Roger’s note: President Obama, to his shame, has deported more refugees from Mexico and Central America that his Republican predecessors. This began under Janet Napolitano, now President of the University of California, my alma mater; and it has continued under her successor at Homeland (in)Security, Jeh Johnson. The bitter irony of this, apart from the de facto inhumane treatment and deportation of refugees, is that those we are expelling are for the most part escapees from Mexico and Central American nations (especially Honduras and El Salvador) where our stringent economic policies and support for murderous and corrupt dictatorial regimes, especially that in Honduras, have created the violent conditions that make life unbearable and provoke emigration.
After January’s raids that tore teens from their families and plucked them off buses on their way to school, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is about to embark on a renewed quest to arrest and deport Central Americans who applied for refugee status in the United States in the summer of 2014. According to sources reported by Reuters on 12 May 2016 and confirmed by DHS a day later, the agency is sending Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents out on a second wave of raids against immigrants, this time with the specific aim of apprehending and imprisoning Central American women and their children, or “family units”, and unaccompanied minors.
An article by Julia Edwards published by Reuters on Thursday referred to internal papers that were revealed to the news agency concerning the upcoming operation.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has now told field offices nationwide to launch a 30-day ‘surge’ of arrests focused on mothers and children who have already been told to leave the United States, the document seen by Reuters said. The operation would also cover minors who have entered the country without a guardian and since turned 18 years of age, the document said. Two sources confirmed the details of the plan.”
Despite assurances by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson that “we will offer vulnerable populations in Central America an alternate and legal path to safety in the United States,” the impending actions seem to be anything but.
“These military-style raids against mothers and children fleeing violence are reprehensible…. The federal government’s failure to address the violent conditions that are causing women and children to flee in the first place mean that these raids are a complete and utter policy failure.”
While January’s arrests were carried out in only three states (Georgia, North Carolina and Texas), the new raids will take place throughout the country. Though DHS avows it is only targeting dangerous individuals who have already been deemed deportable by a court of law, byzantine courts, nebulous immigration laws, lack of access to counsel, and pressure from bed quotas and private prison corporations such as GEO and CCA are placing mostly innocent and deserving people, including children, in ICE’s crosshairs.
According to the government’s own findings, as reported by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), the agency determined that in 2015, the vast majority of asylum petitions, 88%, were found to be based on credible and reasonable fear, even including statistical juggling such as giving equal weight to a single closed case from Ethiopia. The percentage reached 100% for most countries in the second quarter of the year.
[caption: 88% of 2015 2nd quarter claimants have credible cases, 97% if you don’t count one closed case from
“While Johnson insisted that his department is focusing both detention and deportation resources on high-risk immigrants with criminal backgrounds, the evidence suggests otherwise. A National Immigration Council report found that, ‘between 2009 and 2011, over half of all immigrant detainees had no criminal records. Of those with any criminal history, nearly 20 percent were merely for traffic offenses.’
“An Immigration Policy Council report out this week found that ICE mostly deported immigrants who posed ‘a threat to no one.’ In fact, only one in five deportees qualified for a ‘Level 1’ priority, a category that once encompassed crimes like murder and federal drug trafficking, but now has broadened out to include ‘theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court.’ Other immigrants were deported for much less.”
#LetThemGraduate, Source: AltertaMigratoria NC
Community activists AlertaMigratoriaNC (NC Migrant Alert) have been working hard to spread the word about six teens who were arrested in January raids in North Carolina. Of the #NC6, three have already been deported, while Yefri, Pedro and Wildin languish in detention. In an unprecedented move, AlertaMigratoriaNC has published a flyer in response to the announcement about the new raids, delineating what to do if you are in a targeted group. Their message: MOVE!
“If you have a deportation order and live at the same address as when you arrived and your application began, you must move immediately as immigration will go to the address that was provided.”
Even though he was in the company of his father who has immigration status, Pedro Salmerón was picked up by ICE on January 26 as the two were on their way to the father’s job site. Pedro was a 10th grader but since he had already turned 18, his family thought it best to avoid school after learning about the raids. Speaking to reporters for The Charlotte Observer, family members recounted how a cousin had been castrated and decapitated in El Salvador, prompting Pedro’s departure to join his mother and father in the U.S. El Salvador has the world’s highest homicide rate, and the Peace Corps cited this fact when it decided to pull out from the country this year. Its violence is gang-related and young boys and girls like Pedro are its most likely victims.
But none of that swayed ICE. “My son was taken away with his hands and feet tied. We are not criminals,” Pedro’s mother says. “This has broken my heart to see him like this.”
Women and small children without deportation orders are also being treated like criminals and arrested in aggressive and inhumane fashion. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights centers on women and children in the Atlanta area who had not been determined to be deportable, who were in fact being processed by the courts, who had followed all the steps and attended all the appointments and were known to DHS to the extent that they were all wearing ankle monitors.
Yet they were rounded up by ICE agents, often in the early hours of the morning, without regard for their dignity or their basic human rights. Account after account in the report describes instances where women and small children were dragged out of bed, refused access to counsel or allowed to contact friends or family members. Children were not permitted to take any belongings or even change out of their pajamas. Inexplicably, in case after case, ICE agents used a photo of an African American man to somehow menace the women and children. From the report:
“ ‘We were treated like criminals. I don’t understand why. I had gone to my ICE supervision appointments, and even had an appointment scheduled in a few days,’ said Ana Lizeth, who is still detained.
Roger’s note: Honduras, a third world poverty and corruption ridden country of less than ten million, stands as a prototype of United States government foreign policy, one that is characterized by the primacy of corporate interests and their lapdog lackeys in government, in this case Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. This is documented in the article that follows immediately after this account of the US backed, state sponsored assassination of human rights and environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
On Monday morning, the Honduran authorities arrested 4 men in relation to the murder of internationally renowned activist Berta Cáceres — 2 are retired or active members of the Honduran Armed Forces and 2 have ties to DESA, the company building the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project that Berta was campaigning against. With even the Honduran government investigators now admitting the assassins have ties to the Honduran Armed Forces, it is time once and for all for the United States to end financing and training of the Honduran security forces. Berta’s family and COPINH continue to call for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to investigate the case. It is hard to believe that the Honduran government has the political will to investigate the higher-ups who may have helped plan or known about Berta’s murder; as Berta’s daughter Laura Zuniga Cáceres told The Guardian, “The Honduran state is too closely linked to the murder of my mother to carry out an independent investigation.”
Early on, there were clear signs that the Honduran authorities were manipulating the investigation and interrogating COPINH members. Even with an international outcry demanding investigation into the years of threats and persecution Berta suffered for her defense of the Gualcarque River, it took 11 days for the investigators to go to DESA’s installations. Even then, the investigation was declared secret and the lawyers for the family excluded. Berta’s daughters and COPINH members took the demand for justice internationally, speaking out in the US and Europe, calling for an end to US and European security aid to Honduras given Berta’s assassination and the ongoing persecution of social movements. Last week, the European Investment Bank canceled a $40 million loan to Honduras, citing Berta’s murder as the reason. Shortly thereafter, the Honduran government apprehend 4 men with ties to the military and DESA, admitting for the first time that Berta was assassinated for her activism.
Those arrested include Sergio Rodriguez, Environmental and Social Manager for DESA, who Berta denounced was threatening COPINH during a protest against the Agua Zarca project on February 20, as well as Geovanny Douglas Bustillo, retired Honduran leuitenent, who previously served as head of security for the Agua Zarca project. The other two arrested include Mariano Díaz Chávez, reported to be an active Major in the Honduran military, and Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza, reported as a retired captain in the Honduran Military. It seems doubtful they would have acted solely on their own.
Berta took on extremely powerful interests in Honduras and the persecution of her while she was alive was done with the knowledge of very powerful people, with the Public Ministry prosecuting Berta in 2013 and the Secretary of Security, trained at the School of the Americas (SOA) in Psychological Operations, failing to ensure her protection. Now we are asked to trust the same Public Ministry with the investigation into her death. Without transparency in the investigation and the Honduran government’s refusal to accept the offer of the IAHCR independent commission, one must ask if higher ups in the Honduran Armed Forces and government have been investigated in relation to Berta’s murder? Has David Castillo, head of DESA with a background in military intelligence for the Honduran Armed Forces, been investigated? Have the directors of DESA, including those who belong to the powerful Atala family, one of the families many believe was behind the 2009 military coup in Honduras, been investigated? Has Julian Pacheco, Secretary of Security, been investigated? Did the US Embassy or US military officials know of the plans to murder Berta?
Those may be very dangerous questions to ask. Honduran opposition journalist Felix Molina, well-known throughout the country for his resistance radio show that was one of the clearest voices against the military coup in Honduras for years, posted very similar questions on Monday after the arrests. Hours later there was an attempt to attack him but he got away, only to be shot four times in the legs Monday night. Luckily the bullets missed arteries and veins, and Felix is still alive, though in the hospital. Felix is renowned for his journalism and radio programs critical of the powers at be.
Whether or not all the intellectual authors of Berta’s murder are ever brought to justice, one thing is clear: the United States must stop financing and training the Honduran Armed Forces and other security forces. The US-trained and supported TIGRES, with the stated goal of addressing drug trafficking, have spent significant time stationed at DESA’s installations, guarding the Agua Zarca Project. Were any of the Honduran military (current or former) involved in Berta’s murder trained by the US? Has the United States ensured it does not fund the First Battalion of Engineers, which was stationed at DESA’s installations and murdered Indigenous leader Tomas Garcia in 2013? When will US funding, training, and equipping of the Honduran security forces end? How many more people have to die?
The United States is not the only one with responsibility for what is occurring in Honduras; earlier this month I accompanied Berta’s daughter Bertha Zuniga Cáceres, COPINH leader Asencion Martinez, and Rosalina Dominguez and Francisco Sanchez of the Rio Blanco Indigenous Council to call on the Dutch Development Bank FMO and the Finn Fund, both majority owned by the Dutch and Finnish governments respectively, to definitively cancel their financing of the Agua Zarca Project. FMO had seemingly ignored Berta’s first attempt to inform them of the violence and human rights violations surrounding the Agua Zarca Project before they finalized the loan. Now, these banks share responsibility for the violence in the zone.
Francisco and other COPINH members in Rio Blanco have also been threatened for their opposition to the Agua Zarca Project. As Rosalina stated, “we do not want any more deaths.” Yet, despite Monday’s arrests, the project continues forward and the banks have yet to definitively withdraw. The US keeps financing and training the Honduran security forces, all too many of whom are deployed in the zone. Even worse, the US increased the number of Honduran military trained at the SOA-WHINSEC this past year and is giving an extra $750 million to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, for the ill-named “Alliance for Prosperity,” known also as the Plan Colombia for Central America. This money only serves to further embolen the repressive Honduran regime.
How many more people have to die before the financing of repression is halted?
A critical difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is their position on whether children who fled violence in Central American countries, particularly Honduras, two years ago should be allowed to stay in the United States or be returned.
Sanders states unequivocally that they should be able to remain in the U.S.
Clinton disagrees. She would guarantee them “due process,” but nothing more.
In 2014, Clinton told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “It may be safer [for the children to remain in the U.S.],” but “they should be sent back.”
By supporting the June 28, 2009 coup d’état in Honduras when she was secretary of state, Clinton helped create the dire conditions that caused many of these children to flee. And the assassination of legendary Honduran human rights leader Berta Cáceres earlier this month can be traced indirectly to Clinton’s policies.
During the Feb. 11 Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Clinton said that sending the children back would “send a message.” In answer to a question by debate moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS, she said, “Those children needed to be processed appropriately, but we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.”
Who are you sending a message to? These are children who are leaving countries and neighborhoods where their lives are at stake. That was the fact. I don’t think we use them to send a message. I think we welcome them into this country and do the best we can to help them get their lives together.
In the March 9 debate in Miami between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders accurately told moderator Jorge Ramos of Univision, “Honduras and that region of the world may be the most violent region in our hemisphere. Gang lords, vicious people torturing people, doing horrible things to families.” He added, “Children fled that part of the world to try, try, try, try, maybe, to meet up with their family members in this country, taking a route that was horrific, trying to start a new life.”
The violence in Honduras can be traced to a history of U.S. economic and political meddling, including Clinton’s support of the coup, according to American University professor Adrienne Pine, author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras.
Pine, who has worked for many years in Honduras, told Dennis Bernstein of KPFA radio in 2014 that the military forces that carried out the coup were trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly called the U.S. Army School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Ga. Although the coup was supported by the United States, it was opposed by the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS). The U.N. and the OAS labeled President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster a military coup.
“Hillary Clinton was probably the most important actor in supporting the coup [against the democratically elected Zelaya] in Honduras,” Pine noted. It took the United States two months to even admit that Honduras had suffered a coup, and it never did admit it was a military coup. That is, most likely, because the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits the U.S. from aiding a country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Although the U.S. government eventually cut nonhumanitarian aid to Honduras, the State Department under Clinton took pains to clarify that this was not an admission that a military coup had occurred.
“Hillary Clinton played a huge role in propping up the coup administration,” Pine said. “The State Department ensured the coup administration would remain in place through negotiations that they imposed, against the OAS’ wish, and through continuing to provide aid and continuing to recognize the coup administration.”
“And so if it weren’t for Hillary Clinton,” Pine added, “basically there wouldn’t be this refugee crisis from Honduras at the level that it is today. And Hondurans would be living a very different reality from the tragic one they are living right now.”
In her book Hard Choices, Clinton admitted she helped ensure that Zelaya would not be returned to the presidency. She wrote,
In the subsequent days [following the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.
When he was deposed, Zelaya was attempting to get a nonbinding resolution on the ballot asking voters whether they wished to reform the constitution. He supported a 60 percent hike in the minimum wage, “and this infuriated two U.S. companies, Chiquita Brands International (formerly United Fruit) and Dole Food Company,” said John Perkins, author of “The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” in an interview with the website Truthout. The big corporations feared that a rise in Honduras’ minimum wage could spread to other countries in Latin America.
Zelaya put in place several liberal policies, including free education and meals for children, subsidies to small farmers, lower interest rates and free electricity. “These policies paid off,” Perkins said. “Honduras enjoyed a nearly 10 percent decline in the poverty level. But these same policies were seen as a dire threat to the hegemony and bottom lines of global corporations and as a precedent that would alter policies throughout Latin America and much of the rest of the world. Corporate leaders demanded that the CIA take out this democratically elected president. It did.”
Less than a month after the coup, Hugo Llorens, former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, sent a cable to Clinton and other top U.S. officials. The subject line read: “Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup.“ The cable said, “There is no doubt” that the coup was “illegal and unconstitutional.” Nevertheless, as noted above, Clinton’s objective was to “render the question of Zelaya moot.”
After the coup, there was a fraudulent election financed by the National Endowment for Democracy — notorious for meddling in Latin America — and the State Department. The election ushered in a repressive, militarized regime. Conditions deteriorated, leading to the exodus of thousands of Honduran children.
Since the coup, the Honduran government has carried out systematic repression against most sectors of society, including teachers, farmers, union leaders, gay people, peasant organizers, journalists and anyone who opposed the coup. Many were assassinated. Honduras’ homicide rate was already the highest in the world at the time of coup, and it soared between then and 2011. There is rampant corruption and drug-related gang violence.
Amid all this, the United States has added two military bases in Honduras — bringing the total to 14 — and increased its financing of the Honduran police and military.
Before the coup, Cáceres, a prize-winning activist, worked with indigenous groups on human rights and education issues with Zelaya’s support. In a 2014 interview, she cited Clinton’s role in the coup, saying, “The same Hillary Clinton, in her book Hard Choices, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the bad legacy of North American influence in our country.”
Cáceres added, “The return of Mel Zelaya to the presidency (that is, to his constitutionally elected position) was turned into a secondary concern. There were going to be elections. … We warned that this would be very dangerous. … The elections took place under intense militarism, and enormous fraud.”
Cáceres criticized the coup government for passing terrorist and intelligence laws that criminalized protest, labeling the actions “counterinsurgency” conducted in the interests of “international capital.”
Cáceres was killed March 3 by armed men who broke into her home. Her friend and compatriot, journalist Gustavo Castro Soto, wounded in the assault, is being held incommunicado by the government.
On Thursday, more than 200 human rights, faith-based, indigenous rights, environmental, labor and nongovernmental groups sent an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing “shock and deep sorrow regarding the murder of Honduran human rights and environmental defender Berta Cáceres … winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize.” The groups urged Kerry to support an independent international investigation into her murder led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They also urged the State Department “to suspend all assistance and training to Honduran security forces, with the exception of investigatory and forensic assistance to the police, so long as the murders of Berta Cáceres and scores of other Honduran activists remain in impunity.”
Roger’s note: our heartless greed-oriented and violent capitalist world the oppression of women and children is an everyday occurrence. I takes many forms, mostly related to poverty one way or another. Here we see mindless and shameless government bureaucracy at work to directly harm women and children who are already victims or corporate inspired government policies with respect to Central America.
‘We want freedom for our children. It’s not right to continue to detain us.’
Protesters demand closure of the Karnes, Texas immigrant detention center in January 2015. (Photo: WeAreUltraViolet/flickr/cc)
About 40 women being held at the privately-run Karnes Family Detention Center in southern Texas launched a hunger strike this week to demand their release and the release of their families, vowing on Tuesday not to eat, work, or use the services at the facility until they are freed.
Nearly 80 women being held at the center, many of whom are said to be asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, signed a letter stating that they have all been refused bond despite having established a credible fear of violence if they are sent back to Central America—a key factor in the U.S. government’s process for screening detained immigrants to allow them amnesty.
“We deserve to be treated with some dignity and that our rights, to the immigration process, are respected,” the letter reads. “You should know that this is just the beginning and we will not stop [the hunger strike] until we achieve our goals. This strike will continue until each of us is freed.”
The letter also states that many of the children held in the camp are losing weight and that their “health is deteriorating.” Many of the families have been detained for as long as 10 months.
One woman, 26-year old Honduran mother Kenia Galeano, decried the center’s treatment of the families in a phone interview with McClatchy on Tuesday. “We’re many mothers, not just me,” she said. “We want freedom for our children. It’s not right to continue to detain us.”
Galeano, who shares a room with three other mothers and their children, also said that her two-year-old son has become depressed and lost weight due to the culturally inappropriate food.
According to the letter, some of the mothers were also left behind in the detention center, while their children were granted bond. “We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like delinquents,” the letter reads. “We are not delinquents nor do we pose any threat to this country.”
“This strike will continue until each of us is freed.”
Karnes, which is run by the private corrections company GEO Group, has come under fire in the past for its treatment of the children who are detained there, with reports of weight loss and forced separation from their mothers, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department has denied those allegations.
ICE also claimed it was unaware of any residents actually participating in the strike, saying in a statement on Wednesday that the agency “fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, and all detainees, including those in family residential facilities such as Karnes, are permitted to do so.”
It also said it was investigating claims that members of a nonprofit advocacy group encouraged the women to take part in the hunger strike—a charge which activists deny.
Cristina Parker, immigration programs director at the Texas-based immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership, told the Guardian on Tuesday, “This is something that has been rippling through the centre almost since it opened. I don’t believe at all that they were coached into doing this.”
According to Parker, the center is now blocking access to internet and telephone facilities for all of its detainees, regardless of whether they are participating in the hunger strike.
At least two women who signed the letter were also placed into isolation with their children in Karnes’s clinic, leading about half of those who initially pledged to take part in the hunger strike to drop out, according to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Johana De Leon, a legal assistant with the nonprofit, told McClatchy that other mothers were warned they could lose custody of their children if they participated.
In addition to its mistreatment of children, Karnes has also been accused of sexual misconduct by guards and denial of critical medical care for detainees, among other charges. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general reported in February that there was no evidence to support the allegations.
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Roger’s note: this article ran, in a sense (at least to my mind), side by side with this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/sunday-review/surviving-the-nazis-only-to-be-jailed-by-america.html?_r=0) in the same online edition of the New York Times the other day. An uncanny juxtaposition. The heartless racism — buttressed by capitalism’s inherent inequality — that infects America, which has its roots in the First Nations genocide and the African slave trade, is not a matter of the past, as we see here. You can talk about practical politics all you want, but sending children back “home” to be violated and tortured constitutes a moral and ethical crime of the highest nature. President Obama and his heartless Homeland Security (sic) bureaucrats have deported more refugee claimants than his immediate predecessors.
The back story to all this, of course, is that the corruption and violence in the Mexican and Central American nations from which masses are trying to escape to the United States is a direct result of the US government’s policies.
Christina Brown pulled into the refugee camp after an eight-hour drive across the desert. It was late July of last year, and Brown was a 30-year-old immigration lawyer. She had spent a few years after college working on political campaigns, but her law degree was barely a year old, and she had only two clients in her private practice in Denver. When other lawyers told her that the federal government was opening a massive detention center for immigrants in southeastern New Mexico, where hundreds of women and children would be housed in metal trailers surrounded by barbed wire, Brown decided to volunteer legal services to the detainees. She wasn’t sure exactly what rights they might have, but she wanted to make sure they got them. She packed enough clothes to last a week, stopped by Target to pick up coloring books and toys and started driving south.
As she pulled into the dusty town of Artesia, she realized that she still had no idea what to expect. The new detention center was just north of town, behind a guard station in a sprawling complex with restricted access. Two other volunteers had been in town for about a week and had permission from federal officials to access the compound the following day.Brown spent the night at a motel, then drove to the detention camp in the morning. She stood in the wind-swept parking lot with the other lawyers, overlooking the barren plains of the eastern plateau. After a few minutes, a transport van emerged from the facility to pick them up. It swung to a stop in the parking lot, and the attorneys filed on. They sat on the cold metal benches and stared through the caged windows as the bus rolled back into the compound and across the bleak brown landscape. It came to a stop by a small trailer, and the lawyers shuffled out.
As they opened the door to the trailer, Brown felt a blast of cold air. The front room was empty except for two small desks arranged near the center. A door in the back opened to reveal dozens of young women and children huddled together. Many were gaunt and malnourished, with dark circles under their eyes. “The kids were really sick,” Brown told me later. “A lot of the moms were holding them in their arms, even the older kids — holding them like babies, and they’re screaming and crying, and some of them are lying there listlessly.”
Brown took a seat at a desk, and a guard brought a woman to meet her. Brown asked the woman in Spanish how she ended up in detention. The woman explained that she had to escape from her home in El Salvador when gangs targeted her family. “Her husband had just been murdered, and she and her kids found his body,” Brown recalls. “After he was murdered, the gang started coming after her and threatening to kill her.” Brown agreed to help the woman apply for political asylum in the United States, explaining that it might be possible to pay a small bond and then live with friends or relatives while she waited for an asylum hearing. When the woman returned to the back room, Brown met with another, who was fleeing gangs in Guatemala. Then she met another young woman, who fled violence in Honduras. “They were all just breaking down,” Brown said. “They were telling us that they were afraid to go home. They were crying, saying they were scared for themselves and their children. It was a constant refrain: ‘I’ll die if I go back.’ ”
As Brown emerged from the trailer that evening, she already knew it would be difficult to leave at the end of the week. The women she met were just a fraction of those inside the camp, and the government was making plans to open a second facility of nearly the same size in Karnes County, Tex., near San Antonio. “I remember thinking to myself that this was an impossible situation,” she said. “I was overwhelmed and sad and angry. I think the anger is what kept me going.”
Over the past six years, President Obama has tried to make children the centerpiece of his efforts to put a gentler face on U.S. immigration policy. Even as his administration has deported a record number of unauthorized immigrants, surpassing two million deportations last year, it has pushed for greater leniency toward undocumented children. After trying and failing to pass the Dream Act legislation, which would offer a path to permanent residency for immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, the president announced an executive action in 2012 to block their deportation. Last November, Obama added an executive order to extend those protections to their parents. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he said in a speech on Nov. 20. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” But the president’s new policies apply only to immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years; they do nothing to address the emerging crisis on the border today.
Since the economic collapse of 2008, the number of undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico has plunged, while a surge of violence in Central America has brought a wave of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. According to recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the number of refugees fleeing Central America has doubled in the past year alone — with more than 61,000 “family units” crossing the U.S. border, as well as 51,000 unaccompanied children. For the first time, more people are coming to the United States from those countries than from Mexico, and they are coming not just for opportunity but for survival.
The explosion of violence in Central America is often described in the language of war, cartels, extortion and gangs, but none of these capture the chaos overwhelming the region. Four of the five highest murder rates in the world are in Central American nations. The collapse of these countries is among the greatest humanitarian disasters of our time. While criminal organizations like the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha exist as street gangs in the United States, in large parts of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador they are so powerful and pervasive that they have supplanted the government altogether. People who run afoul of these gangs — which routinely demand money on threat of death and sometimes kidnap young boys to serve as soldiers and young girls as sexual slaves — may have no recourse to the law and no better option than to flee.
The American immigration system defines a special pathway for refugees. To qualify, most applicants must present themselves to federal authorities, pass a “credible fear interview” to demonstrate a possible basis for asylum and proceed through a “merits hearing” before an immigration judge. Traditionally, those who have completed the first two stages are permitted to live with family and friends in the United States while they await their final hearing, which can be months or years later. If authorities believe an applicant may not appear for that court date, they can require a bond payment as guarantee or place the refugee in a monitoring system that may include a tracking bracelet. In the most extreme cases, a judge may deny bond and keep the refugee in a detention facility until the merits hearing.
The rules are somewhat different when children are involved. Under the terms of a 1997 settlement in the case of Flores v. Meese, children who enter the country without their parents must be granted a “general policy favoring release” to the custody of relatives or a foster program. When there is cause to detain a child, he or she must be housed in the least restrictive environment possible, kept away from unrelated adults and provided access to medical care, exercise and adequate education. Whether these protections apply to children traveling with their parents has been a matter of dispute. The Flores settlement refers to “all minors who are detained” by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its “agents, employees, contractors and/or successors in office.” When the I.N.S. dissolved into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, its detention program shifted to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Federal judges have ruled that ICE is required to honor the Flores protections to all children in its custody.
Even so, in 2005, the administration of George W. Bush decided to deny the Flores protections to refugee children traveling with their parents. Instead of a “general policy favoring release,” the administration began to incarcerate hundreds of those families for months at a time. To house them, officials opened the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center near Austin, Tex. Within a year, the administration faced a lawsuit over the facility’s conditions. Legal filings describe young children forced to wear prison jumpsuits, to live in dormitory housing, to use toilets exposed to public view and to sleep with the lights on, even while being denied access to appropriate schooling. In a pretrial hearing, a federal judge in Texas blasted the administration for denying these children the protections of the Flores settlement. “The court finds it inexplicable that defendants have spent untold amounts of time, effort and taxpayer dollars to establish the Hutto family-detention program, knowing all the while that Flores is still in effect,” the judge wrote. The Bush administration settled the suit with a promise to improve the conditions at Hutto but continued to deny that children in the family detention were entitled to the Flores protections.
In 2009, the Obama administration reversed course, abolishing family detention at Hutto and leaving only a small facility in Pennsylvania to house refugee families in exceptional circumstances. For all other refugee families, the administration returned to a policy of release to await trial. Studies have shown that nearly all detainees who are released from custody with some form of monitoring will appear for their court date. But when the number of refugees from Central America spiked last summer, the administration abruptly announced plans to resume family detention.
From the beginning, officials were clear that the purpose of the new facility in Artesia was not so much to review asylum petitions as to process deportation orders. “We have already added resources to expedite the removal, without a hearing before an immigration judge, of adults who come from these three countries without children,” the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, told a Senate committee in July. “Then there are adults who brought their children with them. Again, our message to this group is simple: We will send you back.” Elected officials in Artesia say that Johnson made a similar pledge during a visit to the detention camp in July. “He said, ‘As soon as we get them, we’ll ship them back,’ ” a city councilor from Artesia named Jose Luis Aguilar recalled. The mayor of the city, Phillip Burch, added, “His comment to us was that this would be a ‘rapid deportation process.’ Those were his exact words.”
During the first five weeks that the Artesia facility was open, officials deported more than 200 refugees to Central America. But as word of the detention camp began to spread, volunteers like Christina Brown trickled into town. Their goal was to stop the deportations, schedule asylum hearings for the detainees and, whenever possible, release the women and children on bond. Many of the lawyers who came to Artesia were young mothers, and they saw in the detained children a resemblance to their own. By last fall, roughly 200 volunteers were rotating through town in shifts: renting rooms in local motels, working 12-hour days to interview detainees and file asylum paperwork, then staying awake into the night to consult one another. Some volunteers returned to Artesia multiple times. A few spent more than a month there. Brown never moved back to Denver. She moved into a little yellow house by the detention facility, took up office space in a local church and, with help from a nonprofit group called the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, she began to organize the volunteers pouring in.
As Brown got to know detainees in Artesia, grim patterns emerged from their stories. One was the constant threat of gangs in their lives; another was the prevalence of sexual violence. A detainee in Artesia named Sofia explained that a gang murdered her brother, shot her husband and then kidnapped and raped her 14-year-old stepdaughter. A Guatemalan woman named Kira said that she fled when a gang targeted her family over their involvement in a nonviolence movement at church; when Kira’s husband went into hiding, the gang subjected her to repeated sexual assaults and threatened to cut her unborn baby from her womb. An inmate named Marisol said she crossed the U.S. border in June after a gang in Honduras murdered the father of her 3-year-old twins, then turned its attention to her.
Less than a week after her arrival in Artesia, Brown represented the young Salvadoran mother she met on her first day. It was a preliminary hearing to see whether the woman met the basic preconditions for asylum. A frequent consideration in the refugee process is whether an applicant is being targeted as a member of a “particular social group.” Judges have interpreted the phrase to include a refugee’s victimhood on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. At the hearing, Brown planned to invoke the pervasiveness of gang violence and sexual assault, but she says the immigration judge refused to let her speak.
“I wasn’t allowed to play any role,” Brown said. Speaking to the judge, her client described her husband’s murder and the threats she faced from gangs. “She testified very well,” Brown said. But when the judge asked whether she felt targeted as a member of a “social group,” the woman said no. “Because that is a legal term of art,” Brown said. “She had no idea what the heck it means.” Brown tried to interject, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. He denied the woman’s request for an asylum hearing and slated her for deportation. Afterward, Brown said, “I went behind one of the cubicles, and I started sobbing uncontrollably.”
Detainees who passed their initial hearings often found themselves stranded in Artesia without bond. Lawyers for Homeland Security have adopted a policy they call “no bond or high bond” for the women and children in detention. In court filings, they insist that prolonged detention is necessary to “further screen the detainees and have a better chance of identifying any that present threats to our public safety and national security.” Allowing these young mothers and children to be free on bond, they claim, “would have indirect yet significant adverse national-security consequences.”
As the months ticked by in Artesia, many detainees began to wonder if they would ever be free again. “I arrived on July 5 and turned myself in at 2 a.m.,” a 28-year-old mother of two named Ana recalled. In Honduras, Ana ran a small business selling trinkets and served on the P.T.A. of her daughter’s school. “I lived well,” she said — until the gangs began to pound on her door, demanding extortion payments. Within days, they had escalated their threats, approaching Ana brazenly on the street. “One day, coming home from my daughter’s school, they walked up to me and put a gun to my head,” she said. “They told me that if I didn’t give them the money in less than 24 hours, they would kill me.” Ana had already seen friends raped and murdered by the gang, so she packed her belongings that night and began the 1,800-mile journey to the U.S. border with her 7-year-old daughter. Four weeks later, in McAllen, Tex., they surrendered as refugees.
Ana and her daughter entered Artesia in mid-July. In October they were still there. Ana’s daughter was sick and losing weight rapidly under the strain of incarceration. Their lawyer, a leader in Chicago’s Mormon Church named Rebecca van Uitert, said that Ana’s daughter became so weak and emaciated that doctors threatened drastic measures. “They were like, ‘You’ve got to force her to eat, and if you don’t, we’re going to put a PICC line in her and force-feed her,’ ” van Uitert said. Ana said that when her daughter heard the doctor say this, “She started to cry and cry.”
In October, as van Uitert presented Ana’s case to an immigration judge, the lawyer broke down in the courtroom. “I’m starting to make these arguments before the judge, and I just couldn’t,” she said. “I sounded like a barking seal, just sucking and gasping, and because I was crying, a lot of people started crying. The attorney next to me was crying, Ana was crying, her little girl started crying. I looked over at the bailiff, who actually ended up being my friend when I went back another time. He had tears in his eyes.” The judge granted Ana’s release on bond; she is currently waiting for an asylum hearing in North Carolina.
Many of the volunteers in Artesia tell similar stories about the misery of life in the facility. “I thought I was pretty tough,” said Allegra Love, who spent the previous summer working on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. “I mean, I had seen kids in all manner of suffering, but this was a really different thing. It’s a jail, and the women and children are being led around by guards. There’s this look that the kids have in their eyes. This lackadaisical look. They’re just sitting there, staring off, and they’re wasting away. That was what shocked me most.”
The detainees reported sleeping eight to a room, in violation of the Flores settlement, with little exercise or stimulation for the children. Many were under the age of 6 and had been raised on a diet of tortillas, rice and chicken bits. In Artesia, the institutional cafeteria foods were as unfamiliar as the penal atmosphere, and to their parents’ horror, many of the children refused to eat. “Gaunt kids, moms crying, they’re losing hair, up all night,” an attorney named Maria Andrade recalled. Another, Lisa Johnson-Firth, said: “I saw children who were malnourished and were not adapting. One 7-year-old just lay in his mother’s arms while she bottle-fed him.” Mary O’Leary, who made three trips to Artesia last fall, said: “I was trying to talk to one client about her case, and just a few feet away at another table there was this lady with a toddler between 2 and 4 years old, just lying limp. This was a sick kid, and just with this horrible racking cough.”
In early August, a paralegal from Oregon named Vanessa Sischo arrived at the camp. Raised in a small town near Mount Hood, Sischo did not realize until high school that her parents brought her into the United States from Mexico as an infant without documentation. She gained protection from deportation under the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012. When Sischo learned that children arriving from Central America were being incarcerated in Artesia, she volunteered immediately. She arrived a week after Christina Brown, and like Brown, she stayed. After about a month, AILA and another nonprofit, the American Immigration Council, hired Brown as the pro bono project’s lead attorney. Brown recommended Sischo for the job of project coordinator. The two women began rooming together in the small yellow house near Main Street.
Brown and Sischo make an unlikely pair. Brown, who has a sturdy build and dark brown hair, has an inborn skepticism and a piercing wit. Sischo is six years younger and preternaturally easygoing. Until she discovered her own immigration background, she had little interest in political affairs and spent much of her time in Oregon as a competitive snowboarder. For both, Artesia was a jarring shift from life at home. As they sat together one evening in December, they described a typical week. “The new volunteers come in on Sunday, go through orientation, and by Wednesday night, everyone is crying,” Brown said. “A lot of the attorneys come in and say: ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve seen all of this before. I’ll be fine.’ ”
“I remember the first time I went in,” Sischo said. “I just stopped, and all I could hear was a symphony of coughing and sneezing and crying and wailing.”
“Kids vomiting all over the place,” Brown said.
“There was a big outbreak of fevers,” Sischo said. “It sent an infant into convulsions.”
“Pneumonia, scabies, lice,” Brown said.
Officials for ICE say these accounts are exaggerated. But they declined multiple requests to visit the Artesia facility and took weeks to answer questions about its facilities. Brown, who oversaw more than 500 detainee cases as lead attorney, was also unable to gain access to the camp’s housing, dining, medical and educational facilities. “I requested three times to be taken on a tour,” she said. “I sent it through the appropriate channels. No one ever responded, to date, to my request.”
Visitors who did gain access to the facility have raised troubling questions about the ethics — and legality — of how it handled children. The Flores settlement requires the government to provide regular schooling for juveniles in detention, but the mayor of Artesia, Phillip Burch, said that on several visits to the compound, the classrooms were always empty. “I was told that children were attending classes,” he recalled. “Did I personally witness it? No. And none of the tours that I made did I see the children actually in class.” Members of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, who toured the facility in October, say that officials also showed them the empty school. When one member asked why the building was empty, an ICE official replied that school was temporarily closed. Detainees have consistently told their lawyers that the school was never reliably open. They recall a few weeks in October when classes were in session for an hour or two per day, then several weeks of closure through November, followed by another brief period of classes in December.
In response to questions about the school, ICE officials would say only that “regular school instruction began Oct. 13, 2014, and ended Dec. 17.” Asked whether the school was open consistently, and for how many hours, ICE officials declined to respond. The deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, Esther Olavarria, who has purview over ICE, said that she was aware “there were challenges” at the Artesia school, but couldn’t say exactly when it was open or for how long. Olavarria has a distinguished record as advocate for refugees and previously served as a top immigration adviser for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. She said that she was under the impression that attorneys in Artesia were granted access to the facility, and she could not explain why Brown was not. She also believed that the meal service in Artesia was adapted to reflect the dietary norms of Central America and that medical care was adequate and available. After hearing what detainees, attorneys, faith advocates and elected officials described in Artesia, Olavarria promised to look into these issues and provide further documentation. Despite several attempts to elicit that documentation, she provided none. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said: “The regular school instruction began Oct. 13, 2014, but was suspended shortly thereafter in order to ensure appropriate vetting of all teachers.” Officials say that school resumed on Oct. 24 and continued through Dec. 17.
Attorneys for the Obama administration have argued in court, like the Bush administration previously, that the protections guaranteed by the Flores settlement do not apply to children in family detention. “The Flores settlement comes into play with unaccompanied minors,” a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security named Karen Donoso Stevens insisted to a judge on Aug. 4. “That argument is moot here, because the juvenile is detained — is accompanied and detained — with his mother.”
Federal judges have consistently rejected this position. Just as the judge reviewing family detention in 2007 called the denial of Flores protections “inexplicable,” the judge presiding over the Aug. 4 hearing issued a ruling in September that Homeland Security officials in Artesia must honor the Flores Settlement Agreement. “The language of the F.S.A. is unambiguous,” Judge Roxanne Hladylowycz wrote. “The F.S.A. was designed to create a nationwide policy for the detention of all minors, not only those who are unaccompanied.” Olavarria said she was not aware of that ruling and would not comment on whether the Department of Homeland Security believes that the Flores ruling applies to children in family detention today.
As the pro bono project in Artesia continued into fall, its attorneys continued to win in court. By mid-November, more than 400 of the detained women and children were free on bond. Then on Nov. 20, the administration suddenly announced plans to transfer the Artesia detainees to the ICE detention camp in Karnes, Tex., where they would fall under a new immigration court district with a new slate of judges.
That announcement came at the very moment the president was delivering a live address on the new protections available to established immigrant families. In an email to notify Artesia volunteers about the transfer, an organizer for AILA named Stephen Manning wrote, “The disconnect from the compassionate-ish words of the president and his crushing policies toward these refugees is shocking.” Brown was listening to the speech in her car, while driving to Denver for a rare weekend at home, when her cellphone buzzed with the news that 20 of her clients would be transferred to Texas the next morning. Many of them were close to a bond release; in San Antonio, they might be detained for weeks or months longer. Brown pulled her car to the side of the highway and spent three hours arguing to delay the transfer. Over the next two weeks, officials moved forward with the plan.
By mid-December, most of the Artesia detainees were in Karnes, and Brown and Sischo were scrambling to pack the contents of their home and office. On the afternoon of Dec. 16, they threw their final bags into a U-Haul, its cargo area crammed with laundry baskets, suitcases, file boxes and hiking backpacks, all wedged precariously in place, then set out for the eight-hour drive across the desert to central Texas.
The next morning, a law professor named Barbara Hines was also speeding into San Antonio. Hines is a wiry woman in her 60s with a burst of black curls and an aspect of bristling intensity. In the battle over refugee detention, she is something of a seminal figure for advocates like Brown and Sischo. As co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas, Hines helped lead the 2007 lawsuit against the Hutto facility, which brought about its closure in 2009 and the abolition of widespread family detention until last summer. When the Obama administration announced plans to resume the practice in Artesia, Hines was outraged; when officials opened the second facility in Karnes, just two hours from her home in Austin, Hines began to organize a pro bono project of her own. Although she’d never met Brown or Sischo, she had been running a parallel operation for months. Now that they were in Texas, Hines was eager to meet them.
But first, she had a client to represent. Hines pulled into a parking lot behind the immigration court in downtown San Antonio and rushed inside, up a clattering elevator to the third floor and down a long hallway to a cramped courtroom. At the front, behind a vast wooden desk, sat Judge Glenn McPhaul, a tidy man with slicked hair and a pencil mustache. He presided from an elevated platform, with a clerk to his right, an interpreter to his left, and a large television monitor in the corner. On screen was the pale and grainy image of a dozen exhausted Central American women.
These were just a few of the Karnes detainees, linked by video feed to the courtroom. Another 500 women and children were in the compound with them. There was no legal distinction between their cases and those of the women in Artesia; they had simply been sent to a different facility, weeks or months earlier. Each of them, like the women in Artesia, had already been through the early stages of the asylum process — presenting herself to immigration authorities, asking for refugee status and passing the “credible-fear interview” to confirm a basis for her claim. But the odds of release in Karnes were worse. One of McPhaul’s colleagues, Judge Gary Burkholder, was averaging a 91.6 percent denial rate for the asylum claims. Some Karnes detainees had been in the facility for nearly six months and could remain there another six.
The sitting area of the courtroom was nearly empty, save for half a dozen attorneys. Many of the volunteers at Karnes are friends and former students of Hines, who has been drafting every licensed lawyer she can find. As she slid down the long bench to a seat, she nodded to some of the attorneys in the room and stopped to whisper with another. Then she spent a few minutes fidgeting with her phone until the clerk called her client’s name, and Hines sprang forward, slipping past the bar rail to a table facing the judge. On the television screen, her client, Juana, was stepping toward the camera at Karnes. She was a young woman with a narrow face and deep eyes. Her hair was pulled back to reveal high cheekbones and a somber expression.
McPhaul asked the stenographer to begin transcription, then he commenced with the ritualized exchange of detention proceedings, recording the names of the attorneys, the detainee and everyone on the bench. He noted the introduction of a series of legal documents and confirmed that Juana was still happy to be represented by Hines. There was a stream of legal jargon and a few perfunctory remarks about the status of the case, all of it in clipped judicial vernacular and a flat, indifferent tone. Then McPhaul set a date for the next hearing, at which Hines could begin to present an argument for Juana’s release on bond.
For now, Juana’s turn was over; the whole affair took less than 10 minutes, without any meaningful discussion of her case or its merits. As Hines stepped out of the courtroom, Juana was turning away from the camera to return to her children in Karnes. It was impossible to say how much of the hearing she understood, since none of the proceedings were translated into Spanish. The courtroom interpreter was there only to translate the judge’s questions and the detainees’ responses; everything else was said exclusively in English, including the outcome. For all that Juana knew, she might have been granted reprieve or confined for another six months.
Over the next two hours, the scene would repeat a dozen times. Each time McPhaul called a name, a new lawyer would step forward, taking a seat before the bench and proceeding through the verbal Kabuki. In a few cases, McPhaul offered the detainee the opportunity to post bond — usually around $3,000. But the courtroom interpreter was not allowed to convey this news to the detainee, either. If the pro bono attorney spoke Spanish fluently, there might be a few minutes at the end of the session to explain what happened. If not, the detainee would return to custody and might not discover that she had been granted bond until, or unless, someone paid it.
These, of course, were the lucky women with an attorney to represent them at all. Although the families in Artesia and Karnes have been detained in an environment that closely resembles incarceration, there is no requirement in American law to provide them with the sort of legal representation afforded to other defendants. Unlike the Artesia project, where the involvement of AILA brought in hundreds of volunteers from across the country, Hines could scrape together only so many friends and compatriots to lend their time. She formed a partnership with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or Raices, in San Antonio, and the law firm Akin Gump assigned a young lawyer named Lauren Connell to help organize the Karnes project. But there still weren’t enough lawyers to represent the detainees, and Hines and Connell were forced to evaluate which cases were most likely to win. The remaining refugees would proceed to court alone. They would understand little of what happened, and most would be deported.
It was difficult for Hines to think about what might happen to those women next. The refugees who are returned to Central America can be subject to even greater harassment by gangs for having fled. Hector Hernandez, a morgue operator in Honduras, has said that children who come back from U.S. detention “return just to die.” Jose Luis Aguilar, the city councilor for Artesia, recalled a group deportation on the day in July when Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the facility. “He came in the morning, and that same night, they took 79 people and shipped them to El Salvador on the ICE plane,” Aguilar said. “We got reports later that 10 kids had been killed. The church group confirmed that with four of the mortuaries where they went.”
Hines was hoping the attorneys from Artesia would help represent the women in Karnes, but she had no idea whether they would be willing to do so. This was her agenda for the first meeting with Christina Brown, which took place that afternoon in a sunlit conference room in the downtown offices of Akin Gump. Hines sat at the head of a long table, with Lauren Connell to her left and an attorney from Raices named Steven Walden to her right. After a few minutes, Brown appeared in the doorway. She was wearing the same green T-shirt and black leggings she had been wearing the day before in Artesia, and she smiled sheepishly, offering a handshake to Hines.
“I’m really sorry,” Brown said with a small laugh. “I want to let you know that I believe very strongly in first impressions — but I am living out of a U-Haul right now.”
Hines smiled sympathetically as they sat down. “So,” she said. “What are you all going to do here?”
Brown paused. “Well, we know we’re going to be continuing our cases,” she said.
“Mmm-hmm,” Hines said.
“And I’m working on cleaning up our spreadsheet and figuring out who’s here,” Brown said. “Many of our clients who were transferred here had already been granted bond.”
“Wait,” Connell said. “They transferred them here to have them bond out?”
Brown sighed. “Yes,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Connell said.
“We’ve had numerous fights on this issue,” Brown said. “We’ve had family members go to pay, and they can’t because the client is already in transit to Karnes.”
Hines shook her head in disbelief.
“It’s been kind of a nightmare,” Brown said.
“Do you have people who have been detained more than 90 days?” Hines asked.
“Every one we’re going forward with on merits has been detained more than 90 days,” Brown said. “So I want to see how you all are moving forward, so I can see what resources are here for Artesia clients.”
Hines laughed. “We can barely staff our cases,” she said. “My hope was that people who were at Artesia, after they’re finished your cases, are going to help with ours.”
“If she says that enough, maybe it will come true,” Connell said.
Brown shook her head. “At the moment, I can commit to nothing,” she said. “Right now, I’m the only attorney, and there’s no guarantee that other volunteers are coming.”
Hines and Connell exchanged a look. Even if the Artesia lawyers could double or triple their workload, the number of detainees was about to overwhelm them regardless. The day before, officials in Karnes had approved a plan to expand the detention facility from about 500 beds to roughly 1,100. At the same time, two hours west of Karnes, in the little town of Dilley, the Department of Homeland Security was about to open another refugee camp for women and children. It would be the largest detention facility in the country, with up to 2,400 beds. If Hines and Brown had trouble finding lawyers to represent a few hundred women and children, there was little chance of generating support for more than 3,000.
After the meeting, Brown returned to her motel and spent the afternoon searching for an apartment, but the options were limited, and by late afternoon, she and Sischo still had nowhere to live. They decided to spend their first evening in Texas at a vegetarian restaurant downtown. As they settled into a booth at the back of the cafe, they talked about the situation they’d left behind in Artesia, where much of the town opposed the detention facility and the lawyers with equal measure. Town-hall meetings in Artesia became so heated that city officials asked the police to stand guard.
“For people there, it’s a resource issue,” Brown said. “They blame the immigrant community for coming in and being jailed, and for us having to educate their children, when they would like more resources put into their own schools.”
Sischo nodded. “That’s what a guy at the electronics store said: ‘Oh, you’re helping the illegals?’ That’s how they view it. I remember a sign that a protester was holding that was like, ‘What about our children?’ ”
“It’s a legitimate question,” Brown said. “They don’t have a lot of resources in that town, and they should have more.”
“I agree,” Sischo said. “We should not be spending resources on detaining these families. They should be released. But people don’t understand the law. They think they should be deported because they’re ‘illegals.’ So they’re missing a very big part of the story, which is that they aren’t breaking the law. They’re trying to go through the process that’s laid out in our laws.”
For Sischo, seeing the families struggle — families much like her own — was almost more than she could stand. On visits to her parents in Oregon, she struggled to maintain composure. “Every time I’ve gone home, I’ve just cried pretty much nonstop,” she said. “It’s grief and anger and hopelessness and confusion as to how this could happen and whether we’re making a difference.”
For Brown, by contrast, the same experiences seemed to have amplified her energy and commitment. “I haven’t had time to go home and cry yet,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a job at Dilley, because then I won’t have to process anything!” Brown laughed, but she acknowledged that some part of her was ready to commit to the nomadic life of a legal activist, parachuting into crises for a few months at a time. “That appeals to me,” she said. “It’s nice to be where people need you.”
As dinner came to an end, Brown and Sischo stepped outside into the night. They had parked the U-Haul in a nearby lot, and it had just been towed.
Over the next year, most of the families who are currently in detention will wend their way through the refugee system. Some will be released on bond to await their asylum hearing; others will remain in custody until their hearings are complete. Those without an attorney will most likely fail to articulate a reason for their claim in the appropriate jargon of the immigration courts and will be deported to face whatever horror they hoped to flee. Of the 15 families who have been shepherded through the process by the volunteer lawyers so far, 14 have received asylum — “Which should be all you need to know about the validity of their claims,” Brown said.
By late spring, the construction of the new facility at Dilley should be complete. It already represents a drastic departure from the refugee camp in Artesia. Managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country, the South Texas Family Residential Center has its own promotional website with promissory images of the spacious classrooms, libraries, play areas and lounges that will eventually be available to refugees in long-term detention. Architectural drawings for the site show eight distinct neighborhoods on the campus, with dormitory housing, outdoor pavilions, a chapel and several playgrounds. How much of this will ultimately materialize remains to be seen. Last week, C.C.A. listed job openings for child care workers, library aides and mailroom clerks at the site.
Esther Olavarria, the senior counselor for immigration issues at the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged that there had been shortcomings in Artesia but described the Dilley facility as a correction. “We stood up Artesia very, very quickly and did the best that we could under the circumstances,” Olavarria said. “As concerns were brought to our attention by advocates, we worked with them to try to address the concerns as quickly as possible.”
Many advocates have expressed concerns about the Dilley facility as well. Its management company, C.C.A., is the same firm that ran the Hutto detention center, and it has been at the center of other significant controversies in recent years. In 2006, federal investigators reported that conditions at a C.C.A. immigration jail in Eloy, Ariz., were so lacking that “detainee welfare is in jeopardy.” Last March, the F.B.I. started an investigation of C.C.A. over a facility the company ran in Idaho, known by inmates as the “Gladiator School” because of unchecked fighting; in 2010, a video surfaced of guards watching one inmate beat another into a coma. Two years ago, C.C.A. executives admitted to fraud in their government contracts at the prison, including 4,800 hours of falsified business records. The state has now taken control of the facility.
The management contract at Dilley was also created with unusual terms. In their hurry to open the new facility, officials for the Obama administration bypassed normal bidding procedures and established Dilley under an existing contract for the troubled C.C.A. jail in Eloy. Although the Dilley camp is nearly 1,000 miles away from Eloy, all federal funding for the new camp in Texas will flow through the small town in Arizona, which will keep $438,000 of the annual operating budget as compensation. Eloy city officials say they do not expect to monitor, or even visit, the Dilley facility.
Any new refugees who surrender this spring may spend more than a year in Dilley before their asylum hearings can be scheduled. Olavarria said that officials hope the process will move more quickly, but it will depend on the immigration courts in San Antonio, which fall under the Department of Justice. “From what I’ve heard from the Justice Department, generally it’s not taking 18 months,” Olavarria said. “We’re hearing that cases are being completed in a shorter time. But it’s a case-by-case situation that depends on the complexity, it depends on continuances that are provided to seek counsel, to prepare for cases, all those kinds of things.” The cost to house each detainee at Dilley is about $108,000 per year. A study funded by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, of more than 500 detainees between 1997 and 2000, found that 93 percent will appear in court when placed in a monitoring program. The savings of such a program for the 2,400 detainees at Dilley would be about $250 million per year.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say the facilities in Karnes and Dilley are still insufficient to house the detainees they expect to process in the coming year. “Last year, we saw 60,000 families come in,” Olavarria said. “We’re hoping we don’t see those kinds of numbers this year, but even if we see half, those two facilities would hold a fraction of those numbers.” Olavarria said the department was not yet considering additional facilities. “We are in the middle of a battle with the Congress on our funding, so there’s very little discussion about long-term planning,” she said.
For now, the Artesia facility is closed, its bunk beds and hallways empty. Brown and Sischo remain in Texas; they rescued their U-Haul from an impound lot and found an apartment soon thereafter. That same week, an email from the mayor of Artesia, Phillip Burch, was circulating among city residents. “The pro bono attorneys have left our community,” he wrote. “Hopefully not to return.”
Roger’s note: Free trade agreements between North American industrialized nations and third world Latin American nations are inherently unequal and designed to promote and protect mega-corporate interests. Specifically, they enshrine in law the right to capital investment regardless of damaging effects to workers and to the environment. Corporate and military interests on both sides of the “partnership” use their clout over (ownership of?) the respective governments to enter into these legally binding agreements. The NAFTA agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico has had the effect of destroying small corn farming in Mexico,which is in part responsible for the massive migration of Mexicans to the U.S. Cf. my 2003 article in the L.A. Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/nov/20/opinion/oe-hollander20
Complete with a giant inflatable fat cat, protesters rally outside the World Bank in support of El Salvador’s right to ban toxic mining along its principal watershed. (Photo: Ron Carver / Institute for Policy Studies)
For miners, investors, and artisans, few things are more precious than gold. But for human life itself, nothing is more precious than water.
Just ask the people of El Salvador.
Nearly 30 years ago, the Wisconsin-based Commerce Group Corp purchased a gold mine near the San Sebastian River in El Salvador and contaminated the water. Now, according to Lita Trejo, a native Salvadoran and school worker in Washington, DC, the once clear river is orange. The people who drink from the arsenic-polluted river, she says, are suffering from kidney failure and other diseases.
On September 15, Trejo and more than 200 protestors—including Salvadoran immigrants, Catholic priests, trade unionists, and environmentalists—gathered in front of the World Bank to support El Salvador’s right to keep its largest river from suffering the same fate as the San Sebastian River. The event was co-sponsored by a raft of organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies, Oxfam America, the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and the Council of Canadians, among others. Over the past few weeks, similar protests have taken place in El Salvador, Canada, and Australia.
Mining for gold is not nearly so neat and clean as the harmless panning many Americans learned about as kids. Speakers pointed out that gold mining firms use the toxic chemical cyanide to separate gold from the surrounding rock, which then leaches into the water and the soil. And they use large quantities of water in the mining process—a major problem for El Salvador in particular, which has been described as “the most water-stressed country in Central America.” Confronted by a massive anti-mining movement in the country, three successive Salvadoran administrations have refused to approve new gold mining operations.
That’s where the story should end. But it’s far from over.
An Australian-Canadian mining company, OceanaGold, is suing the Salvadoran government for refusing to grant it a gold-mining permit to its subsidiary, Pacific Rim. Manuel Pérez-Rocha, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained the situation: “Oceana Gold is demanding more than $300 million from El Salvador. They are saying, ‘If you do not let us operate in your country the way we want, you must pay us for the profits that you prevented us from making.’”
That sounds absurd, but it’s true: The company is claiming that under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, it has the right to sue the Salvadoran government for passing a law that threatens its bottom line.
El Salvador is now defending its decision to prevent Oceana Gold/Pacific Rim from operating the “El Dorado” mine near the Lempa River before the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a little-known World Bank-based tribunal.
As several protesters pointed out, El Salvador’s decision is grounded in its need to protect its limited water supply. More than 90 percent of the surface water supply in El Salvador is already contaminated, and more than 50 percent of the country’s 6.3 million people depend on the Lempa River watershed for their water.
Francisco Ramirez, a Salvadoran who grew up in Cabañas, the region where the El Dorado mine would operate, spoke from experience about this reality. “If you look at the contaminated rivers in El Salvador, there are no fish left in the water. Not even toads, which are usually resistant to certain levels of contamination, can survive. We do not want that contamination to spread,” Ramirez proclaimed.
Ana Machado, a Salvadoran member of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland, another co-sponsor of the event, added: “The Lempa River is the main drinking source and an important source of livelihood for a majority of people in my country, including my family. They fish there. They clean their clothes there. If the company contaminates the river, Salvadoran life as we know it will end.”
Another Salvadorian immigrant and organizer with Casa de Virginia, Lindolfo Carballo, linked this lawsuit to larger struggles over sovereignty and immigrant rights. “This country created institutions to legally rob its Southern neighbor,” he said, referring to the “free-trade” provisions that permit corporations to sue governments over public safety regulations they don’t like. “And after they rob us of our natural resources, after they contaminate our water and land, they tell us that we are undocumented, that we are ‘illegals,’ and that we have no right to be in this country. They have no right to throw us out of the United States if they are robbing us of the resources we need to survive in our own country,” he alleged.
John Cavanagh, Director of the Institute for Policy Studies, explained the goal of the protest: “We are saying to OceanaGold: ‘Drop the suit. Go home.’ To the World Bank, we say: ‘Evict this unjust tribunal. It deepens poverty and stomps on democracy and basic rights.’” Cavanagh pledged to continue pressing the company to back down, promising that protesters would return to the World Bank in larger numbers when the tribunal makes its ruling in 2015.
Palestinian children break world record for Kite Flying. (United Nations / Under Creative Commons)
A week ago was when I first saw the picture that appeared in the The Telegraph of children in the Gaza Strip trying to break the Guinness world record for kite-flying. The kites floating mid-air off the Mediterranean shore were a sight to behold. I was taken with the photo and the happiness of the Gazan children on the beach, considering that all the news had been about the sustained Israeli bombardment of that besieged Palestinian territory. At first glance, it seemed like a triumph of the human spirit, or at least of the joy of childhood in the face of war. But then I realized that the picture had been taken at a previous time.
Again, I looked at the photo of all the children grouped on the beach, with the breaking, blue waves in the distance. Flying kites was still quite a feat with an unseen Israeli naval blockade six miles out to sea. However, with the sustained attack on the Gaza Strip, which has been going on since July 7, I realized that it was possible—if not probable—that some of these children were dead.
This U.S.-funded Israeli attack (on a 72-hour ceasefire since Tuesday, August 5) was a rallying point for several Los Angeles-based organizations to organize a march on July 25to protest the visit of President Barack Obama, who was on a trip to raise money for the Democratic Party and its upcoming election campaigns. But there was another reason for the protest. As that march moved forward down the L.A. streets in the mid-day heat, it was visually dominated by people holding flowing flags from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. The defense of Palestinian and immigrant children converged, as a response to the similar strategies of dehumanization used to justify violence against them.
The focus of the march was children: Not only the close to 400 Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of July, but also the 60,000 unaccompanied kids who have arrived at the U.S. southern border from Central American countries, often fleeing desperate circumstances, since October 1. And in doing so, these Latin American youngsters have entered into the jaws of the largest border, detention, and deportation regime that we have ever experienced in the United States. This summer official disdain and violence against children—or certain “types” of children—has been on pure, raw display across the globe.
As people marched, these two apparently separate issues joined together in a chant “Emigrantes, Palestinos, Estamos Unidos.” (“Migrants, Palestinians, We Are United”—it rhymes better in Spanish). The demands were not only that the United States stop its $3 billion annual military aid to Israel, but also that it put to a halt its deportation machine, especially with calls to expel many of these Central American children back to situations of certain violence.
Of course, there are huge differences between what is happening in Israel-Palestine and the exodus of children from Central America.
On that same Gazan beach where the children so ecstatically flew their kites, for example, on July 16 an Israeli missile killed four Palestinian children, between the ages of seven and 11, who had been playing on the shore. On July 28, another Israeli rocket obliterated a playground near a hospital in a Gaza refugee camp, killing eight children. “The children were playing and were happy, enjoying Eid, and they got hit. Some lost their heads, others their legs and hands,” an eyewitness toldRussia Today. Israel’s military offensive has taken more than 1,900 Palestinian lives. In the last month, 419 Palestinian children have been killed in missile strikes hitting schools, mosques, and hospitals. 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed, mainly in gun battles in Gaza. No Israeli children have been reported dead thus far, though three of its citizens have perished.
For the children of Gaza, there is no place to run to when the Israeli Defense Forces bombs them. “The offensive has had a catastrophic and tragic impact on children,” said Pernille Ironside, head of the UNICEF field office in Gaza, who also mentioned that 2,502 youngsters have also been wounded.
In contrast many of the children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are able to run from their own war: A vast, complicated situation that, like in Israel-Palestine, is impacted and fomented by U.S. political, economic, and military policies in the region, both in a historical and contemporary sense.
U.S. media outlets have regularly described the Central American children as a “flood,” “tsunami” or “tidal wave” as if they were some sort of natural disaster. Others use the term “surge” as if the young ones were an advancing military “invasion,” one worthy of deploying the military to protect the “homeland.” This sort of language set the stage for the likes of Fox News host Sean Hannity to sit with Texas Governor Rick Perry, with a camera-friendly machine gun placed between them, as if the kids really did represent the “asymmetric warfare” against the United States as claimed by the ex-Border Patrol agent Zack Taylor.
“If asymmetrical warfare is going to be successful, the first thing that has to be done is to compromise America’s defenses against invasion,” said Taylor.
Taylor’s idea that Border Patrol “babysitting” has taken “the resources that are protecting America at the border, off of the border,” has been repeated across the media landscape and throughout officialdom ad nauseum. Along with this comes the incessant mantra of a “porous” border that, as Taylor describes, gives people “that are trying to get their infrastructure, their personnel, their drugs, their dirty bombs, their biological weapons, their chemical weapons into the United States without being noticed” a free pass. That is why civilian militia groups are roaming the borderlands again. This is one of the main reasons that Perry sent 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the international divide. Current media and official framing of the border crisis may also explain why the Obama administration (and U.S. Congress) will likely ramp up the border enforcement apparatus even more, and expel the children at a rapid rate from the country.
In other words both the Central American and Palestinian children have been transformed rhetorically into a full-fledged national security threat. This sort of wholesale dehumanization can be found again when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas wants topile up “telegenically dead Palestinians” for their cause.
Predating the Israeli attack on Gaza Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked stated on her Facebook page that “Palestinian people have declared war on us, and we must respond with war.” In her vividly written post she suggested that the destruction should include “[Palestine’s] elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” And at the end she said that women whose families play any part in Palestinian resistance give birth to “little snakes.” It is no wonder Israeli soldiers have no problem posing for photosas they hold a detained Palestinian boy in a chokehold.
Similar were anti-immigrant protestors in Murrieta, California who called the Central American children “wet dogs.” Like in Israel-Palestine, there is example after example of how such words can go from a xenophobic sign in a protest, to the very way agents of the U.S. Border Patrol treat the Central American children in short-term detention. An ACLU report compiled the testimonies of many children, almost all whom complained of freezing conditions in the cells.
B.O., a 14-year-old boy, said he was never able to sleep because Homeland Security agents didn’t turn out the glaring lights. G.G. complained of agents feeding her moldy bread. When her stomach became upset and she asked for medicine Border Patrol told her “it’s not a hospital.” When she vomited, the Homeland Security agents accused her of being pregnant, and called her a “dirty liar.”
K.M. was a 15-year-old girl who said that agents woke her every 30 minutes in the “hielera” (the Spanish word for ice box), the freezing cell where she tried to sleep. She claimed that officials regularly called her and other children “sluts,” “parasites,” and “dogs.”
R.D., a 17-year-old girl, slashed her hand while climbing the fence to get into the United States. She said that in Border Patrol custody an agent squeezed her wound with immense pressure causing her great pain.“It’s good that you are hurt,” the agent told her, “you deserve to be hurt for coming to the US illegally.”
The protestors in Los Angeles were putting this world in dispute, at least in part created by billions of dollars that U.S. taxpayers were giving to Israel and the U.S. border/immigration enforcement apparatus, that dehumanizes children with the same cold efficiency that it deports, or even kills them. Obama, representing the U.S. administration “has the opportunity to help and he’s decided to expedite policies that basically send children to certain deaths,” said Kelly Flores, a teacher at the demonstration. “These are children. It’s our duty to oppose inhumane policies.”
And the Gaza kids did indeed shatter the Guinness world record with their kite-flying in 2011. There, on that joyful day on the beach, indeed was a much better example of what it means to be a child.
Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog “Border Wars,” among other places. He is at work on his first book, Border Patrol Nation, for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books.
Roger’s note: This article speaks of the US support for Guatemalan genocide. We should not forget that the US government in Central America trained death squads in El Salvador (in support of a repressive ultra right government) and Nicaragua (in support of the fascist Contras) and enabled the 2009 coup in Honduras that replaced a democratically elected mildly progressive government with one that has turned the country into one of the most violent and corrupt nations on the face of the earth. Your American tax dollar at work.
Decades of failed US policies in Central America have a direct link to the dire conditions that cause young children to abandon their homes and flee north. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
For once the Republicans got it right. But not in the way they think. Indeed, President Obama carries the representative blame for the debacle (including reports of sadistic abuseby U.S. Border Patrol) of largely Central American migrant children long overwhelming shelters at the border. But the guilt is much broader, ranging from successive administrations all the way down to us, as American taxpayers.
Decades of U.S. policy in Guatemala alone have turned the country into a land of wreck and ruin. This is the ultimate reason migrants have been crossing into the United States in increasing numbers in recent months. Harsh immigration enforcement policies, such as the ones the Obama administration has been championing, add insult to injury as the U.S. punishes migrants when they arrive when it should be paying people like those of Guatemala massive reparations.
“They owe it to us.”
It is indisputable that the U.S. shares significant responsibility for the genocide of tens of thousands of Guatemalans—mainly indigenous Mayans who comprised a majority of the (at least) 150,000 killed in the 1980s alone. A 1999 UN Truth Commission blamed Guatemalan state forces for 93 percent of the atrocities. That same year, former President Bill Clinton admitted the wrongness of U.S. support support for Guatemalan state violence.
U.S. culpability for Guatemala’s plight endures to this day. The problem is—then and now—the United States is in denial as a nation over what to do about its complicity.
Just ask Clinton. The day of his apology in Guatemala City, he looked genocide survivors in the face, voiced regret for the U.S. enabling their suffering, and then rejected their impassioned pleas for U.S. immigration reform because, he said, “we must enforce our laws.” Today, many continue to call on the U.S. for reform measures like temporary protected status. And still, U.S. officials meet them with silence or dismissal.
Some Guatemalans, particularly the young generation living unauthorized in the U.S., know who’s responsible for the origins of their current troubles and aren’t confused by what to do about it. Erika Perez, an indigenous Mayan student in New England, told me: “My role in the U.S. is to tell [fellow Guatemalans], ‘Take advantage of all the opportunities around us.'” After all, “They owe it to us.”
Perez says the Guatemalan economy for most of the population hasn’t recovered from the genocidal wreckage of the 1980s and continues to be subjugated by U.S.-led neoliberal economic reforms like NAFTA and CAFTA. The desperate situation keeps sending Guatemalans like her migrating as a necessary means of decent survival.
Erika crossed the Arizona/Mexico desert, the deadliest area for migrants along the border, when she was eighteen in 2002. An indigenous Mayan who then spoke Spanish but no English, she faced sexual violence and dehydration along the way—but survived. So many other Guatemalans, a majority of them from the Mayan highland areas hit hardest by the genocide, remain missing while trying to cross the same part of border, according to data acquired from the Pima County medical examiner’s Missing Migrants Project (now theColibrí Center for Human Rights).
Escaping a “Silent Holocaust”
“Opportunity,” the young Antonio Albizures-Lopez recalls, was the purpose of his family’s unauthorized migration to the United States, as well as “to escape the violence that was influenced directly by U.S. intervention”—including the murders of four of Antonio’s aunts. Albizures-Lopez grew up in Providence, RI since he was 1 year old in 1992, shortly after his mother crossed the Rio Grande River with Antonio strapped to her back.
International legal experts describe the social climate in the U.S. at the time of the genocide as a “Silent Holocaust”. In Antonio’s case, the term couldn’t be more appropriate. He was born in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where one of the military bases set up with U.S. support “maintained its own crematorium and ‘processed’ abductees by chopping off limbs, singeing flesh and administering electric shocks,” according to veteran journalist Allan Nairn who interviewed a former agent of the G-2 secret intelligence service—the notorious Guatemalan agency long on the payroll of the U.S. State Department.
Meaningful forms of justice and accountability would have a long reach. They would provide restitution following the stories of Guatemalan youth like Antonio and Erika, two of many who are carrying the burden of genocide from their parents’ generation. True accountability would also address, among other cases, the 16,472 DREAM-ers who have listed Guatemala as their country of origin when they registered for President Obama’s 2012 deferred action program (DACA). Justice and accountability would lead to fundamental changes in U.S. policies toward the Guatemalan state.
Instead, Washington offers programs such as the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a $496 million endeavor since 2008 to train and assist local security forces to counter, among other perceived threats, “border security deficiencies.” Along with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US Southern and Northern Commands, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have all expanded activities in the regionunder the auspices of the war on drugs, gangs, and other criminal activity.
The U.S. formally cut off military aid to Guatemala in 1977, though U.S. funding flowed atnormal levels through the early 1980s and Guatemala enjoyed enormous military support, by proxy, through U.S. client states such as Israel, Taiwan, and South Africa.
All in all, U.S. militarization in Guatemala has altered only in wording, shifting predominantly from anti-communist to currently anti-drug and counter-terror rhetoric. The policy trend continues through the present day, spanning across the Guatemalan boundary with Mexico as the “new southern border” of the United States, in the words of Chief Diplomatic Officer for DHS Alan Bersin.
The official U.S. position on supporting Guatemalan military activities is that it “was wrong” in the past, and is no longer permissible to support Guatemalan militarization except in relation to “homeland security.” In other words, Washington exercises the “doublethink” practice of “holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” to quote George Orwell.
Some Guatemalans won’t wait for U.S. immigration reform
Meanwhile, as we’ve seen here lately in Arizona, Guatemalans are still fleeing a constant renewal of U.S.-caused duress. Reviewing the most visible case, the plight of migrant children at the border has relentlessly gripped the nation. “Many of the parents of these children are in the United States,” explained Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S., Julio Ligorria, “and the children go to find them.” The children also are reportedly suffering the same sorts of Border Patrol abuses long familiar to their parents’ generation, whose mistreatment often goes unnoticed.
So what next? Recognizing guilt is a crucial first step. Even more important is what comes after that recognition. Relevant here, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the function of a “guilt complex” in the American conscience regarding past and ongoing abuses. In a 1957 interview with NBC, King remarked: “Psychologists would say that a guilt complex can lead to two reactions. One is acceptance and the desire to change. The other reaction is to indulge in more of the very thing that you have the sense of guilt about.”
Recognition of U.S. guilt over the Guatemalan genocide should translate into concrete forms of remedial action which, to the degree possible, corresponds with the scope of the crime.
But Guatemalans like Erika aren’t waiting. She’s teaching Guatemalans in her community crucial skills like English, advocating to cancel deportation orders against fellow migrants, putting herself through college. She says her philosophy of “empowering people in my community is: ‘Don’t be afraid anymore.'”
Roger’s note: what the mainstream media in its news and analyses universally fail to note is that the root cause of the migration from Central America lies in the actions and policies of the U.S. government over the years that have supported repressive business oriented governments controlled by oligarchic elites. In particular the Obama/Hillary Clinton policies in support of the military coup in Honduras have resulted in Honduras being perhaps the most violent country on the face of the globe. The lucrative drug trade and the attendant violence is a symptom of US directed imperial military supported corporatism, and not the fundamental cause of the massive migration. As for the costs of implementing a humanitarian policy of dealing with children refugees, a fraction of the dollars spent on the illegal wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan would be sufficient. That the U.S. government at the direction of a president who is both heartless and gutless, is sending Honduran mothers and their children back to the most violent city in the world, that while in custody these mothers and children are treated like animals, is beyond disgusting. That the commonly held perceived solution is increased border security and deportation is not only an example of tunnel vision, but a head in the sand approach to a problem that the US government has created, and along with corporate media and both political parties, refuses to acknowledge. Imperialism and xenophobia go hand in hand.
Reuters | By Gabriel Stargardter
Posted: 07/14/2014 9:09 pm EDT
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras, July 14 (Reuters) – The United States deported a group of Honduran children as young as 1-1/2 years old on Monday in the first flight since President Barack Obama pledged to speed up the process of sending back undocumented immigrant minors from Central America.
Fleeing violence and poverty, record numbers of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have crossed into the United States over the past year, testing U.S. border facilities and sparking intense debate about how to solve the problem.
Monday’s charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, returned 17 Honduran women, as well as 12 girls and nine boys, aged between 18 months and 15 years, the Honduran government said.
Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon. One by one, they filed into a bus, playing with balloons they had been given.
Nubia, a 6-year-old girl among the deportees, said she left Honduras a month ago for a journey that ended when she and her mother were caught on the Mexico-Texas border two weeks later.
“Horrible, cold and tiring,” was how Nubia remembered the trip that was meant to unite the pair with her three uncles already living in the United States.
Instead, her mother Dalia paid $7,000 in vain to a coyote, or guide, to smuggle them both across the border.
Once caught, U.S. officials treated them like “animals”, holding them in rooms with as many as 50 people, where some mothers had to sleep standing up holding children, Dalia said.
During the eight months ended June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S. border with Mexico, most of them from Central America. That was double the previous year’s tally and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through.
So chaotic are the circumstances of the exodus that some of the children are not even correctly reunited with their parents, said Valdette Willeman, director of the Center for Attention for Returned Migrants in Honduras.
“Many of the mothers are sometimes not even the real mothers of the children,” she said.
Monday’s flight departed as Obama faces increasing pressure to address the surge of unaccompanied minors.
Immigrant advocates urge him to address the humanitarian needs of the migrants. At the same time, Republicans in Congress have blamed the crisis on Obama’s immigration policies and have called on him to secure the border.
Obama’s administration has stressed that Central American children who cross the border illegally will be sent home, and last week said it would speed up the deportation process.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have suffered from gang violence and incursions from Mexican drug cartels using the region as a staging post for their trafficking operations.
Honduran President Juan Hernandez, in an interview published on Monday, blamed U.S. drug policy for sparking violence and ramping up migration to the United States. His wife urged the United States to do more to help.
“The countries consuming drugs need to support (us) and take joint responsibility because if there wasn’t demand, there wouldn’t be production and we wouldn’t be living like we are,” Ana Garcia de Hernandez said as she awaited the children.
Obama’s administration has projected that without government action, more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 could flee the three Central American nations next year.
The proposed actions will test Obama’s ability to negotiate effectively with Republican lawmakers who have blocked much of his agenda ahead of a November election when they hope to capture the U.S. Senate from his Democratic Party. (Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in San Pedro Sula and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)
Ira Glass. (Photo: Claire Asher / Flickr)Celebrating 2012’s best examples of broadcast journalism, the George Foster Peabody Awards attracted the likes of D.L. Hughley, Amy Poehler and Bryant Gumbel to the Waldorf-Astoria’s four-story grand ballroom in New York this past May. In a gaudy ceremony hosted by CBS star-anchor Scott Pelley, National Public Radio’s This American Life received the industry’s oldest and perhaps most prestigious accolade. The 16-member Peabody Board, consisting of “television critics, industry practitioners and experts in culture and the arts,” had selected a particular This American Life episode—“What Happened at Dos Erres”—as one of the winners of its 72nd annual awards on the basis of “only one criterion: excellence.”
This American Life’s host Ira Glass had once conceived of the weekly show, which reaches 1.8 million listeners each episode, as an experiment to do “the most idealistic, wide-eyed things that can do…to provide a perspective on this country that you couldn’t get elsewhere.” As is typical for the program, Glass weaved personal narratives and anecdotes together with broader context in “What Happened at Dos Erres,” which focused on a 1982 massacre of 250 Guatemalan civilians at the hands of their government’s elite military commandos—the Kaibiles.
But in his hour-long treatment of a savage period of Guatemalan history, Glass and his producers edited out essential lines of inquiry and concealed a key aspect of the bloodshed and its import for U.S. listeners: Washington’s continuous support of Guatemalan security forces—including the Kaibiles at Dos Erres—as they killed tens of thousands of largely indigenous civilians in 1982 alone. Moreover, by distorting the historical record, Glass performed an impressive feat of propaganda—he sensitively related Guatemalan victims’ harrowing personal stories while implying that the only fault of the United States was that it had simply not done enough to help them.
Ironically, “What Happened at Dos Erres” accomplished Glass’s longstanding goal of providing a perspective on the United States “that you couldn’t get elsewhere.” One would be hard-pressed to encounter another contemporary mainstream account of that period so thoroughly sanitized of Washington’s involvement in crimes against humanity.
During his brief 17-month rule from 1982-83, Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Rios Montt escalated to its grim apogee the state terror regularly employed during a decades-long attack on leftist insurgents, suspected sympathizers, and Mayan communities. This American Life correctly described the directives of the Army High Command’s scorched-earth campaign, in which soldiers burned farmland and homes, slaughtered animals, raped and mutilated women and children, and exterminated entire communities like the hamlet of Dos Erres. Glass concluded that state-led massacres “happened in over 600 villages” and added that an overall accounting of the larger conflict by “a truth commission found that the number of Guatemalans killed or disappeared by their own government was over 180,000.”
Glass did not mention, however, that the very same UN-sponsored truth commission also concluded in its 1999 report that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations” involved in atrocities like Dos Erres. (Both The Washington Postand PBS reported this particular finding at the time.)
Notwithstanding This American Life’s omission, the extent of U.S. criminality in Guatemala is astonishing, as is the abundance of publicly available evidence of it. Beginning with a Central Intelligence Agency-organized coup that overthrew Guatemala’s reformist democrat, President Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, the United States played a dominant and closely documented role in the horrors that ripped the country apart over 40 years, throughout a long chain of dictatorships.
Between 1956-61, for example, the United States trained over 600 Guatemalan military officers either on U.S. soil or within the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone. By 1963, U.S. advisors were providing expertise in domestic surveillance and crowd control, while Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Edwin Martin, in an internal document, lauded the “encouraging progress toward [the] establishment of an effective counter-subversive intelligence apparatus.”
With the help of security adviser John Longan of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Public Safety, that apparatus developed into OperaciónLimpieza. New York University historian and Guatemala expert Greg Grandin describes the program, created in 1966, as a consolidation of “the operations of the police and military” that allowed them to “gather, analyze, and act on intelligence in a coordinated and rapid manner” with the aid of “state-of-the-art telecommunications and surveillance equipment.” Among its first successes were the tortures and murders of dozens of leftist leaders over a three-day period in March 1966—OperaciónLimpieza quickly became, according to Grandin, the “cornerstone” of Guatemala’s state repression.
In September of that year, the U.S. embassy hailedOperación Limpieza’s head, Colonel Rafael Arriaga Bosque, as one of Guatemala’s “most effective and enlightened leaders”; by October 1966, he would help carry out the country’s first scorched-earth campaign, massacring eight thousand. U.S. planners were fully aware of the consequences of their ongoing assistance: in a 1968 State Department memo, Longan frankly conceded that Guatemalan security forces “will be continued to be used, as in the past, not so much as protectors of the nation against communist enslavement, but as the oligarchy’s oppressors of legitimate social change.”
Successive U.S. presidents avoided publicly labeling Guatemala a gross violator of human rights for fear that “it would be too difficult to clear a country of such a label once given,” thereby jeopardizing the resumption of military aid, according to State Department officials cited in a 1986 U.S. General Accounting Office report. Nevertheless, under Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977, Congress enacted a ban on military assistance to Guatemala. The legislation allowed for a loophole, however: it “did not prevent government arms deliveries previously under contract or commercial export of munitions,” the GAO found.
“While the Carter Administration at least implicitly recognized that Guatemala was a gross human rights violator,” wrote Tanya Broder and Bernard D. Lambek in the Yale Journal of International Law in 1988, “President Reagan’s desire to supply the Guatemalan military [with arms and training]” dealt a coup de grâce to any efficacy of Congressional prohibitions.
By 1982, U.S.-allied proxies such as Israel and Taiwan were tasked with arming Guatemala’s counterinsurgency forces, successfully circumventing U.S. restrictions. The CIA under Reagan also provided regular payments to top Guatemalan military leaders, and the administration illegally deployed advisers to teach Guatemalan cadets “anything our Army has,” according to Green Beret Jesse Garcia, who had arrived in the country months before the Dos Erres massacre. As reported by investigative journalist Allan Nairn, this included “ambushes, surveillance, combat arms, artillery, armor, patrolling, demolition and helicopter assault tactics.” Quoting Garcia, Nairn wrote that the United States provided expertise in “how to destroy towns.”*
On the evening of December 4, 1982, just two days before the Guatemalan Kaibil commandos would initiate their Dos Erres operation, Reagan addressed reporters at an Air Force base in Honduras regarding a “useful exchange of ideas” he had just had with Rios Montt. “I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice,” he declared. “The United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy,” he said in reference to the coup perpetrator, and “my administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
In a question-and-answer period, Reagan also dismissed accusations of human rights violations committed by Rios Montt and his military: “Frankly I’m inclined to believe they’ve been getting a bum rap,” he protested. It has long since been clear that with these kinds of comments, the Reagan administration was deliberately obscuring Guatemala’s record of atrocities.
After all, following his 1980 election, two retired military leaders involved in his campaign reportedly told the Guatemalan military that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done.” According to national-security documents unearthed by investigative journalist Robert Parry at the Reagan Library, the United States knew of Guatemala’s longstanding efforts to annihilate leftists’ “civilian support mechanisms.” And nine days before Reagan downplayed allegations of Rios Montt’s criminality for journalists, a State Department report noted, “our Embassy recently informed us of a new, apparently well-founded allegation of a large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children in a remote area by the Guatemalan Army.”
Given Reagan and Rios Montt’s close collaboration, along with a Guatemalan judge’s finding of “sufficient evidence tying Rios Montt to the Las Dos Erres massacre,” it seemed obvious that This American Life would touch upon Reagan’s culpability in the course of an hour-long episode dedicated to the atrocity. Indeed, Glass appeared to indicate a willingness to do so, when early in the program he boasted:
OK, before we dive into this story, just a quick history review. Now, I myself was the kind of insufferable, politically correct person who was obsessed with Latin America back in the 1980s. I called Nicaragua “Neek-ar-ah-wah,” and actually went to Nicaragua for a month during the fifth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. I traveled in Guatemala during the civil war. You, however, might be what we call a normal person and didn’t do any of that.
Yet Glass’s history review for “normal people” completely excluded U.S. involvement in violations of international humanitarian law, despite the on-air appearance of researcher Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives, who specializes in declassified U.S. documents. He introduced her early in the episode and focused on an inane line of questioning regarding her personal “list of the ranking of most f’ed up countries” in Central America. As she related to me by phone, the program scrapped much of the rest of her in-studio discussion, in which she highlighted Washington’s participation in atrocities.
In its zeal to avoid all mention of active U.S. assistance in Dos Erres, This American Life also excluded content from its own media partner, ProPublica, which published a written article that coincided with the radio program. ProPublica’s account highlighted the case of Kaibil sergeant Pedro Pimentel, sentenced in 2012 to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the atrocities. Directly after the operation, he was spirited away by helicopter from Dos Erres to the School of the Americas, the U.S. military’s infamous training center for Latin American security forces, where he went on to serve as an instructor. (The School of the Americas had trained Rios Montt in 1950, and would in 1985 train Guatemala’s current president Otto Pérez Molina, who, as a Kaibil field commander, likely committed atrocities himself.)
When asked about such omissions by email, Glass replied, “I certainly know that history,” and admitted that he had talked “to Kate Doyle about U.S. participation in Guatemala.” Nonetheless, he and his co-producers “decided not to get into that in the program simply because we felt like we were throwing a lot of facts and history at our listeners and were worried about how much people could absorb.” He added, “It was a judgment call. And maybe we made the wrong call.”
Retrospection aside, his answer was disingenuous. While it was true that the words “Reagan,” “Jacobo Arbenz,” “School of the Americas” or “CIA” were never uttered in the hour-long broadcast, Glass and his co-producers did not simply omit context. They went one step further, by affirmatively—and falsely—framing the U.S. government as a negligent bystander whose only sin was a reluctance to speak out.
He claimed in the episode, for example, that “Embassy officials heard lots of reports about the Army massacring whole villages throughout Guatemala, which they dismissed,” until, “at the urging of the State Department back in Washington,” they went to “see for themselves if the stories were true.” This American Life’s harshest indictment is that, despite years of repeated massacres after Dos Erres, “the U.S. knew about it but stood by.”
If Glass worried about inundating listeners with too many facts, I asked in a follow-up email, “why did you introduce the factual claim that ‘the U.S. knew about [the ongoing killings] but stood by?’” And how could this characterization possibly be reconciled with his previous email’s description of “U.S. participation” in war crimes?
In October 2011, Barack Obama echoed Reagan’s soaring, mendacious, 30-year-old script for his Central American ally. Having invited Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to the White House, Obama thanked him for his “strong commitment to democracy and leadership.” Lobo’s “restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation,” said Obama, gave him “great hope.” It would have been impolite, of course, to publicly acknowledge that Lobo had presided overstatesecurityforces, trained and financed with millions of U.S.-taxpayer dollars annually, that had killed and continue to kill Honduran civilians as a matter of routine.
Given This American Life’s conformity to official U.S. doctrine regarding Guatemala, it was to be expected that a subsequent half-hour segment on Honduras titled “Some Like It Dot,” which aired in early 2013, would in no way upset the official narrative set by President Obama. The episode predictably excluded crucial, if inconvenient, political context as it centered on the attempt to develop “charter cities” in Honduras—swaths of land to be ceded to international investors and developed into autonomous cities, with their own police forces, taxes, labor codes, trade rules, and legal systems.
Although the show dutifully included a warning by Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who described charter cities as a “reintroduction of colonialism,” This American Life nonetheless enthusiastically portrayed the messianic vision of University of Chicago-trained economist Paul Romer as an exciting solution to Honduran “corruption and chaos and violence.”
That very “corruption and chaos and violence,” This American Life failed to inform its listeners, exploded as a result of a 2009 coup d’etat against the country’s left-leaning, democratically elected leader, President Manuel Zelaya. Strong circumstantial evidence implicates the United States in his ouster. The early-morning plane that spirited the pajama-attired president and his family to Costa Rica, for example, stopped to refuel at the U.S. military base of Palmerola. U.S. officials also acknowledged that they were in discussions with the Honduran military (many of whose leaders were trained at the School of the Americas) up until the very day it deposed Zelaya.
What is known beyond any doubt is Washington’s vigorous efforts in 2009 to bolster the coup government of Roberto Micheletti, and to legitimize the repressive sham elections held under that regime. With the dubious transfer of power from Micheletti to Porfirio Lobo in 2010, the ultimate success of Zelaya’s removal was guaranteed. Unsurprisingly, neither the coup, its consequences, nor Washington’s involvement appeared in This American Life’s episode.
Other than Romer, the episode’s main protagonist was Lobo’s chief of staff, Octavio Sánchez. Besides being the leading Honduran advocate for charter cities, Sánchez was one of the most strident champions of the coup. Writing in TheChristian Science Monitor just days after the elected president was removed from the country at gunpoint, Sánchez characterized the event as “nothing short of the triumph of the rule of law,” and urged readers not to “believe the coup myth.” This American Life could not be bothered to point out this fact, or Sánchez’s profound cynicism, preferring instead to describe him as the country’s idealistic “national dreamer.”
In his defense, Ira Glass wrote by email: “What interested our…reporters in that story was the relationship between Octavio Sanchez and Paul Romer, and what it said about the ability of outsiders to come into a country with a development scheme like Romer was suggesting.” Though he claimed his reporters “were well aware of the broader politics of Honduras,” This American Life wanted nothing to do with it. “I think another reporter could make a totally interesting and valid story going into more of the politics you’re talking about, but that simply wasn’t the focus of what we were doing.”
By coding the crux of the debate around charter cities as extraneous “politics,” Glass was able to evade it. But the fact remains: the imposition of “development schemes” by “outsiders” on Honduras would be considered impossible if the overthrow of its democratically elected leader and the resulting decimation of its sovereignty had not occurred.
In response to Glass’s attempt to narrowly circumscribe “the focus of what we were doing,” I raised another question: if Octavio Sánchez’s vigorous coup defense was too far afield from This American Life’s preferred subject matter, was it relevant to the show’s narrative that the most prominent Honduran opponent of charter cities, Antonio Trejo, was murdered in a death-squad-style assassination in September 2012?
In the 1980s, when U.S. officials were most viciously engaged in Central America’s political violence, they could rely on media outlets as their reliable partners. Journalist Allan Nairn noted in a 1999 interview with Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting that during the period of Guatemalan genocide, “the big corporate press in the U.S. was not covering the U.S. role at all”—it was “barely covering the fact that the mass killings were taking place.” So in addition to condemning the U.S. government, he concluded that “the press also has blood on its hands.”
This American Life’s “What Happened at Dos Erres” mimicked some of the most propagandistic media behaviors of the 1980s. Its producers prohibited even a single sentence from reaching millions of U.S. listeners regarding the murderous policies of their own elected officials, executed with their tax dollars and in their name. It also bolstered the specious intellectual framework for greater U.S. intervention throughout the world on “humanitarian” grounds, by inventing the historical figment that the United States “stood by” in the face of Guatemalan violence. Months later, with remarkable continuity, This American Life concealed for U.S. listeners their relationship to the seemingly far-flung and senseless violence of Honduras.
This American Life’s journalistic misconduct is manifold: First, Ira Glass unreservedly acknowledged that both he and his co-producers were fully aware of the politics of both Guatemala and Honduras. Second, he clearly stated that they deliberately chose to omit them for their U.S. audience (and in the case of Guatemala, they disseminated a pure fabrication). Third, their motivation for suppressing the U.S. government’s hand in the barbarity of the two countries stems from either a disdain for their listeners—Glass condescendingly “worried about how much [history and facts] people could absorb”—or from their willingness to perpetuate Washington’s flattering self-image.
Whatever This American Life’s rationale may be, its two episodes on Central America prove that Glass’s earlier aspiration to do “the most idealistic, wide-eyed things that journalism can do” has been extinguished. Given the generalized dishonesty of the U.S. media and intellectual class, it’s no surprise that Peabody’s “experts in culture and the arts” rewarded the show for its excellence. But this accolade should not distract anyone from the reality that This American Life’s compelling storytelling can in no way be confused with ethical journalism.
* Allan Nairn, “Despite Ban, U.S. Captain Trains Guatemalan Military,” Washington Post, October 21, 1982, page 1
In light of the recent case of Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman and mother of a toddler, who, while suffering from lupus and kidney failure and carrying an anencephalic fetus, was denied the right to an abortion, it is relevant to discuss the restrictive abortion laws in Latin America and some of the reasons behind them.
Latin America is home to five of the seven countries in the world in which abortion is banned in all instances, even when the life of the woman is at risk: Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, with the Vatican City and Malta outside the region. Legal abortion upon request during the first trimester is only available in Cuba (as of 1965), Mexico City (as of 2007), and Uruguay (as of 2012). In the rest of the continent, abortion is criminalized in most circumstances, with few exceptions, the most common of which are when the life or health of the woman is at risk, rape, incest and/or fetus malformations. However, even in these cases the legal and practical hurdles a woman has to face to have an abortion are such that many times these exceptions are not available, or by the time they are authorized it is too late. The consequences of such criminalization are well known: high maternal mortality and morbidity rates due to unsafe back alley abortions that affect poor and young women disproportionately.
The current laws ruling abortion in the region have been inherited from colonial powers. They are a legacy of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. While European women have already gotten rid of these laws many decades ago, Latin American women still have to deal with them. Why is this so?
As both scholars and activists know by now, women’s rights, like other human rights, are only respected if a movement organizes around them and puts pressure on the state to change unfair laws and policies. While feminist movements swept Europe and North America during the 1960s and 70s, Latin American countries were busy fighting dictatorships and civil wars. It is not that women did not organize, but rather they did so to oppose the brutal regimes and to address the needs of poor populations hit by the recurrent economic crises. Reproductive rights just had to wait. When democracy finally arrived in the region—in the 1980s in South American and the 1990s in Central America—feminist movements gradually began to push for reproductive rights. For example, the September 28th Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion was launched in 1990 in the context of the Fifth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist meeting held in San Bernardo, Argentina. Since then, most countries in the region have seen mobilizations and protests around this date. However, by the time the movements began to focus on reproductive rights, the global context had changed and the conservative right had also set up a strong opposition to any change to the status quo.
The strongholds of the opposition to decriminalization lie in two places: first, the Catholic Church, and second, the ascendance of the religious right in the United States. The Catholic Church has historically been a strong political actor in Latin America, ever since its large role in the conquest and colonization of the continent by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the 16th and 17th centuries. The church’s influence among both political and economic elites is still a reality in the whole region with only a variation of degree among the different countries. However, the church’s strong opposition to abortion has not been constant. While the church has always condemned abortion, it used to be considered a misdemeanor and not a murder of an innocent human life, as in the current discourse. In addition, it was not until the late 1800s that the church considered that life started at conception. Until 1869, a fetus was thought to receive its soul from 40 to 80 days after conception, abortion being a sin only after the ensoulment had taken place.
Even in the beginning of the 20th century, when many Latin American countries passed their current legislation that allowed legal abortion under certain circumstances, the Catholic Church did not pose a strong opposition to these reforms. As Mala Htun explains in her research on South American abortion laws, at the time abortion reforms were passed by a nucleus of male politicians, doctors, and jurists. In addition, these reforms legalized abortion only in very limited circumstances and required the authorization of a doctor and/or a judge, and therefore represented no real threat to the dominant discourse of abortion being morally wrong. The church only began organizing against abortion decriminalization when feminist movements came together to claim the autonomy of women’s bodies threatening this consensus.
When John Paul II became Pope in 1978, moral issues such as abortion were given a priority in the church’s mission as never before. Having lived through the Soviet conquest of his home country, Poland, and experienced the repression of Catholicism and the legalization of abortion there, the Pope felt very strongly about these issues. Once many of the European Catholic countries achieved the legalization of abortion in the 1970s and 80s, Latin America, being the largest Catholic region in the world, became the battleground in which abortion policy would be fought and decided.
Together with this shift within the Catholic Church, a second stronghold of the opposition has come from the United States. Long past the days of Roe v. Wade, since the 1980s the increasing influence of the religious right within the Republican Party has implied that U.S. reproductive rights policies have been increasingly anti-abortion when this party was in office. How has this affected Latin America? Both directly, by banning federal funding for international NGOs involved with providing, advising, or even advocating for abortion decriminalization (known as the Mexico City Policy or the Global Gag Rule), and also indirectly, through the legitimacy and strength given to anti-abortion discourses, particularly during the George W. Bush administration.
Latin American politicians have not been indifferent to these trends and have thus sought the support of the Catholic Church and/or U.S. Republicans and anti-abortion groups to strengthen their chances of winning office. Unfortunately, in this context the future of Beatriz and many other poor and young women in the region remains politically uncertain.