When Jimmy Gomez, U.S. Congressman, accompanied a group of recently arrived migrants to the U.S. border in San Isidro, he got a revealing, first hand glimpse of ICE policy. The group went to the border to inquire as to how they could apply for asylum. They were no sooner at the border when, in the Congressman’s words, they were “corralled” by armed ICE agents, who literally built a cage around them and forced them to remain, and eventually sleep on the cold ground right at the border.
While Gomez and the other U.S. citizens were told by ICE they could leave, they decided to stay with the group of immigrants which was a majority children, to protect them with their presence. While they were huddled in ICE’s makeshift prison, ICE agents harassed them and a few “hurled verbal abuse about ‘vile’ migrants who are ‘criminals’, ‘bringing disease.’” The “criminal” charge has become the standard Trump line of agitation to rile his white supremacist, fascist adorers. The charge of bringing disease is particularly hypocritical and revolting, given that within the past few weeks, many otherwise healthy children — who successfully endured a long and difficult journey — have taken ill, and even died, while in the custody of these border protectors!
Two children, Jakelin Caal, seven and Felipe Gomez, eight, likely died as a direct result of CBP and ICE “care”. There are indications that Jakelin may have died of contaminated water at an ICE facility in New Mexico, water that agents themselves refused to drink. Felipe likely sickened due to the callous abuse that nearly all migrants who surrender themselves to ICE at the border are subject to. It has become routine to throw migrant families – mothers, fathers and children – into “hieleras”, cold rooms with cement floors, with no more protection from the purposely air conditioned cold than thin mylar sheets. While in custody they are fed a diet of frozen bean burritos. In these conditions migrants are kept for days, without access to showers. When they’re released, as they have been in El Paso and other areas, the children are often sick with the flu, strep throat and pneumonia, or (when lucky) only colds and sore throats.
When confronted with criticism over the death of these children Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielson complained that DHS has been overwhelmed by the number of migrants that have come to the border in the past month. This is hardly credible for agencies – CPB, ICE and Border Patrol — which have a combined annual budget of more than $24 billion! Nielson and other ICE spokespeople never mention the purposeful and systematic abuse by ICE of those in their custody. Nor does their rationale explain how refugee shelters on the border, also confronted with a sudden, dramatic increase in immigrants, have managed, overnight, with volunteers from the community and around the country, to serve these same immigrants in these same large numbers without access to the vast resources of the “wealthiest and most powerful” government on the planet! No child has died in the care of these emergency shelters set up in churches, community centers and motels. In addition to providing warm healthy food, warm places to sleep, adequate hygiene, clothing and conscientious medical help, the shelters have also facilitated the travel for many thousands of migrants to cities around the country.
Unlike ICE, which has callously left hundreds of immigrants stranded at El Paso bus depots, for example, the shelters have provided guides who accompany new immigrants to bus depots and airports to help in making travel connections for people completely new to the country and unfamiliar with the language. The shelters provide travel food, blankets and other things for their journeys. All of this from the good will of people motivated by a moral commitment to other human beings, but also, by outrage at the shabby and overtly hateful actions of ICE.
According to the NY Times 2,100 migrants are now appearing at the Mexico – U.S. border every day, 60% of them in families. More than 25,000 migrant families have come in the past month. This wave is different from past migrations which have generally been mainly single men from Mexico. This change in geography and demographics is significant, but the fact of migration to the U.S. from south of the border is not new. There is a consistent historical fact that the migration north has paralleled the flow of wealth in the same direction. Mexico, Central and South America have, historically, been areas of exploitation by U.S. economic interests and victims of vast interference in their country’s internal affairs by government agencies of the U.S. — for the purpose of geo-political and economic advantage. The result has been a freakish and insane polarization of wealth — stupendous affluence accumulating among a small number of corporations and individuals at the U.S. end of the spectrum and horrific poverty and misery among millions at the other.
At the same time, U.S. border and immigration policy is shaped to serve that arrangement in the most advantageous way for U.S. imperial interests. The impoverishment and accompanying violence that drives Mexicans and Central Americans north, also provides a large pool of cheap, vulnerable labor for low wage jobs in the U.S., or in U.S. owned maquiladora factories on the U.S.- Mexico border, U.S. controlled agricultural zones in Mexico and special industrial zones in Central America. Essential industries in the U.S. like agriculture, construction and service survive and thrive on the influx of low wage labor. U.S. border policy, even amid an overheated rhetoric about “national sovereignty”, and xenophobic rage over demographic shifts, largely serves to facilitate this arrangement.
And, it needs to be mentioned, that both major political parties, Democrats and Republican, have been equally involved over the years in shaping the immigration policies of mass detention, deportation and border walls that have directly lead to the deaths of thousands of immigrants. The policies of plunder such as CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), that have lead to so much misery and desperation, especially among farmers in Central America, have been consistently bi-partisan.
In an increasingly more complex world, border policy has become more contentious, but the same essential factors are at work today as they were nearly 80 years ago when hundreds of thousands of bracero workers from Mexico came north to help feed the U.S. at a time of war and in the post war era (1942 to 1964). U.S. policy on its southern border has been largely about regulating the flow of highly exploitable labor that has been a significant factor in the rise of the U.S. as a major economic and political power.
Some of the conditions that have driven this recent wave of immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala have received notice in the press – especially the gang violence. Less discussed, if not completely missing, are the historical and present day factors that create and perpetuate the violence, especially the extreme economic hardships resulting directly from foreign plunder and meddling.
Another relevant factor is the damage to Central American agriculture as a result of global climate changes. Deadly droughts, hurricanes, flood and mudslides have wreaked havoc in this vulnerable region, and provoked the desperate flight of migrants.
Less clear are the factors up north that also influence this surge of migration. The expansion of job opportunities, the need for workers in such industries as agriculture and the service sector serves as a magnet. An aging population that requires greater services is also a stimulant. And, this might well include the recruitment of low-wage workers in areas hard hit by the effects of global climate change, hurricane struck areas in the U.S. southeast, for example. Climate-created destruction at one end of the migratory path serving to assist repair to climate-created destruction at the other end — climate refugees in Central America forced to leave their homes and communities coming north to assist in repairing damage to climate created destruction in the U.S. Could there be a more compelling illustration of the staggering inequality and injustice of this system?
Bruce Neuburger is a retired teacher and author of the book Lettuce Wars.