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An Interview with Camilo Meija

War and Immigrants Rights: "It’s the Same System Behind Both Injustices"

by ERIC RUDER

Camilo Meija was the first U.S. soldier to be jailed for refusing to redeploy to Iraq. Since his release in February 2005, Camilo has organized tirelessly against the war in Iraq, taking part in last month’s Latino march for peace from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Francisco, as well as the antiwar march along the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans.

HOW DOES being an immigrant affect how people are recruited into the U.S. military?

IT DEPENDS. You have immigrants who were born and raised here, and whose families are really Americanized, and there’s not much of a difference between them and a native-born soldier.

But when it comes to someone who, for instance, grew up in Mexico, they don’t have that blind patriotism, because their patriotism was acquired later in life. They don’t have the same innate imprint that America is perfect and beautiful and generous and infallible.

Instead, they have more of a longing to be American–a longing to be a part of this great nation, to be a patriot and to pledge allegiance to all these symbols that, sadly, people identify with being American. But they don’t have that imprint that for people born and raised here goes unquestioned–until something big happens in their life, and they start seeing things from a different perspective.

Still, everyone in the military has to struggle with a lot of demons–the heavy indoctrination of constantly being told that we live in America, the Beautiful and the Generous. Suddenly, they’re in Iraq, and the filter is removed. It’s not easy to digest the reality–this war is not for democracy or against terrorism, this is an imperial war.

DO YOU think some immigrants come with the feeling that they would like to serve in the military to prove their loyalty?

I DON’T think that’s the engine that drives people to join. It’s more a self-justification–one of the things you tell yourself that sounds noble and idealistic as a reason to join. I think the bottom line always comes down to lack of options.

Because if you’re from Mexico, but you come from an upper-middle-class family, and you have access to go to Harvard, or to travel and go backpacking for a year through Europe, and you came to the U.S. because you have so much money that you’re afraid you’ll be kidnapped in Mexico City, then you couldn’t give a damn about being American, or about being a patriot or being accepted into American culture. You have what you need, and you don’t need to take it from the military–your parents give it to you.

When you don’t have that, and you view the military as an option to get those things, telling yourself that I’m just going to join because of the money for college or because of two paychecks or because of medical insurance, that doesn’t quite cut it.

It’s not very pretty to tell yourself I’m just doing it for the money. No one wants to sign up to be a mercenary for four or five years. So you say you’re doing it because you want to be a part of the country–because you want to fight for patriotism, or freedom or democracy.

But when you look at the socioeconomic background of almost all the people joining the military, you find that they lack options–patriotism isn’t the driving factor.

THE MILITARY is trying to recruit among Latinos who aren’t citizens by tempting them with citizenship down the road.

THIS IS just a higher form of bribery based on the same lack of options.

You have two kids–one from the U.S., one from Mexico. You can recruit both of them because both are poor–by promising them college money, two paychecks, medical insurance and so on. With the Latin kid, you also have the tool of citizenship–promising them a green card or a passport in exchange for fighting a war.

But it’s a mercenary army even if people are citizens–because the main engine behind the recruiting is poverty.

If this were a military where people actually fought for ideas, for democracy, the demographics would reflect that. You would have people from all classes in society. But this military feeds on poverty.

There’s an extreme hypocrisy, though, when the U.S. military recruits people without citizenship or residency papers. Usually, they’re the children of undocumented immigrants. And here you have a government that feeds on these people, while criminalizing their parents or even themselves.

They pay taxes, and they can make the "ultimate sacrifice" for this "country"–because they’re not really fighting for the country; in reality, they’re fighting for corporations. They can’t vote, they can’t run for office, they can’t be president, and in many places, they can’t be cops or work for the post office. But they can die for this country.

It’s a huge hypocrisy. They expect the ultimate sacrifice from them, but they don’t give them the same benefits as everybody else.

DO YOU think that U.S. intervention abroad creates the conditions of poverty and human rights abuses that drive many immigrants to come to the U.S.?

ABSOLUTELY. IN most poor countries that people leave in search of a better life, you have the complicity of puppet governments set up by the U.S., which do all the damage–through their oppression and unfair policies. American and Western corporations ransack the natural resources, impoverishing the people and causing the migration to the U.S.

When you have hardheaded dictators that turn against their masters, like in the case of Saddam Hussein, you no longer have the ability to manipulate that government to allow your corporations to exploit that country and exploit the natural resources.

Then you call in the military for an invasion, and the U.S. military directly makes the country safe for corporate exploitation–and in the process, impoverishes the people. It’s an extension of the same policy enforced by different means–that is, war and occupation. But it’s the same struggle, the same injustice, and it’s the same system behind it.

RACISM ALSO plays a part both in U.S. wars and in the politicians’ opposition to immigrants.

I THINK racism is another tool that they use. It’s not a natural reaction for humans to hate and kill other human beings. You have to create divisions–to plant the seeds of hatred, anger, frustration.

When the Katrina disaster happened, the U.S. government handed out all these billion-dollar contracts to companies, which, instead of hiring the locals who were unemployed and homeless, brought in undocumented workers.

That created a conflict between the Mexican workers and the people from New Orleans, and now you have all this racial division that helps the government get away with a criminal policy. They can pay lower wages and exploit the Mexican workers because these people have no voice whatsoever–anything happens, and they can get deported. They have no rights and no say in the matter.

In Iraq, it’s a different scenario, but it’s still the same principle. You don’t just go there and automatically hate the Iraqis. There has to be an element of racism and anger and frustration that is created.

And you have to look at it not only in terms of the relationship between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis, but also in terms of the relationship between Iraqis and Iraqis.

My mother just came back from Spain, and she met an Iraqi woman there whose entire family was killed at an American checkpoint. This woman is Catholic, and she told my mom how the division between Shia and Sunni and Kurds that people talk about here and in the West in general didn’t exist before.

Sure, there were differences in religion and perhaps some cultural differences and some ethnic differences, particularly when it comes to the Kurds, but nothing out of the ordinary. These people still married one another–for instance, there are families with Sunnis and Shia in them.

But now, with all this division being created, that creates instability. It gives the military the ability to get away with their crimes. Why? Because there’s a "need" for the military to be there, unleashing oppression and injustice.

It’s a pretty strong connection to the situation in the U.S.–and it’s a tool that imperialist powers have used throughout history.

Another argument that points to the use of racism in terms of justifying imperial intervention is the commonly used idea that an occupying force can’t leave a country because its people will just kill one another.

This is a very racist view that says that we’re the civilized ones, and you need us here for you to respect life, to respect one another, to be able to govern yourselves in the future. This is an argument that has always been made, and has hardly ever been true.

WHAT DO you think about the potential to wed the issues that are taken up by the antiwar and immigrant rights movements?

I THINK it’s great that people are coming together, and I think that people are also beginning to see the connections.

For instance, I went to the rally in San Francisco with the Peregrinación por la Paz [Latino March for Peace], and when we all converged outside Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office, people were making the connections between the immigrant rights struggle, the counter-recruitment struggle and the out-of-Iraq struggle. People were saying how the government wants to claim that we’re criminals, and yet you want to recruit us to fight in the military.

These movements aren’t separate from another, and that’s very important.

Former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter said that the antiwar movement needs to be laser-focused on being antiwar, and not talking about other issues. I think that’s a mistake, and that’s one of the things that we have to appreciate about both the antiwar and immigrant rights movements.

They’re not getting trapped by this tunnel vision–just looking to take care of their own grievances and then go home. They’re being more analytical and going after the broader evil, the broader injustice. They’re realizing that it’s not just a matter of Latinos being criminalized for looking for a better standard of living, but that it also has to do with imperialism–that it has to do with a chronic state of social injustice in this country and throughout the world.

The fact that both movements are making these connections is crucial. This time around, we have the opportunity to not simply go after the war or go after anti-immigrant policies, but to go after the larger system.

ERIC RUDER writes for the Socialist Worker.