asylum was the shinier offer. The Canadian government had been less complicit in their woes. In turn, its welcome was warmer.
Those woes had been a long time in the making. By the late 1970s, long-brewing class tensions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua had culminated in civil wars that pitted US-backed military forces against their Communist rivals. When US President Ronald Reagan came into power in January 1981, these civil wars became de-facto theatres in the Cold War.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, international human rights groups found that a majority of murders and disappearances were carried out by military and government-supported paramilitary forces whose coffers brimmed with Uncle Sam’s patronage. Neighbouring Honduras, in these years, became all but a US military base.
Something had to give, and it did. Canada broke from US policy strictures and admitted 15,877 Central American refugees between 1982 and 1987, most of them from El Salvador. The case was cut and dried, from a standpoint of myopic benevolence: civil war, bloodshed and innocents in need of shelter. Over the coming decade, many more would follow.
This history is important for understanding the contemporary crisis: a more than two-decade-old chapter kicked off, once again, by US political action. As I’ve previously written for Brit + Co, the Clinton-era Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 made immigration to the US more difficult while also facilitating deportations for petty crimes. Scores of Central American immigrant youth, who had been locked up in major US cities like Los Angeles during the tough-on-crime 1990s, were subsequently deported to their politically and economically destabilized postwar countries of origin. Social and cultural alienation, fortified by weak sociopolitical infrastructures and a litany of American assault weapons, formed the MS-13 gang whose vicious reign has driven the contemporary exodus.
This history is far from secret, easily revealed by the most cursory Google search. But for reasons that do not exhaust the average imagination, the US has been less than contrite over — let alone, accountable for — its role in every step of this crisis. This crisis is not the inevitable byproduct of “bad hombres” who may as well be “animals,” to quote President Donald Trump.
The Central American refugee crisis on the United States’ doorstep is, in no uncertain terms, the US’ fault. But memories are short, and diplomatic relationships are fragile and unfair. In order to act, Canada must acknowledge the elephant in the room — that its strong southern neighbour made a big mess that will take concerted cooperation to clean up.
Contrary to the insistences of the ethically bankrupt Trump administration, the US has a moral imperative (not to mention, diplomatic incentives) to address the repercussions of its own badly bungled policies. But Canada isn’t off the hook. If Canada wants to uphold its identity as a safe haven, it must commit to continuing to earn that reputation. And that means paying attention to the stories, the images, of those like Oscar and Valeria Martinez — and taking action. As we once again enter federal election debate season, the world is watching.