Jeff Sessions travels to El Salvador while Trump intensifies his war against immigrants

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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Photo: Contrapunto

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to El Salvador on July 27th as President Trump escalated his rhetorical and material attacks against immigrants. His visit appeared intended to stoke fears around the presence of Central American gangs in the US, especially MS-13, which has become central to the Administration´s xenophobic fear mongering. This sensationalized, dehumanizing discourse around Central American gang violence serves several purposes: it justifies the mass criminalization and deportation of undocumented immigrants in the US; additionally, it promotes further militarization in Central America; finally, it strengthens the destabilizing narrative that the region is ungovernable, thus favoring right-wing political elites.

President Trump has made the demonization of immigrants a center piece of his campaign as well as his presidency, notoriously calling Mexicans "rapists" at his campaign launch. Lately, he has fixated on theMS-13 gang, which was formed by Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles and made its way to El Salvador by way of punitive US deportation policies in the 1990s. In a recent speech, Trump declared “war” on the gang and promised to deport its members.

Attorney General Sessions´ trip to El Salvador was the latest in the Administration’s effort to paint immigrants as criminals, associating irregular migration with gang violence in order to advance harsher immigration policies. Sessions, a notorious racist, has been eager to enforce Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, threatening to go after “sanctuary cities”, local jurisdictions which refuse to cooperate with officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

During his visit, Sessions met with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and the Attorney Generals from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to discuss the controversial Alliance for Prosperity and gang violence in the region. The program purportedly seeks to address mass migration’s root causes of poverty and insecurity in the region, but it centers on neoliberal economic reforms and megaprojects, along with increased militarization of borders and police. US influence in the Alliance suggests it is another means of imposing US economic and military hegemony in the region in exchange for much-needed development aid. As if to demonstrate El Salvador’s commitment, days before Sessions arrival security forces carried out a massive operation in which more than 1,000 suspected gang members were captured. While in El Salvador, Sessions continued to stoke fears around the gang threat, saying “MS-13 is based here in El Salvador, but its tentacles reach across Central America, Europe, and through 40 U.S. States, and to within yards of the U.S. Capitol. With more than 40,000 members worldwide-including 10,000 in the United States-MS-13 threatens the lives and wellbeing of each and every family anywhere they exist and everywhere they infest.”

Under the FMLN, the Salvadoran government has tried to approach gang violence as not just a policing issue, but in a comprehensive way that engages marginalized youth, promotes education, and creates better economic conditions for vulnerable communities. In practice, however, law enforcement has received more funding than violence prevention, due largely to the severe lack of resources for long-term, structurally-minded economic and social programs. Through the Legislative Assembly and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, the right-wing opposition has blocked government finances destined for violence prevention. Most recently, the Supreme Court declared the 2017 budget unconstitutional, forcing even further austerity upon government agencies. With mid-term elections in 2018 and presidential elections in 2019, insecurity and struggling state institutions serve the opposition’s political interests.

Session’s visit was further proof that the Trump administration is happy to use the bogeyman of gang violence to push militarization and demonize immigrants, but unwilling to support the FMLN government’s efforts to deal with the root causes of violence, many of which lie at the feet of US imperialism.

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