The following article is the second in “Voices from the Border”, a three-part series. (Read Part 1 here.)
by Sunny Robinson
“It’s got to be steel bollards,” Trump said. “…Love the design. Gotta be steel bollards. But it’s got to be the bollards right next to each other. Just the bollards.” He went on to say it also has to be beautiful. And furthermore the tops of the poles have to be sharp and pointy, so that no one will dare try to climb over it. And the pointy parts should be painted black, so that they get hot in the bright sun. That will help to deter anyone trying to climb up.
—from Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration by Hirschfeld, Davis & Shear
Nearly all the immigration policies the Trump administration has put in place are not only inhumane, but also violations of the United States’ own asylum laws and international protocols on asylum to which the U.S. is a signatory.
What then are those policies? And what do we do about them?
U.S. policy says: “Any alien who is physically present in the U.S. (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the U.S. after having been interdicted in international waters) irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum …”. (emphasis added) (U.S. Code 1158). Secondly, the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 UN Protocol define a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country, and cannot obtain protection in that country due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.’’ The U.S. Congress incorporated this definition into the Refugee Act of 1980. As a signatory, the U.S. has the legal obligation to provide protection to those who qualify. Therefore, the denial – whether by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), or the courts – of the right to fully pursue an asylum claim for all those who request it and make such a claim of fear of persecution, is a violation of our own laws and international protocols.
The current Remain in Mexico program, officially and euphemistically known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, and the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement are both violations of our own procedures as well as major violations of human rights. In assessing the impact of these programs, we need to remember that the current draconian measures started with Operation Streamline, carried out by Clinton, Bush and Obama, which resulted in the detention and deportation of thousands of persons present in the U.S. without authorization.
Trump touted his plan to intensify Operation Streamline from the moment he declared his intention to seek the presidency. In his early statements, he told us he considered immigrants as “criminals, rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, and animals.” Later, he said all the people coming from Central America were an “invasion.” He and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, went on to establish Zero Tolerance, a no-exceptions policy of detention and/or deportation for all unauthorized persons who were picked up, as well as separation of children from their parents or other accompanying adults.
Fleeing Violence and Crop Failure
Soon, in 2019, the 55,000 authorized detention beds were full, guaranteeing their owners daily federal payment as well as assuring enormous profits to the mostly for-profit detention/incarceration industrial complex. In addition, there were the detention centers and cages for children separated from their parents and for unaccompanied minors.
But even with these harsh and inhuman conditions, people, especially from Central America, kept attempting to enter the U.S. to claim asylum, join other family members, flee violence and massive poverty, and/or find work. I think most of us cannot grasp, even in our wildest imaginings, the impact of gang violence that is driving so many people from Latin America to the U.S. Refuse just once to do the bidding of the local gang and you and/or your family are threatened, beaten, raped, or murdered. The entire family is put at risk and must flee –often with little time to prepare for such flight. (See, for example, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham.)
Similarly, we cannot imagine the climate-change-induced crop failures that have happened all across the so-called dry corridor of Central America. (See map.) Three years in a row, massive crop diminishment or complete failure! Central American farmers this year say things like, “The crops simply did not grow. There was nothing to harvest. We are already dead.” So they fled, embarking on a risky and harsh journey to secure the possibility of a future for themselves and their families. But, note, these persons are not fleeing persecution from gang or military violence. They are introducing us to a whole new kind of asylum seekers, those we might call climate refugees. At present, they are not covered by U.S. or international asylum laws. What should be our responses to these families as well as to those escaping gang violence?
There are those who offer a formula in answer, noting current estimates indicate the U.S. is responsible for the factors causing at least 27% of climate change and should therefore be responsible for at least 27% of the world’s climate refugees. A recent U.N. decision, however, starts to open some doors; it says “…a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where – due to the climate crisis – their life is at risk, or in danger of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” (As cited by Amnesty International Jan. 20, 2020.)
But we get ahead of ourselves. With the detention beds full, with massive protests against the caging of children and the deplorable conditions and food in all detention centers, and with more than 850,000 persons having come across the U.S. southern border in the first ten months of 2019 (CBP), the current administration declared an end to the so-called catch and release approach. Under catch and release, migrants were released to the streets when there was no further place in which to detain them. Instead, the administration turned to metering, Remain in Mexico, and ultimately the misnamed Safe Third Country programs.
The Endless Wait
Now, when migrants arrive at the southern border seeking asylum or entry, they are given a number – thus metered – and told to remain in Mexico until their case is called. A recent Common Dreams story quotes a young man saying his number is 12,613! And this is just at the El Paso port of entry!
This practice is now operational at seven major points of entry to the U.S., from eastern Texas all the way to San Diego. Initiated in August 2019, there are now at least 59,000 persons, mostly from Central America, but also from Africa, Cuba, Venezuela, waiting literally on the streets in Mexican cities in flimsy tents or makeshift shelters or with no shelter whatsoever. As in U.S. border towns, many organizations and communities in Mexico have reached out to try to provide some shelter, food, and other assistance. But the numbers are overwhelming and assistance is limited. Migrants themselves are afraid to move about freely lest they lose their place in line. Gangs and coyotes / traffickers prey on people on the streets, demanding extra money for protection, or as ransom after kidnappings. The stories of hardship and danger are harrowing.
CBP personnel are conducting the initial required “credible fear” interview, a practice which itself is unlawful, since these interviews are supposed to be carried out by trained personnel who understand the conditions in the countries from which people are coming. If migrants make it through this first interview, they ultimately will have a “court date,” meaning they will be brought across the border to the U.S. side. There, in a tent, they might have only 30 minutes to one hour with a lawyer (not guaranteed) to prepare their case, generally without translators available. Then they will have to present their case to a judge, who might be hundreds of miles away, by skype or facetime. Only 0.2% of cases heard out of El Paso are allowed to go forward; only 0.6% go forward from San Diego. Migrant Protection Protocols indeed! Rather, racism at its structural best! In contrast, 74% of asylum cases heard in federal immigration courts in Boston are granted asylum.
“Safe” Third Countries?
And then there is Safe Third Countries program, wherein people who do not cross directly into the U.S. from their home country, but rather pass through Mexico from a third country, are being required to seek asylum in another country, not the U.S. Thus, for example, Salvadorans and Hondurans are being sent to Guatemala. The Trump administration has declared its intention to send Mexicans who cross into the U.S. to Guatemala, even though they do not fit the requirements. To achieve these “agreements,” the Trump administration threatened Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras with increased tariffs, taxation on all remittances, and a decrease in aid. So far, Guatemala is the only place they have been implemented. Recent planeloads of deportees landed in Guatemala without even knowing where they were! U.S. aid was partially restored but at only 25% of the previously designated amount.
Meanwhile, the situation in Guatemala itself is dire. Large areas are suffering from extreme drought and crop failure. The country has the 6th highest rate of malnutrition in the world, the 3rd highest rate of femicide, and high levels of government corruption. Massive protests—mostly indigenous—have erupted against mining and other forms of environmental degradation. Thirty environmental activists were murdered in 2019 and a new militarized “state of alert” was declared in January in three communities just outside of Guatemala City. Not to mention, Guatemala has its own substantial problems with gangs and drug transshipments. Reportedly it has a total of six asylum personnel! As best we know, many Hondurans are choosing to go back to Honduras rather than remain in Guatemala.
But rest assured, these migrants are determined people, committed to their own and their families’ survival. They will try again. They are choosing to be the subjects of their own histories. And determined to find a way to get to the U.S. or Canada.
What then are we here in the U.S. to do? That becomes its own discussion and part three of this series on immigration. But for starters, everyone should call their congressional representatives and insist that the U.S. adhere to its own immigration laws. Call every month, every week. Press all the candidates as to what they are doing to pursue genuine and humane immigration reform. And then go to Julian Castro’s People First Proposal. It’s the best, most comprehensive, proposal available. It starts with decriminalizing migration and creating multiple paths to citizenship. (https://issues.juliancastro.com/people-first-immigration/) In June, the House passed the Dream and Promise Act, which also is a first step ; it has not been allowed to move forward in the Senate. Demand that it be debated. Mass. Peace Action readers should contact Senator Ed Markey, who has been endorsed by the organization, and ask what he is doing to introduce and promote the Dream and Promise Act in the Senate.
—Sunny Robinson is a retired public health nurse and decades-long human rights activist, focused largely on Central America, as well as an active member of the Mass. Peace Action Latin America Working Group and the Essex County Community Organization. She and Jeanne Gallo are available for presentations and discussions on current US immigration policy and the actions needed to make it more just.