From the July-August 2018 issue of News & Letters
by Buddy Bell
On June 20, U.S. policy at the border changed under pressure. Since May, the federal government had separated 2,500 children from their parents, merely to advance a policy to deter refugee families from arriving—as though these families just came to the border for entertainment. Public outrage expressed by all levels of U.S. society started to seep into the structural foundation of President Trump’s base: religious conservatives, who called the policy “disgraceful” and “wretched.” Trump was forced to reverse course for political survival, ordering border officials to maintain “family unity.”
From the narrow criticism by the base conservatives, a problem quickly follows. What happens after the first negation of a fault? What happens once the likes of Ralph Reed and Franklin Graham extract a concession to their anti-woman and anti-queer altars of political power passing as “sanctity of the family”? How many politicians and corporate spokespeople will fall silent as family unity inside a prison cell becomes the order of the day? Even if asylum-denialism called “zero tolerance” is stopped, what happens next? What if state and private capital still use prisons to profit from warehousing poor people, what if workers are still exploited, what if young people have ever-fewer options?
Chirayu Patel spoke at a June 23 rally in Chicago demanding a plan to reunite families already separated, one of hundreds of demonstrations across the U.S. that were quickly put together and announced over social media. “In a different time, what’s happening today could have been me, or it could have been my family. When we are carving up families and separating children, even detaining families indefinitely… when leaders are dividing us based on our race or where we come from or who we worship, they don’t have a vision. They’re dividing and ruling, the oldest trick in the book.”
MASSES IN THE STREET MADE CHANGE
That the rallies had a direct effect was clear on June 27, when a federal court ordered Trump to reunite minors under five years old to their families within 14 days, all others within 30 days. The hundreds of rallies helped the separated families win this case on the basis of a Fifth Amendment violation. In a written decision, judges recognized: “To prevail on this claim, Plaintiffs must show that the Government practice ‘shocks the conscience.’”
At the McAllen port of entry, hundreds of parents and children were placed in separate chain link cells. From there, they would be separated and sent to indefinite detention. “It’s the worst nightmare I can imagine for a child,” said Louis Kraus, child psychologist at Rush University Medical Center. A mother detained in Texas said that agents took her baby as she was breastfeeding. Sometimes parents and children are told the child must go with an agent to take a bath. They never come back. A woman from Honduras had to strap her crying one-year-old in a car seat to be driven away from her. In court, a mother from El Salvador said, “I do not want my children to think that I abandoned them.”
Erendira Rendón speaks of her experience crossing the border at age 4: “I remember sitting underneath a bush and hiding and I remember falling asleep on my mom’s arm, and when I saw her, she was awake. I went to sleep, and when I woke up—I don’t know how many hours later or minutes later—she was also still awake… I don’t have any other memories of my crossing. I think I was probably confused, but I’m sure I wasn’t scared because I was with my mom the entire time.”
THE TORTURING OF CHILDREN
Disability rights activist Chuy Campuzano: “I am very open to say I’m a person with a mental illness. [Speaking about] mental illness is very important to me because if you don’t have a mental illness, once you’re separated from your family, you’re going to have one.” Indeed, as cries for their parents are ignored or even ridiculed by staff, terrified children have resorted to screaming, running down hallways, throwing furniture, harming themselves. The Shiloh detention center south of Houston has been sued for forcefully injecting children with medications, or prying their mouths open to make them swallow pills, practices that lawyers claim to have seen at other facilities. The medications make children lethargic and dizzy.
More than 10,000 children are locked up in some 100 facilities in 14 states, most of them run at a profit by private companies. Often, these are the same places that housed unaccompanied minors since the Obama Administration greatly expanded grants in 2014. While a few children are cared for in foster homes, more are locked in staffed residential houses, trailer parks, or recycled Wal-Marts. The newest facilities are quickly erected tent cities in hot climates with portable bathrooms outside. Three shuttered prisons in Texas were rebranded as so-called “tender-age shelters” where children younger than 13 could receive special care and attention, a breathtaking contradiction when the separation itself was the abuse being suffered.
All children are prevented from hugging. Staff abuse, such as throwing children into walls, has been reported. At least two sites have failed to screen staff using proper background checks. In 2014, the Houston Chronicle reported on the Shiloh facility’s history of using painful physical restraints on children. In 2011, a child there was killed when staff tied him up and left him in a closet. At least two teenagers have successfully escaped from facilities in Chicago and Tucson.
Since a 2014 incident where children were released to traffickers who posed as parents and secretly forced the children to work at an Ohio egg farm, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has required DNA testing to verify parentage. In at least one instance, a child was willfully abandoned by his father when a DNA test came back negative.
Supposing families will now again be detained together in a jail setting, they must be released within 20 days, in accordance with a 1997 court case that prevented the Clinton Administration from indefinitely detaining immigrant children. The Trump administration tried to get a court to overturn the 20-day limit as plans develop to create tent cities on Texas military bases that will confine tens of thousands of family members.
WHY FAMILIES FLEE
These families are most often fleeing violence worse than the risks they face in crossing the border. Their motives range from government repression, to starvation, to escaping gangs, to fleeing abusive husbands. Governments, supported by the U.S., abuse their own people (see “Uprising in Honduras,” March-April 2018 N&L, p. 11) and have been completely unrestrained in killing and jailing their opponents. “This country [the U.S.] has a history of colonization, a history that involves the extraction of resources,” said Nigerian immigrant Hugo Cara. “And so naturally, people seek refuge in countries that aren’t war-torn because of what [the U.S.] did to make their homes war-torn.”
In late 2016, a mother made the harrowing decision to bring her daughter and sons to the U.S. after men from a gang killed her husband for refusing to let one of them “marry” his daughter, code for making her a sex slave. Last May, the girl was nearly forced to go back to El Salvador except for a stay of deportation issued by the Supreme Court. After Wayner Berduo was shot by gang members but managed to get away, he tried to enter the U.S. from Mexico with a wife and child. They could not get past U.S. agents who stood in the middle of the bridge, physically blocking them from stepping across the border. “They always say come back later.”
On June 11, later became too late. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced no more victims of gang violence or domestic violence would be granted asylum. (Asylum courts are administrative courts subordinate to Sessions.) In doing so, he overturned the asylum of a Guatemalan woman whose husband burned her with paint thinner.
WOMEN FLEEING ABUSE ARE ABUSED
Medical negligence of women in ICE custody is rampant, especially pregnant women, who were generally released on bond until Sessions ended long-standing policy in December. Conditions of confinement induce miscarriages. Rape and sexual abuse are widespread, occurring along the way to the border, in the crossing process, and in detention; yet federal authorities make access to abortion extremely difficult for women in custody. Roxana Hernández, Transgender asylum seeker from Honduras, died in New Mexico last May after being placed in a freezing cold cell. Medical staff had not checked in on her for a week.
Some countries criminally punish Queer people, but agents who do “credible fear” hearings and final asylum cases are not all sympathetic or humble. The judge who heard LGBT-ally Che Eric Sama’s case denied that he had suffered “enough persecution” in Cameroon after he reported being attacked with a knife.
ANTI-IMMIGRANT POLICY IS WORLDWIDE
U.S. policy reverberates through Europe and beyond. Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as the world economy still reels from effects of the 2008 crash. Worker insecurity and the increased extraction of surplus value from workers certainly boosted the stock market, but Democrats with two years of undivided government and two presidential terms failed to take actions necessary to pull workers out of wage stagnation. Looking for another answer, a startling number of them resorted to the putrid anti-humanism of blaming the outsider, blaming people of color.
Meanwhile, a record rate of refugees have left their homes because of war and persecution: 68.5 million people worldwide, including 6.3 million Syrians, 2.6 million Afghans, 1.4 million South Sudanese, 1.2 million Rohingya expelled from Burma (Myanmar), and 1 million from Somalia.
A new government in Italy turns away boatloads of African refugees, while Australia intercepts boats leaving from Southeast Asia and forces them to land in Nauru. World leaders take a cue from Trump when claiming they put people in danger to save their lives. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar) insists news articles about the burning down of Rohingya villages are fake. All this while the U.S. Supreme Court blocks citizens from Syria, Somalia, and five other countries, upholding Trump’s travel ban. Sarah, a one-year-old Somali girl displaced to Ethiopia, will not be reunited with her father in Kentucky. “She will be judged based on the security of the country (Somalia), but she’s never been there.”
Trump calls refugees “animals” who “infest” the nation. The words are reminiscent of the way Jews were discussed by Hitler in Germany. Ronald Mortensen, Trump’s nominee to head the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, lied outrageously when he wrote in The Hill: “Most illegal aliens routinely commit felonies. The myth of the law-abiding illegal alien is just that: a myth.” Trump plays some groups of people off against others, at times making supportive comments about young people brought across the border as children, but in September he canceled the DACA program, which shelters them from deportation.
DACA DECIDE ALL NEED PROTECTION
Young undocumented activists at UCLA and elsewhere are rethinking discourse and slogans. They’ve begun to specify a phenomenon they call the “Dreamer narrative” and reject its exclusivity in deciding who deserves dignity. Dulce, a young undocumented lawyer in private practice, explains: “I’m tired of having to say I’ve graduated from this school and I’ve done this, because as a human being, I should have legal protections as well. I should be protected under our Constitution as well.”
On June 28, a Senate office building in Washington, D.C., was filled with almost 600 women who denounced the mass detention of immigrants. They chanted, “We care!” and “abolish ICE!” The push to abolish a 15-year-old agency is reflected in protests at ICE offices in dozens of cities. In Los Angeles and Dallas, demonstrators blocked driveways where detainees are driven in and out. At ICE offices in Detroit, Portland, Ore., and other cities, activists formed protest encampments, vowing to stay until the facility is closed down.
More than 750 U.S. cities and towns held marches on June 30 demanding family reunification. The temperature exceeded 105°F at the White House, but more than 30,000 people still demonstrated in Washington, including Monette Dawson. Recounting one phase of slavery, she told The Guardian: “My ancestors were separated from their children going back 250 years. I wasn’t around to stand with them then, so I am standing with them now.” (See articles on this page and p. 11.)
Racism in government policy impels individuals to action, as it has been doing for centuries. The activism of late June 2018 was made possible by billions of human decisions, including those of photographers, journalists and whistleblowers who exposed acts of inhumanity. Human history is driven by these individuals. But time is of the essence. In order to seize the future from Trump and his flatterers, ordinary people must keep on speaking and acting.