The Wall from the Other Side
I have trouble responding to the Trump Wall Hoax. First because it’s almost incomprehensible that we’re even talking about a “border crisis” that has no relationship to reality (there is no “surge” or “invasion”, no increase in crime, no correlation between violence and migrants, no terrorists over the southern border, no threat to national security). Fact-checking these speeches has become a macabre shadow dance, actions that respond to illusions until the real and the projected become indistinguishable to viewers. And that’s precisely the distortion of perspective that the Trump administration is counting on.
Second, as a dual citizen (US-Mexico) with close personal and professional ties to both countries, it makes me heartsick and sometimes despairing. I never imagined that the people who so generously adopted me and became my family would be cast as the enemies of the family I grew up in. The wall is the negation of my life history and of thousands of others’.
Donald Trump brought essential government functions to a grinding halt to take a stand for hatred and racism. Instead of seeking to eliminate the causes of forced migration by responding to the political and humanitarian crisis in Central America—caused in large part by US policies—he cynically uses the desperation of thousands of men, women and children for political purposes.
In the US, this has forced not just a shutdown, but a showdown over who we are as a people, a duel between fear and compassion, that even though Trump clearly loses on the popular front—just as he did the election—he could still win in terms of advancing his white supremacist agenda. To the point where a significant part of US society no longer recognizes people of color, especially from other countries, as fellow human beings. To the point where this part of society no longer defends basic democratic institutions and law. To the point where fascism finds a home and settles in.
To avoid that scenario, which is the endgame of the Stephen Millers who surround the president, requires a much more vigorous opposition than what we’ve seen so far. The Democrats sacrificed reason years ago when they bet on a phony trade-off between immigration reform and “border security”. As a result of that terrible calculation, “border security” became a bipartisan effort that siphoned off billions of dollars in public funds, as schools agonized and immigration reform was left in the dust of desert wall-building. Even worse than the waste, the useless trade-off contributed to the image of everything south of the border as a threat or a contaminant.
Today, the Democratic leadership rejects the wall, but still falls all over itself to state its commitment to “pro- tecting the border”. Drones and barriers and armed guards seek to stop refugees from slipping through the outback, even as illegal drugs, arms and money routinely pass right under the noses of corrupt US government agents at the legal NAFTA points of entry.
The kind of vigorous opposition we need will have to come from the grass- roots. To build it requires a clear analysis, a strong commitment and essential empathy, with a focus on ending forced migration, protecting people in danger— especially children—, and reuniting families in safe and loving environments. Rather than armed national security that protects only the interests of a privileged elite, it’s an attainable vision of human security for all, and in particular for the most vulnerable.
To building a human security response to migrants and refugees, several points are critical to convey and act on:
Migrants and refugees are people seeking to survive and raise their families in a secure environment. On primetime TV and in social networks, there’s a battle of images between two sides that are so far apart they never really engage. One side, Trump’s side, describes immigrants as criminals, scam artists and, at best, victims of their own device. In his Jan. 8 speech, he claimed “thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country” who have caused “innocent people to be horribly victimized”. Since the midterm campaigns, he has ratcheted up the campaign rhetoric and converted into a wall power play that left 800,000 workers without a paycheck, froze vital functions of US society and demonizes the victims. It also ignores the fact that immigrants commit fewer violent crimes than native born citizens and denies the urgency and the agency of migrant families, many of whom are fleeing imminent death threats from gangs, husbands or state security forces.
The decision to leave is based on untenable conditions in home countries. There is currently a full-blown, internationally recognized political crisis in three of the Central American nations— Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. This imperative fact rarely enters into the debate in the United States. As the Trump administration blames the exodus on Democrats and migrants who seek to “game the system”, the political crises in these three nations have taken hundreds of lives, in addition to gang violence. Testimonies from migrants in the mainstream media are usually presented as individual tales of woe rather than part of a political analysis that explains why they’re fleeing. There’s a reason for this: putting the pieces together not only reveals the justification for the exodus, but also the responsibility of repressive governments and US support for the status quo.
Around 80% of the people on the caravans are Hondurans. They’ve been fleeing Honduras at a rate of 300 a day at least since the fraudulent elections of November 2017, when Juan Orlando Hernandez was illegally granted a second term as president with the support of the US embassy. The Organization of American States refused to recognize the legitimacy of the elections, while members of the Embassy literally stood beside the Electoral Tribunal as it handed power to JOH, as he is known by his initials. e JOH government, which has assassinated more than 30 protestors in the aftermath of the elections, is a direct successor to the conservative, hyper-capitalist governments established following the 2009 military coup. Faced with international censure, the coup regime retained power after kidnapping the elected president thanks to the machinations of the Obama administration.
As another caravan makes its way north, a solution in Honduras must include a return to rule of law. Sixty-seven members of the US Congress have signed the “Berta Caceres Act” named a after the indigenous environmental leader assassinated by army officers and representatives of the dam-building company she opposed the Berta Caceres, calling “to suspend all security assistance to Honduran military and police until such time as human rights violations by Honduran state security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” Since the 2017 elections, it is critical to keeping the pressure on the Honduran government.
In Guatemala, a simmering crisis exploded on January 7 when Pres. Jimmy Morales announced he was ending the mandate of the Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). The commission has uncovered corruption scandals that involve individuals close to the president. When the Constitutional Court ruled that Morales could not terminate the CICIG, the president launched an attack on the court, in an all-out power grab just months before the June elections. A letter from US human rights organizations calling on the State Department to support the CICIG states, “In the face of the Guatemalan government’s blatant defense of corruption, which fuels migration and constitutes a direct attack against a US-funded anti-corruption body, it is crucial that the United States take a strong stand for human rights, rule of law, and an end to corruption and impunity in Guatemala.”
But Trump has not mentioned corruption and the move toward authoritarianism in Guatemala or the history of corruption being uncovered in El Salvador—including the historic sentencing of rightwing ARENA ex- president Tony Saca—as root causes of the migration mainly because most of those cases involve US allies.
Although relatively few Nicaraguans have joined the caravans so far, refugees to the US and Costa Rica have increased since the political crisis of the Ortega government began April 18, 2018. Most flee to Costa Rica—the United Nations reported 23,000 asylum requests in the first three months of the crisis—but more are heading north. National and international human rights groups report some 325 killed in clashes, the vast majority by government security forces. A Nicaraguan trans woman migrant in the first caravan told me that under the Ortega government (whose slogan is “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity”), “for people of my gender, it’s a crime to be who we are and every day we struggle against assassinations, homophobia… And now in Nicaragua, it’s like a war. Adolescents of 14, 15, 16 years old are being killed in the streets.”
The right to asylum
Asylum is a right and an obligation of states under international law and no wall can stop people from fleeing danger or deny their rights. Instead of $5.7 billion or one single dollar more for a wall, we should:
1. Increase asylum processing and broaden, not narrow, the criteria.
The US has ample capacity to accept refugees and has done so for years. People flee due to political persecution, domestic and gender violence, gang violence, racial and ethnic persecution, and state violence in multiple forms and that must be recognized. The cost of additional asylum officers is a fraction of the cost of soldiers at the border or building a wall.
2. Prioritize family reunification. Recognize the rights of children, basic humanitarian precepts and a common-sense investment in our shared future.
3. Stop generating forced migration.
US programs to finance Central American development through neo-liberal reforms and private investment incentives repeat failed models of “development” that support transnational corporations at the cost of indigenous and peasant communities, which are attacked and violently displaced. They exacerbate the structures of inequality and patriarchal violence that fuel migration.
The US’s toxic foreign policy, including colonial exploitation that lasted long after independence, serial military interventions, the creation of death squads and dictatorships, corruption, incarceration and deportation, and drug wars and continues today. In the interests of profit and geopolitical control, US policies have been creating private hells for Central Americans for decades. The caravans just made them public.
The bright spot on the horizon is that that thousands of US citizens abhor the Trump policies and have donated time and resources to help refugees. From the good citizens of El Paso who went to the aid of asylum seekers after ICE dumped them at a bus station on Christmas night, to the San Diegoans who lend a hand in Tijuana shelters, another United States shows its sense of shared humanity to the world, defying walls and the cruel mentality that builds them.
Published as Laura Carlsen’s column in CounterPunch Magazine (Volume 25 no 6)