The human toll of Fortress America

July 23, 2014

The ugly attacks on immigrant children are the latest example of the right's bigotry--but the Democrats are every bit to blame for the anti-immigrant climate in Washington.

THOUSANDS OF young children, risking their lives to flee poverty and violence in Central America, making dangerous river crossings or clinging to train boxcars--only to end up crammed into a U.S. detention facility, sleeping on floors or huddled in plastic containers.

The scene naturally aroused horror and outrage in response to the media focus in the past month to the record numbers of unaccompanied children detained after they crossed the border into the U.S.

But among both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, the situation produced something else: cynical political point-scoring--at the expense of the migrant children and any real effort to ease their misery, much less create humane immigration policies.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 47,000 children traveling without an adult family member have been detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since the year began. This is almost twice as many as in all of 2013 and five times as many as in 2009.

The majority of the children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They were forced to make a dangerous--and sometimes fatal--journey because of violence and desperate poverty in their home countries, or to reunite with a parent. Like Maritza, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, who explained to researchers authoring the report "Children on the Run" for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' recent report:

A section of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with crosses to memorialize people who died attempting to cross
A section of the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., with crosses to memorialize people who died attempting to cross (Eric Ruder | SW)

I'm here because I was threatened by the gang. One of them "liked" me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn't safe for me to stay there, and I should go to the U.S.

THERE ARE countless, gut-wrenching stories of terror and abuse like Maritza's among the child detainees locked up today.

But that hasn't stopped the right wing from stepping up onto its racist soapbox. There doesn't seem to be any limit to the depths they'll go to smear perhaps the most vulnerable victims in U.S. society--from accusations of spreading illness to being rapists themselves.

Just a reminder here: They're talking about children.

The Republicans' vile scapegoating had the predictable effect--in several cities, racists were emboldened to organize protests like the one that descended on busloads of undocumented children in Murrieta, Calif.

This week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that he was sending 1,000 more Texas National Guard members to the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming, "There can be no national security without border security, and Texans have paid too high a price for the federal government's failure to secure our border."

Meanwhile, Barack Obama led Democrats in denouncing Perry's Guard deployment as an act of empty symbolism. Their rhetoric is designed to make you forget about the Obama administration's actual record on immigration: The man who campaigned for president promising to end the war on immigrants has deported more people than his Republican predecessor.

Several congressional Democrats also spoke out against the Republicans' legislative proposal to speed up deportations of immigrants from Central America--the misnamed HUMANE (Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency) Act, which reverses measures, signed into law by none other than George W. Bush, to aid victims of human trafficking.

But while Democrats voice rhetorical opposition to the Republicans' outrages, their own immigration policies have much more in common with the GOP than differences.

BOTH OF the mainstream parties emphasize border enforcement--from ever-increasing numbers of troops and weapons along the border (tellingly, the border with Mexico, not Canada), to a tall border fence. As a result of the one-upsmanship between the two parties, the mainstream debate on immigration policy revolves around different proposals for maintaining "strong borders"--not questioning the policy of border militarization in the first place.

As for Barack Obama's proposal, of the $3.7 billion in supplemental funds requested by the White House to address the current crisis, one-third is devoted to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including expanding the Border Enforcement Security Task Force program and doubling the size of vetted units in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

For her part, Hillary Clinton, the early frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, couldn't wait to demonstrate her toughness on "border security," telling an audience gathered for a CNN "town hall" meeting in response to questions about the child detainees: "They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are."

Clinton told Christiane Amanpour, "We have to send a clear message [that] just because your child gets across the border doesn't mean your child gets to stay. We don't want to send a message contrary to our laws or encourage more to come."

This tough-on-immigrants message was eerily similar to the one sounded by newly elected President Bill Clinton in 1993, who said of Haitian refugees coming to the U.S. on rickety and dangerous boats to escape persecution at home:

The practice of returning those who flee Haiti by boat will continue, for the time being, after I become President. Those who leave Haiti by boat for the U.S. will be intercepted and returned to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard. Leaving by boat is not the route to freedom.

This was a reversal of a campaign promise to open the border to Haitian refugees--something he forgot within weeks of taking office. (Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, isn't even bothering with the promises.)

WHILE DEMOCRATS may say they oppose the Republicans' unyielding stance against undocumented immigrants, it actually benefits them that the mainstream discussion has shifted so far to the right. There are, of course, differences in the policies of the two parties--most Democrats, for example, are for proposing a tightly restricted path to citizenship for a minority of the undocumented.

But both parties of the status quo are miles away from what could be considered humane immigration policies.

In the end, unless they face substantial pressure from outside Washington, the Democrats will conclude that they can get by with offering little to immigrants and their supporters--and justify their concessions by claiming they can do no better because of Republicans' intransigence.

But no matter which party is proposing it, "strong borders" means one thing--more misery for all workers.

It means misery, suffering and sometimes death for an untold numbers of immigrants as they travel illegally across dangerous borders. It's more misery the undocumented if they can make it to the U.S., because employers can force them to work for low wages, in dangerous conditions, without the protection of labor laws, and under the constant threat of deportation if they dare to organize. And it's suffering for other workers who can be pressured to settle for less because they're told an undocumented immigrant will "steal" their job.

The Democrats and Republicans say "strong borders" is a sensible policy. But the only policies that make sense for workers, no matter where they're born, are ones that demilitarize and open the borders and provide amnesty to all immigrants.

The only way to stand up effectively to the right wing's scapegoating of the undocumented is to stand in solidarity with immigrants everywhere. No human being is illegal--and we won't tolerate anyone being treated as if they are.

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