Jeanne Gallo and Sunny Robinson, lifelong human rights advocates for justice and peace, have toured Massachusetts over the past year to give a series of talks on mass migration in the Americas and the US border crackdown. They have presented a slide show about their trip to the US-Mexico border in November 2018, where they met with human rights workers, families of the disappeared, DACA and other youth, as well as visited Annunciation House in El Paso. The following article is the first in “Voices from the Border”, a three-part series. (Read part 2 here.)
by Jeanne Gallo
The United States government maintains the largest immigration detention system in the world. This barbaric practice did not begin with Donald Trump, though he has magnified its cruelty to extremes. Over the last four decades, US lawmakers have helped create a multi-billion-dollar industry for the incarceration of immigrants.
Many immigrants held in prison-like facilities across the country are not serving time for a crime. They are waiting for a hearing to determine whether they can legally remain in the country. Following reports of horrific detention conditions in July 2019, President Trump tweeted: “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detention centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”
Forty years ago, this system did not exist. Why are people from Central America seeking asylum here? Their answer: “We are here because you were there.”
Their reality is directly related to the policy forged by the US as early as 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine, which justified any intervention into Latin America to “protect” it from any extra-hemispheric power. In 1846, the concept of “manifest destiny” provided a “religious” rationale for the doctrine. The US had a special mission from God to spread its particular brand of economic, social and political organization throughout the Western Hemisphere. Later, “manifest destiny” came to include dreams of empire which extended to the whole world.
Initially, US policy led to the taking of huge tracts of land from Mexico (1848). The ongoing domination and exploitation of the wealth and resources of Latin America for US interests followed. Between 1850 and 1980, there have been 69 cases of US military interventions in South and Central America. Who benefitted? The wealthy who governed, the militaries which kept them in power, and US corporations. The masses did not. Their experience was one of misery, poverty, injustice, oppression, repression, discrimination, marginalization, premature unjust death, and the ongoing struggle to survive.
The attitude of the US today is no different than in 1927 when the Under-Secretary of State, Robert Olds said, “We do control the destinies of Central America and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course…Until now Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fall.” The US considered Central America as a piece of real estate which it owned and could dispose of as it wished. This is still true today.
The world order created by the US after World War II enabled the realization of its dreams of global empire. With the founding of the United Nations, new financial institutions were created. In 1948, with the proclamation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights and human dignity were raised to a universal level. The declaration set the standards for human rights and inspired national constitutions and laws as well as conventions on various rights. The translation of these rights into principles was accomplished in 1966 with the drafting of two covenants, which were ratified in 1976 and which are now part of international law.
Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood (sic).” Article 14 proclaims: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Two other documents followed: the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol on Refugee Status, which the US ratified in 1968 and incorporated into the US Refugee Act of 1980. As a signatory, the US has a legal obligation to provide protection to those who qualify. The US Refugee Act established two paths to obtain refugee status—either from abroad as a resettled refugee or in the United States as an asylum seeker. It did not provide for mass incarceration of refugees fleeing violence and seeking asylum.
The Latin American Bishops (1968), in describing their reality, said: “From the depths of the countries which make up Latin America, a cry is rising to Heaven…It is the cry of a suffering people who demand justice, freedom and respect for the basic rights of human beings and people.”
In the years since, tens of thousands have been tortured, mutilated, killed or disappeared in the Hemisphere, especially in Central America. Why? The poor became conscious that they are human beings, that they have rights, and that they can organize to gain those rights. As the poor organized, the US supplied the weapons and military training needed to massacre the peoples of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and made a huge military base of Honduras. Millions fled to the U.S. The wars ended in the 1990s; the violence did not.
Today’s refugees are fleeing for their lives — not only from poverty and increased violence — but because of climate change in the “dry corridor” of Central America. Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran men, women, and children are walking thousands of miles to the US in order to survive. They are being met with arrest, detention, deprivation, and deportation by our government. By detaining refugees or exiling them to Mexico before their status is determined, the US is in violation of both international and domestic laws. We must organize to end this obscene mass incarceration system for immigrants, as well as to stop the Trump effort to end asylum here in the U.S. Demand the right of asylum. Close all detention facilities.
In his book on climate change, migration, and homeland security, Todd Miller wrote: “…one of the most reliable forecasts for our collective future is that vast numbers of people will be on the move, and vast numbers of agents will be trained, armed, and paid to stop them.”
In this kind of world, migrants will continue to come. What will be our response? Militarized borders everywhere or the human right to asylum and refugee status for all who are in need?
Jeanne Gallo, Ph.D. in social ethics, is a decades-long human rights educator and activist, and a current member of Mass. Peace Action’s Latin America Working Group.