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1954: When US foreign policy came home

For generations, U.S. immigration policies have been based on short-term, stopgap thinking that more often than not accelerated emigration to the United States, while trying to repress it.

Part two of a three-part series.

(CN) — Before 1954, the primary drivers of immigration to the United States were problems in other countries, as well as the lure of our own. But since 1954, the primary drivers have been U.S. policies, and their sorry aftermaths.

Here is a brief rundown of how our failed foreign and domestic policies have spurred immigration to the United States for more than two generations.

Iran: 1953

In August 1953, the CIA backed a military coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was contemplating nationalizing his nation’s oil reserves. We installed Shah Reza Palavi, who institutionalized torture chambers for his political opponents, after torturing and executing many of Mossadegh’s associates. Mossadegh was sentenced to 3 years solitary confinement by a five-man military tribunal, then held under house arrest for 14 years, until he died. He was buried in his living room, to forestall public protests at his funeral.

The United States then supported the Shah — in fact, kept him in power — until he was ousted by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, whose heirs rule Iran today.

Iranian emigration

From 1842 to 1903, only 130 Iranians/Persians emigrated to the United States, according to a 2014 report from the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americana (PAAIA). Not 130 a year; 130 in 61 years: about two a year.

For the next 20 years, Iranian emigration to the United States was so insignificant that Iranians/Persians were not even listed in U.S. immigration statistics. (Iran adopted its name in 1935; before then, most of what we know as Iran today was called Persia.)

From 1925 to 1950, “nearly 2,000 Iranians were admitted to the United States as immigrants,” according to the PAAIA report: about 80 a year — three every two weeks — for 25 years.

On Page 4 of its report, the PAAIA related the economic progress Iran made from 1954 to 1960 — without, however, mentioning the military coup, the Shah, the oil, the CIA, or the torture chambers. It does mention, however, that the number of Iranian students in the United States increased from 7,795 in 1975 to 13,928 in in 1976 and 25,086 in 1977.

Then came the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which we Yankees recall, if at all, as “the hostage crisis,” and which, more than any other event, drove Jimmy Carter from office and elected Ronald Reagan.

Iranian immigration to the United States rose from 40,716 in 1978 to 49,192 in 1979 and 59,602 in 1980. Iranian emigration to the United States has risen every year since 1978 — 45 years in a row — to more than 400,000 a year every year since 2007 (more than 6 million in the past 5 years alone).

Much, perhaps most, of this Iranian emigration is due to the sexist policies of the Iranian government. But the United States kicked off this mass migration: because Mossadegh sought to recover for Iran its own oilfields.

So: Ten million Iranian immigrants to the United States since the CIA coup, more than 1 million a year under the Trump administration. I don’t blame them. I’d have done the same thing. But is that a crisis? And if not, why is it a crisis when Latin Americans come here?

Well, a lot of the Iranians are educated, and a lot of the Mexicans are not.

Why would that be?

Guatemala – 1954

A CIA memorandum dated May 1975 which describes the role of the agency in deposing the Guatemalan government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in June 1954.

No, the crisis is that the CIA, flushed with its “victory” in Iran, proceeded to back another military coup in 1954, against Guatemala’s elected President Jacobo Árbenz. Then we installed a military regime that has killed more than 1 million Guatemalans, most of them Mayas, and continues to terrorize Guatemala today.

Mossadegh’s “error” was to try to reclaim profits from his country’s oilfields. Árbenz “erred” when he tried to nationalize fallow land owned by the United Fruit Company and other U.S. companies in Guatemala: a country rich in natural resources, whose people were, and are, dying of starvation.


Árbenz did not plan to nationalize all of United Fruit’s land — just the acres the company and others had fallowed to keep out of production to prop up prices, while Guatemalan farmworkers were starving, and begging for work.

Annual emigration from Guatemala rose from virtually zero before the CIA coup in 1954 to 63,073 in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. During Reagan’s term it shot up to more than 200,000 a year.

Guatemalans, who fled from a country with a population of 17 million, are the 10th largest emigrant group in the United States today.

The 1970 U.S. Census counted 17,536 Guatemalan immigrants living here — more than triple the 5,381 it had counted in 1960. By 2013, the Census counted 902,000 Guatemalans in the United States — an explosion of 5,144% since 1970, and 16,760% since 1960. That number had risen to 1.3 million Guatemalans by 2015, according to the American Community Survey.

Honduras and El Salvador

Arrests of Hondurans at the U.S. southern border rose by 36,720% from 2012 to 2019: from 513 in 2012 to 188,368 in 2019.

Throughout the 2010s, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world: higher than El Salvador and Guatemala, and more than three times the rate in Mexico. (Mexico’s statistics are unreliable, however, manipulated by the government, whose military and police have murdered tens of thousands of their own citizens, in collusion and competition with drug cartels and other criminal gangs.)

Honduras formerly trailed only El Salvador in per capita homicide rate. Salvadoran homicides, however, have declined by 80% in the past 6 years: from 6,600 in 2015 to 3,398 in 2019 to 1,322 in 2020. El Salvador’s per capita homicide rate of 30.2 per 100,000 in 2020 was the lowest in decades.

Much of El Salvador’s recent increase in public safety can be attributed to the reformist government of President Nayib Bukele, who took office on June 1, 2019, and aggressively tackled the gangs responsible for most of the murders in El Salvador and Honduras, and the governmental corruption that fed them.

The Salvadoran daily newspaper La Prensa Gráfica reported on Jan. 2 this year “that during 2020 El Salvador added 30 days without homicides [3.62 a day] and … that when President Nayib Bukele took office, on June 1, 2019, the country registered a daily average of 8.91 homicides.”

In this 2020 photo released by the El Salvador presidential press office, inmates are lined up during a security operation under the watch of police at Izalco prison in San Salvador, El Salvador. (El Salvador presidential press office via AP)

It took extraordinary lack of effort for Honduras to surpass El Salvador as the hemisphere’s, and world’s, murder capital. Honduras’s per capita murder rate of 38 per 100,000 in 2020 was the first time its numbers fell below 40 per 100,000 since 2014, when the rate was 66 per 100,000.

San Pedro Sula in Honduras — a major source of unaccompanied minor emigrants to the United States — was the world’s murder capital in 2013, with a homicide rate of 187 per 100,000 inhabitants. (Organized crime and street gangs are pervasive in Honduras, accounting for 34.8% of its homicides in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2012, just 49% of Hondurans said they felt safe walking alone at night, according to Gallup.)

This year San Pedro Sula was the 15th most murderous city in the world, according to the Mexican group, whose numbers have credibility if only because six of its seven most homicidal cities were in Mexico, and the website does not appear to be affiliated with the government, and appears to be unreachable today.

Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez were the only cities recording more than 100 homicides per 100,000.

(St. Louis, Mo., ranked 9th-worst in the world, with 64.5 homicides per 100,000; Detroit came in 34th, at 40.7 per 100,000.)

The U.S. Census counted more than 573,000 Honduran emigrants to the United States in 2013, more than 60% of them undocumented, which indicates that the true count is probably something above 600,000 — more than the population of Milwaukee. The Honduran exodus to the United States.

The Honduran Coup

Honduran emigration to the United States is a recent phenomenon. Its primary driver was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s backing of the Honduran military coup of November 2009, and President Barack Obama’s acquiescence to it.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks in New York in 2017. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

The Honduran Army arrested President Manuel Zelaya in the last week of June 2009, on orders of the Honduran Supreme Court, on charges of “treason” and “abuse of authority.” Zelaya had supported a small increase in the country’s minimum wage, delivery of land titles to some peasant squatters, and, worst of all in Washington’s eyes, had political support from Honduras’s traditional enemy, El Salvador, which had just elected Mauricio Funes its president, from the nominally leftist FMLN.

Secretary of State Clinton backed the coup, and in the 12 years since then Honduras has become a narco-state, led by today’s President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother Tony Hernández, a former congressman, who was convicted in U.S. courts of aiding and abetting the importation of 185 tons of cocaine to the United States. He has been sentenced to life in prison.

Juan Hernández has denied interest in, and knowledge of, his brother’s criminal dealings, but 185 tons comes to 168 million grams of cocaine, in a country that does not produce the crop.Priced conservatively at $40 a gram, that’s $6.7 billion — more than the annual state budget of Virginia.

The poverty rate in Honduras was 66% in 2016, according to the World Bank and other sources: more than twice the poverty rate of neighboring El Salvador.

The United States pledged at least $18 million in military and police assistance to Honduras in 2018, according to the Latin American Working Group, despite Honduran police and military involvement in death squads that have murdered hundreds of human rights workers and union organizers, including indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres.

In this year of 2021, despite the Covid pandemic and triple hurricane devastations of 2020, the U.S. Congress has appropriated only $5.4 million to Honduras as humanitarian aid — less than one-third of our appropriations for its “security.”

Friday: Push and pull factors, at home and around the world.

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