The Trump administration continues to claim that the Central American migrant caravan is invading California. More than 7,000 Central Americans have come to the U.S. southern border, not to invade or even to enter the US outside of legal means, but to seek political asylum to escape violence and extreme poverty in Guatemala and Honduras. Trump’s claim of a “national emergency” is baseless in terms of any danger to the U.S. Policies that criminalize migrants for acting on their internationally recognized right of asylum and result in the deaths children in custody are the real national emergency. Asylum is an internationally recognized right precisely to protect people fleeing desperate circumstances; it is not an act of war.
As 2018 national elections approached, Trump used the caravan issue to frighten and mobilize his base. When the caravan reached the U.S. border, the migrants were tear-gassed by the U.S. military and border crossings were shut down. Currently, the migrants are staying in two main encampments and about 30 shelters around Tijuana. When thousands arrived in mid-November, they were initially put at the Benito Juarez sports arena near the border. This open-air encampment lacked adequate shelter and resources, and rainstorms soon exacerbated these conditions, with raw sewage spilling over into the camp from the latrines. Adequate fresh drinking water was never provided at this site, creating a public health crisis.
Then, in New Mexico, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín died of dehydration while in custody of U.S. Border Patrol. She and her father were traveling from Guatemala to seek asylum when they were apprehended on December 6, 2018. A second Guatemalan child whose father was seeking asylum, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, age eight, died in Border Patrol custody on December 25, 2018.
Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy of criminalizing asylum seekers has caused extreme overcrowding at migrant detention facilities with an average daily population of 45,200 single adult and family units. This number includes 13,000 children, as reported by CNN in October 2018. This, too, has created a public health crisis, which is likely to lead to more deaths of children.
U.S. government attacks on immigrants were ratcheted up after the Department of Homeland Security, under President George W. Bush, replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Services with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Government resources were poured into the enforcement end of immigration while the services sector was depleted, which excessively increased the wait times for those attempting to immigrate legally or to gain asylum. These anti-immigrant policies were continued by the Democratic administration of President Obama. President Trump and his administration have sunk to unlawful and even more inhumane depths in their attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers.
This immoral war on migrants must end. Any working person struggling to support and protect their family should be able to empathize with the many reasons people choose to take the difficult journey to the U.S. These include political persecution; gang, domestic, and sexual violence; environmental disasters; poverty and unemployment; racial, gender, and religious discrimination; exploitation by transnational corporations; human trafficking; and governmental complicity toward paramilitaries. It is difficult to build a case for legal asylum because it requires proving targeted persecution as part of a recognized group. Also, anyone who has been previously deported may be turned down for asylum in the U.S. As hard as the process already is, the current administration wants to make it impossible.
In coordination with other organizations and volunteers, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) has sent lawyers, legal workers, and law students from its Bay Area, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, and New York City chapters to Tijuana to provide legal support, training, and observation. The NLG describes problems as “including unnecessary and illegal delays in the asylum application process, the dangerous conditions at the camps where some migrants are staying, the inadequate and uneven response of international relief organizations, and the constant threat of violence to migrants from law enforcement, far right protesters, and some local community members.”
The situation is getting worse every day according to NLG legal observers. Charity groups such as UNICEF, World Relief, and other UN organizations and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not bringing basic resources like food and water to the camp (although they did show up with hula hoops and other toys for the children). The NLG repeatedly brought the lack of clean drinking water and food to the attention of the UN and other organizations to no avail.
A Positive Response from Organized Labor
Many unions have been stepping up to support asylum seekers and other migrants. The Service Employees International Union—United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) actions on behalf of migrants have been true to the union’s official mission statement: “to lead the way to a more just and humane society; building power for all service workers by developing member leadership and activism, winning strong contracts, organizing unorganized service workers, building political and community power, and engaging in direct action…” In May 2017, the USWW organized for the Caravan Against Fear, traveling across California and the southern border states. The Caravan led massive protests at federal detention facilities across California and visited congressional offices along the way urging them to stand with immigrants. Led by dozens of workers and activists, the labor Caravan built a movement to defend immigrants’ rights and keep families together. Eventually that momentum led to the passage of AB 450, which protects workers from Federal immigration raids in the workplace, and SB 54, which makes California a Sanctuary State.
When Trump originally threatened the government shutdown in late November 2018 if he didn’t get border wall funds from Congress, the USWW organized the National Call-in Day to #DefundHate! to demand that Congressional representatives deny funds for the southern border wall, ICE and CPB (Border Patrol).
Now, four weeks into a partial government shutdown, CNN and ABC polls indicate that the majority of U.S. Americans oppose additional funding for the border wall and view Trump as the cause of this collective punishment. Some 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed or forced to work without pay and missed their first paycheck last Friday, January 11, 2019. Government employee unions staged rallies outside federal buildings across the U.S. the day before that no-pay day occurred.
In early December, educators and union members from across the nation mobilized to send this statement: “As educators, we serve every student who enters our class, regardless of immigration status or nation of origin. Social justice education means that our classrooms recognize no borders, and we open our doors to the children of the migrant caravan. We the undersigned demand that any child of school age who enters the U.S. be immediately welcomed into a public school, and not held in a detention center, or separated from their families.” Organizational endorsements include CA Educators Rising; Social Equity Educators, Seattle; Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, Baltimore; International Socialist Organization Teachers Working Group MORE; the Social Justice Caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City; Teach Dream, New York City; and the Seattle Education Association.
The Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York (CUNY) sent a strong statement to affirm unconditional support for the workers and families of the migrant caravan, and opposition to the xenophobic response of the US administration and the right-wing militias that have threatened their safety. “The teachers and employees of the City University of New York (the largest and most diverse urban university in the country), are aware of the challenges and struggles faced by migrant children and their families. Many of their students are from South and Central America and “like the members of the caravan, have fled violence, persecution, and poverty, (often direct products of US policy and intervention) only to sometimes encounter more of the same.”
The AFL-CIO released a statement of support for migrant caravans on May 3, 2018: “Ten things working people should know about the migrant caravan…” Number one, “Staying home simply is not an option,” stating that migrants embark on such hazardous journeys because of extreme conditions of crime, violence, and crushing poverty. Secondly, “address the root causes of this displacement,” citing flawed U.S. foreign and trade policies that exacerbated dangerous conditions in these countries, breeding violence and desperation. Addressing “Workers’ rights violations…,” the AFL-CIO reports that labor repression has increased, especially in the expanding maquiladora sector. In Guatemala and Honduras, employers have been refusing to engage in collective bargaining and avoiding fair payments and benefits. Workers who are associated with union organizing are fired or even killed. Government neglect to enforce and account for the abuses is leaving working families isolated.
However, calling for demilitarization of the southern border and for abiding by existing U.S. law that requires a fair hearing for asylum seekers, is still just words. It’s time to push on to the next level to drive home these statements and press releases.
We must build a stronger, inclusive labor movement to organize for better working conditions and to unite U.S. born workers with immigrants. Mexican and Filipino immigrant workers organized the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) in California led by César Chávez and Delores Huerta in the 1960s and 70s and struck big agriculture for better wages and safer working conditions. Broad public support for the UFW grape boycott pressured growers to recognize the union. (California has the strongest labor movement in the US with 22 percent of the workforce unionized while the national average is only 11 percent).
Labor must support immigrants on the job, such as opposing “reverification” actions where ICE can demand to see the immigration status of employees. Many unions have represented workers caught by this policy and lobbied against it in California.
Let human rights and legal accountability be a rallying and organizing cry for the nation’s workforce, not a time to run for our own tents and wait until the tear gas and closed doors are turned against us.
The need for legal professionals on the ground is dire and hundreds have already applied to come and assist with legal support. There will also be a continuing need for people to travel to the border for the next several months, especially those who can stay weekdays, speak Spanish, are trained as NLG Legal Observers, or have experience with immigration and asylum law.
For those who cannot travel to the border, please consider assisting in other ways:
Please read and share demands by migrants https://www.nlg.org/press-release-demands-by-central-american-exodus-we-do-not-want-to-return-to-violence/.
Ask your representative to co-sponsor or your organization to endorse the Berta Cáceres Act to stop U.S. funding of the Honduran military. http://witnessforpeace.org/current-co-sponsors-of-the-berta-caceres-act/.
Sponsor one of the LGBTQ asylum seekers. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfYCFQFq5NxgnR6Cn6v8Ez13bpTDU598RuyY23Ji-uQvr9Asg/viewform/.