Open Borders Now

During the lead-up to the presidential election I felt paralyzed by the fear of what might happen. Now that Donald Trump will actually become president, it is more important than ever to speak out for what is right. And that means arguing for open borders instead of building higher walls.

I have often asked myself idly, when my mind runs away with itself, what I would have done during the time of slavery in the United States, during the days of the underground railroad. Would I have sheltered the runaway slave, helped her on her way to the North, to freedom? Or would I have left to others the dangerous, illegal, yet indisputably moral work of providing safe passage to fugitive slaves, denounced slavery with my words but not my actions? I hope I would have opened my home to those fugitives from injustice, not just spoken empty words against slavery while I lounged in the shelter of my white home.

For some time, I have felt that the path of migrants from Central America and Mexico to the United States is the underground railroad of our time. Men and women who can no longer bear the conditions in which they live—the low wages, the long hours, sometimes the violence—make the difficult decision to grab whatever they can carry on their backs and run, in the dark of night, for the North, el norte, the land where they hear they can live freely. These migrants ride a network of actual freight trains known as la bestia, the beast, toward the north, where perhaps they can make better money, find a better job, send for their families, not have to fear for their lives. The journey is dangerous. They may not make it. They may get caught by la migra and sent back to their low-wage jobs, their impoverished homes, or their deaths amid gang violence. But the risk is worth it for the possibilities that await.

I have helped migrants on today’s underground railroad—given food, clothes, first aid, friendship, even a cell phone. I spent a summer in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, aiding migrants on their way to the north (and those who had been deported from there). But just to help people come north is not enough. The journey is not over once migrants reach U.S. soil.

Even once they reach the United States, manage to settle down, hopefully get a job, today’s undocumented immigrants are not completely safe. They are still treated as second-class citizens—or rather, not citizens at all. Congress holds plenary power over immigration, which means that Congress can apply laws to noncitizens—undocumented immigrants—that cannot constitutionally be legally applied to citizens. Thus, ironically, although migrants may seek greater freedom in el norte, their position can actually become more limited when they arrive in the United States, for they do not receive the same protections as U.S. citizens. Today’s undocumented migrants, having broken the law by entering and thus remaining in a limbo, “illegal” status, can be incarcerated indefinitely in detention centers, forcibly removed from the nation, and refused the rights given to American citizens. Like runaway slaves in the North, who could be caught by a fugitive slave catcher at any time and shipped back to their former owners in the South, undocumented immigrants who are caught by the Border Patrol can be deported at any time, regardless of how long they have lived in the United States or whether they have committed any actual crime. While deportation is justified on the grounds that undocumented immigrants broke the law in coming to the U.S., we must question the basis of very laws they have broken.

Defenders of restrictive border policy and immigration law may remind us that migrants are free within their own countries to work and move as they please, just as U.S. citizens are in our own country. Therefore, limiting the right to work for a fair wage or the right to government protection to U.S. citizens and denying such rights to undocumented immigrants is not unfair; they have those rights in their own country. Yet why should we take it for granted that people born in a nation where the minimum wage is approximately $3.54 a day (73.04 in MXN) should not be allowed to move to a country where the national hourly minimum wage is more than that? If I, a U.S. citizen, have a right to make a living wage, then someone born in Mexico or Honduras should have that right as well. If I, a U.S. citizen, can travel freely to another nation, then people in those nations should have the right to travel to my country as well. If we as Americans truly believe that all people have certain inalienable rights and that all people are created equal, then we need to end a system of border enforcement that provides certain individuals—citizens, and wealthy people who can afford to pay for expensive visas and meet the income requirements for work or travel visas—the right to movement and, thus, the right to self-determination, while denying that self-determination to people who are not born in the U.S.

The border is not an unchanging, God-given reality. The border is a man-made creation that has been moved multiple times in U.S. history. Just as slavery was an artificial division based on race that was designed to legally exclude certain people from self-determination in order to keep a captive labor class for the wealthy white planters, international borders are in the words of border scholar Reece Jones “artificial lines drawn on maps to exclude other people [noncitizens] from access to resources and the right to move.” By relying on an arbitrary border to define who has a legal right to enter, to work, and to live in the U.S., American citizens can keep wages high for citizens and legal workers and low for undocumented workers. They can constantly hold the threat of deportation over undocumented workers within the U.S. in order to keep labor costs down. Because undocumented immigrants are noncitizens who have “broken the law,” we can justify denying them citizenship and thus denying them equal rights.

Is this so different than the economic system of slavery? The American economy has always depended on low-paid (or unpaid), imported, and racialized labor in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and domestic service. In this labor market, some workers—the free whites, or the citizens—benefit from the system and advance socioeconomically, while others—the black slaves, or the noncitizens—are systematically forced into low- or nonpaying, undesirable jobs. In antebellum America, many domestic workers and farmworkers, at least in the South, were African American slaves. Today, many domestic workers and agricultural laborers across the nation are unauthorized immigrant workers from Latin America. Because these individuals are unlawfully present “aliens,” employers feel free to exploit such workers without fear that the laborers will report this exploitation or seek better working conditions. If the workers do complain, the migra can send them back to Central American or Mexico, where they will be forced to labor for even lower wages, in lower standards of living, and may be at higher risk of political or gang violence. Legally, they do not have the right to work or the right to even reside within the United States that citizens do. Everything they do can be criminalized; their very presence is considered an illegal act.

Thus today, as in the era of slavery, the U.S. relies on a racialized labor force that is legally denied the rights of full U.S. citizens. Just as in antebellum America, a legal system based on an arbitrary characteristic of birth—once skin color, now location—is used to protect the economic interests of citizens at the expense of another group.

Today’s system can be justified, as noted above, by recalling that undocumented immigrants do have rights within their own countries. They do not begin as slaves, and I do not suggest that their position is indistinguishable from that of slaves. There are differences. But we cannot congratulate ourselves on abolishing slavery and yet still systematically deny rights to some people based on arbitrary characteristics of birth. Rather than a national system that denies rights of freedom and self-determination to certain people based on the color of their skin, this is a continental system that denies rights of movement and self-determination to certain people based on their place of birth. Instead of being based on the national law of slavery, it is based on the international law of citizenship. Yet the result is still that some people in the U.S. do not have the same rights as others.

We can only have a truly equal society, internationally and within our own borders, if we grant the same rights to people from any nation. This means open borders. We cannot continue to enforce a policy of discrimination based on birthplace, a characteristic as arbitrary as skin color. People cannot change where they are born and more than they can change the color of their skin. But they should be allowed to move freely over the earth, the planet we all share, to seek opportunities and control their own destinies. Allowing some people, those born in wealthy nations, to travel freely, while restricting those born in undeveloped nations to places with low wages, poor working conditions, and fewer governmental protections, is fundamentally unfair. If we truly believe in “liberty and justice for all,” then liberty and justice should not be restricted to people born within our borders. The right to seek liberty and justice wherever it can be found, on any side of the border, should be everyone’s right, no matter which side they were born.

Why We Can’t Fall for the Mythical Twin Threats of Terrorism and Immigration

After last week’s attacks in Belgium, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, conservatives turned to hate speech toward Muslims in their reactions. Ted Cruz named “radical Islamic terrorism” as “our enemy,” while Donald Trump vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Such responses are unproductive and pointless. Demonizing Muslims only accomplishes the promotion of racism, hatred, and Islamophobia in the United States. Meanwhile, such statements further inflame anti-American sentiment abroad.

While it is important to denounce these reactions right off the bat, it is also useful to examine how they work. In understanding what motivates anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, perhaps we can find ways to dismantle it. What interests me about Donald Trump’s reaction in particular is the conflation of terrorism, Islam, and immigration as one threat to the United States. After the Belgium attacks, Donald Trump used the frenzy to demand both a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and a closing of the U.S.-Mexico border. In this way, he combined the perceived threat of people entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico with the perceived threat of Islamic terrorism. This perception of terrorists and immigrants as the same threat comes in spite of the fact that the Belgium attackers were found to be Belgian citizens. Indeed, most of the terror attacks in Europe have been carried out by Europeans, not foreigners. In fact, even the 9/11 attacks were carried out not my illegal immigrants, but by legal U.S. residents.

Nonetheless, terrorism and immigration have long been linked in U.S. public discourse. How has this happened? And how should we respond?

“Illegal” immigrants from Mexico and Latin America have long been characterized by conservatives as a threat to the nation. But after 9/11, the concept of illegality was also connected to the perceived Arab/Muslim terrorist threat, as scholar Lisa Marie Cacho explains in her book Social Death. Images of the undocumented immigrant threat and the Muslim terrorist threat have mutually reinforced one another as two versions of “illegality” that endanger national security. Notably, both of these threats are racially coded. Although actual skin color may not be referenced in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, images of these Latin@ or Muslim “others” are still coded non-white. It is a sad testimony to the enduring white supremacy in the United States that foreign immigrants are not only portrayed as a threat to our nation, but are also still characterized as non-white racial others. By rhetorically connecting illegal immigration to terrorism, illegal immigration is now understood not only as a racial or cultural threat to national identity, but also as an actual security threat. Even though there has never been any evidence of Middle Eastern terrorists entering the United States from the southern border, politicians use the fear of terrorism to hype up anti-immigrant feelings, and vice versa. Sadly, these two reactionary fears mutually reinforce each others.

This conflation of fears doesn’t just happen at the rhetorical level, the level of political speeches and news shows, unfortunately. In 2004 and 2005, two federal laws regulating government IDs actually combined these fears in the legislation itself, using purportedly anti-terrorist legislation to further disenfranchise undocumented immigrants. The 9/11 Act of 2004 explicitly connects immigration policy with terrorism, stating, “The routine operations of our immigration laws and the aspects of those laws not specifically aimed at protecting against terrorism inevitably shaped Al Qaeda’s planning and opportunities”–despite the lack of any actual proof of a such a connection between immigration law and terrorism. Yet the law states that “travel documents are as important to terrorists as weapons since terrorists must travel clandestinely.” This statement justifies the strengthening of security requirements for identification documents, laid out by this law and the subsequent REAL ID Act of 2005. The REAL ID Act requires that applicants for state IDs provide “evidence of lawful status” in the U.S., proving citizenship, permanent residency, or appropriate visa or deferred action status. The law also imposes stricter immigration standards for asylum seekers. So, what these laws do is use the fear of terrorists using government documents for travel to prevent undocumented immigrants from gaining government-issued IDs, which would enable them to legally drive and otherwise carry out their day-to-day lives.

In this way, these laws use counter-terrorism to justify stricter ID requirements for all unauthorized immigrants. The implication is that any unauthorized immigrant may be a terrorist. Ironically, as in the recent Belgium attacks, carried out by Belgians, not undocumented immigrants, the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by unauthorized immigrants but legal U.S. residents. So, imposing further restrictions on undocumented immigrants, by sealing the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, is not an effective counter-terrorism measure. The rhetorical and legislative slippage between illegal immigration and terrorism is more an expression of Americans’ fear of racial others invading the nation, than a reasonable fear derived from the actual origins of the terrorist threat. Nevertheless, this slippage allows anti-terrorism efforts to justify further restrictions for all unauthorized immigrants.

Instead of allowing conservatives to fan the flames of racism by fear-mongering that encourages xenophobia and prejudice, we need to stand up for what is truly right. We should welcome migrants who come as political or economic refugees from other countries, whether from Syria or Central America. We should make an effort to reach out to Muslims in the United States and abroad, rather than attacking them. Reacting to terrorist acts with racism and prejudice, denouncing all Muslims and misrepresenting immigrants as the cause, only encourages extremists to represent the United States as racist and wrong. Hate begets more hate, on both sides. While we should absolutely denounce terrorist acts and senseless murder, we should also try to understand the economic, political, and social conditions that are driving extremism in the Middle East. We should not denounce all Muslims as the cause of such extremism, nor should we use terrorism as an excuse to further oppress immigrants. Only with understanding and respect can we really overcome the threat of extremism. Let us not become hate-filled extremists ourselves. Rather, let us embrace our common humanity and stand up to the world’s real evils, which are poverty, hatred, and prejudice.

What You Don’t Hear About the Death of Berta Caceres

Berta Caceres

Berta Caceres, a major Honduran indigenous activist and human rights defender, was assassinated early Thursday morning. Caceres was a founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH) and a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to fight against the Agua Zarca dam. The dam, funded by Sinohydro, one of many Chinese companies investing major funds in the region, was to be built without the consent or consultation of local communities. Caceres’ important organizing work helped prevent the dam’s construction.

Caceres’ death has been widely reported in American media, and many such reports rightly condemn the violence that is currently endemic to Honduras. The country has been ranked as the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists, and the United Nations reports that it has the world’s highest murder rate. Sadly, Caceres was not even the first indigenous rights activist associated with Agua Zarca dam to be killed. In 2013, fellow organizer and COPINH member Tomás García was killed by an army officer in a peaceful protest against the dam. While it is right to mourn the death of an important human rights figure like Caceres who fought for indigenous rights and self-determination, what goes unsaid in many reports is the role of the United States in Honduran violence. Americans should be wary of condemning Honduras before taking a look at the United States’ own role in that country’s crisis.

As Caceres’ and García’s deaths attest, human rights conditions in Honduras have worsened seriously since the 2009 coup against President Mel Zelaya. The coup was led by General Romeo Vasquez, an alumnus of the School of the Americas (or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), a U.S. Army institution infamous for having graduated some of Latin America’s most brutal dictators and officers, and for training its students in techniques such as torture and counterinsurgency. Yet after the coup in 2009, Washington did not call for the return against democratically-elected Zelaya, but rather backed elections under the new repressive regime, which put Porfirio Lobo in power.

Since the coup, the Honduran police force has faced widespread reports of police corruption and death-squad style killings. However, despite these and other increasing human rights violations in the past several years, the U.S. State Department has continued to funnel millions of dollars into the nation through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Between 2008 and 2012, at least $50 million dollars went to Honduras from the United States. And in 2016 a proposed Central American aid package will send $1 billion to the region, some of which will go to Honduras. One of CARSI’s priorities is to “build the capacity of law enforcement and the justice sector to serve citizens and to address regional threats.” As such, much of this monetary aid has supported and will continue to support the militarization of law enforcement – the same law enforcement accused of multiple human rights problems. If the results of U.S. investment in Honduran law enforcement are death squads and police corruption, the United States needs to seriously reconsider this “aid.” The United States cannot continue to subsidize a Honduras that criminalizes the defenders of human rights while enabling police and military impunity.

Berta Caceres played an important role in the self-determination of Honduran communities, and if the United States denounces her murder, we should also stop promoting state violence through law enforcement that leads to instability and further human rights abuses. Furthermore, if Americans are disturbed by high immigration from Central American countries like Honduras, they should consider why so many people are fleeing their homes, and question the United States’ support of the military coup that led to such increasingly dangerous conditions. Loudly denouncing Honduran human rights violations is futile and hypocritical if we do not also denounce and change U.S. policies that contribute to a climate that allows such violations to occur.

Drugs, Guns, and the Outsourcing of Violence to Latin America

A Los Angeles Times editorial by Iain Overton, an expert on U.S. gun culture, published this morning (read here) discusses the often overlooked international effects of domestic gun policy. As many Mexicans and Central Americans know, United States domestic policy often has a huge effect on these neighboring countries, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in drug policy and immigration policy. Continue reading →