JHM learning trip digs deep into southern border migration issues

Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia of the Alliance for Global Justice, left, speaks at the border wall between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, on the Oct. 24 Jewish History Museum learning day trip. (Courtesy Jewish History Museum)

“Migration is not beautiful, it is a result of violence and poverty and influences that make it impossible for people to stay in their homes. The task is to reflect on how to impact governments from intervening in countries.”
— Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia, Alliance for Global Justice Prison Imperialism Project coordinator, Tucson

The impact of border militarization and criminalization of migration at the Southern Arizona border with Mexico was the primary focus of a day of learning facilitated by Tucson’s Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center on Oct. 24. About 40 local community agency affiliates and community members made the day-long journey to visit the southern border wall and Mexican Consulate General in Nogales, Arizona, and the U.S. Federal Courthouse and Casa Alitas migrant shelter in Tucson.

The trip coincided with the museum’s launch of an exhibit through May 31, 2020, “Asylum: To Address a Chaotic Circumstance of the Government’s Own Making,” at the Allen and Marianne Langer Contemporary Human Rights Gallery in the Holocaust History Center.

Museum Director Bryan Davis described the day as an effort to create local collective action without hierarchy but with consensus around migrant justice, motivated by Jewish values. “It is to translate Jewish values, ethics, and Holocaust memory into action. Our obligation to justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world) is to save lives,” added Jodie Shapiro, the museum’s Zuckerman fellow, who led the excursion with Davis.

During the bus journey, three guest speakers reviewed historical and current aspects of migration, immigration, and militarization that have resulted in hardening U.S. borders. Shapiro warned, “These are complicated and difficult things to hear.”

Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia is an activist, political scientist, and photojournalist from Mexico City. He came to Tucson as a refugee after nearly 25 journalist colleagues, friends, and family members were killed around him in Mexico City. He is now a coordinator with a local think-tank and political action organization, Alliance for Global Justice.

Joshua Dunlap is a program organizer with the local non-profit BorderLinks, which for 31 years has led delegations on educational immersion trips across the borderlands. BorderLinks grew out of the national sanctuary movement that started in Tucson in the early 1980s.

Local immigration attorney Maurice “Mo” Goldman spoke about legal migration paths and differences between immigration cases in civil and federal courts.

South of the border
Garcia laid out some historical and foundational elements that underpin the current crisis of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border, many of whom are seeking asylum.

In 2007, the bilateral Merida Initiative provided military equipment and training to harden the border between Mexico and Guatemala. “Violence, with roots of U.S. intervention in Latin America” creates much of the migrant flow north, Garcia continued, citing a 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, supported by the U.S. government, that turned Honduras into “the most violent country in the world. The majority of refugees today [crossing the U.S. southern border] are fleeing Honduras.”

Garcia and others allege that Mexican federal police and immigration were complicit in the 2010-2011 massacres of 265 migrants south of the border by drug cartels that act as human traffickers and target rival cartels, adding that the cartel members are U.S.-military trained. “The U.S. federal government spends $6-$20 million a year and supplies weapons to the Mexican police” which makes “the U.S. complicit” in these murders.

“In 2013-2014, 60,000 minors arrived at U.S. borders. [President] Obama increased Mexican military funding which dropped arrivals to 10,000 the next year,” Garcia said. “The U.S. strategy is to make [migrant] travel more dangerous … there’s money behind it all.”

Obama’s 2014 Alliance for Prosperity addresses the structural causes of migration, with U.S. funding for economic opportunities for the triangle Central American countries — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Through corruption, “it is used to support their dictatorships,” Garcia alleges.

Under the current U.S. administration, the deportation of M-13 gang members back to El Salvador has created a country “that is rife with gang violence,” said Garcia, “further causing citizens to flee in fear for their lives. U.S. intervention, poverty, and gang-related violence also drive people, including unaccompanied children and young adults, across the border.”

The cornerstone today, Garcia says, is a natural gas pipeline from Oaxaca in Southern Mexico to Guatemala. Obama negotiated the deal between the triangle nations and Mexico in 2014, with backing from the Inter-American Development Bank. Valued at $700 billion in 2015, the project resumed in May this year. Garcia has seen U.S. Border Patrol, Colombian, and Israeli security forces conducting training in counter-insurgency and anti-terror tactics in Mexico, for the ramp-up of this project.

“We may think of refugees as poor and ignorant, but they were powerful enough to challenge the system with the caravans,” Garcia adds, emphasizing that, like himself, many refugees don’t want to be here, they have to be here.

The border wall
At the border wall, BorderLink’s Dunlap put Garcia’s “south of the border” information into context with a “north of the border” chronology of militarization. The U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924, the same year as the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act that included the Asian Exclusion Act and National Origins Act. These federal laws prevented immigration from Asia, set quotas on immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, and provided funding and an enforcement mechanism to carry out the longstanding ban on other immigrants.

“There are overlaps between the criminalization of immigration and incarceration,” Dunlap said. “The first southern border wall [beyond a fence] went up in 1994. The founding of the modern era border enforcement came that year with the North America Free Trade Act. NAFTA’s worldwide trend toward neo-liberalization was to lower barriers to trade. People would benefit and be hurt on both sides.” Big agribusiness in the United States and North Mexican industrialists benefited. Nogales became an industrial boomtown. Those who suffered were the U.S. industrial working class and southern Mexican subsistence farmers. With the U.S. export of subsidized corn to southern Mexico, farmers’ way of life collapsed, spurring migration.

“Everyone planning around NAFTA on both sides knew the effects,” said Dunlap. “The U.S. Border Patrol gathered on a national scale to create the Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994, a plan of prevention through deterrence,” Dunlap continued. The strategy was to cut off easy access points, like official border inspection points (i.e. Nogales, Arizona/Nogales, Sonora) by saturating enforcement there. “This pushed people to cross in more dangerous terrain — to deter or die. There are an estimated 3,300 to 8,000 known deaths [in the Arizona desert],” he said, referencing a Humane Borders map (www.humane

From 2001, “internal checkpoints on every paved road [from the border] in southern Arizona [total of 10] to stop all northbound traffic to establish U.S. citizenship are a legal loophole in the Constitution Free Zone.” The Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) doesn’t apply within 100 miles of the external borders. While previously, migrants would cross the border illegally and wait for contacts to pick them up and drive to the interior, Dunlap explained, with the border creeping north, illegal crossers must cross desert wilderness beyond the checkpoints, a minimum of 25 miles as the crow flies.

“Border Patrol technology allows them to see illegal crossers,” said Garcia. “But they don’t capture them at that moment. They track them for two to three days. When they see they are sick or out of water, then they raid, then send them back to Mexico where they’ll think twice about crossing again.”

“Imposing a high human cost has been a success,” said Dunlap. The current Nogales “iron wall” was added in 2012, he said. The U.S. Southern Border Plan of 2014 began the militarization at the border to enforce immigration laws.

The Mexican Chief Consul General in Nogales, Arizona, Ricardo Santana, and his staff hosted the delegation to share positive government data about Mexico. Addressing the migration issue, he noted that currently “those crossing are others. There are more Mexicans going back to Mexico because the economy is growing.” Consular Protection Department staff noted that of the 1,500 waiting in Nogales, Sonora, that day, 501 were Cuban. Others included Venezuelans, Hondurans, El Salvadorians, Guatemalans, and Africans, including 372 children. Santana said Mexico is offering temporary immigration status and work permits to those waiting on the other side, but most only are interested in reaching the United States.

Addressing the consequences
During the return trip to Tucson, attorney Goldman explained that legal immigration visas for permanent residency are available for family reunification, but are backlogged for many years. There is a Diversity Immigrant Visa known as the “green card lottery” established in 1990. This year the country has 18,000 visas for the 26 million refugees in the world. Non-immigrant visas for temporary residence are available, with restrictions, for tourists, for work, study, culture, religion, advanced degrees, trade, and seasonal labor.

Asylum provides protection to those who demonstrate they are unwilling or unable to return to their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The right to seek asylum is an international law adopted by the Geneva Refugee Convention and incorporated into the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980. Most of the migrants sheltering in Tucson are asylum-seekers. “Less than 10% of Mexican asylum cases are approved,” said Goldman. “The mass majority of immigration judges come from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement backgrounds.”

Operation Streamline is a 2005 joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice that adopts a “zero-tolerance” approach of criminal prosecution for anyone caught crossing the border without authorization.

Goldman said that in federal court, the state-provided prosecutors are generally former ICE attorneys. When the group visited U.S. Federal Court, 30 illegal, non-violent crossers at a time entered, in handcuffs and shackles. The court-provided attorneys each had met with about four clients over a three-hour period prior to the hearing, one of the attorneys told trip delegate, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron. All defendants had agreed in advance to plead guilty and be deported. The young Jewish attorney also told Aaron, “We almost have to be sadistic to do this job.”

The next group of about 30 defendants had previously crossed illegally, which became a felony charge, plus the misdemeanor charge for the recent crossing. They each had the felony dismissed by pleading guilty and were sentenced to 30 to 180 days of incarceration for the misdemeanor charge.

Participants were disturbed and moved by what they had witnessed. “It’s a factory,” said group participant Barry Kirchner, a practicing attorney, and chair of the museum board. “Pleas were accepted in less than 30 seconds. Most were captured yesterday. But with proper and lengthy advisement, the outcome would probably have been the same.”

The Catholic Community Services Casa Alitas migrant shelter in the Pima County Sheriff Office Juvenile Detention Center facility was the last trip stop. The newly established facility, in the long chain of shelters the organization has operated since about 2016, was bright, cheery, and airy. Retired Protestant minister and shelter volunteer Delle McCormick welcomes asylum seekers dropped off at all hours of the day and night by Border Patrol and ICE. Most are families or single parents with children. She said the shelter had processed 18,000 migrants since January. The daily operation provides everything, literally from soup to nuts — clothing, travel snacks, meals, and transportation to the bus station or airport — for the migrants, provided by local volunteers and donations. The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council has raised $85,000 in donations to supply underwear, shoes, backpacks, and food.

Lastly, participants convened with organizers to make recommendations for future paths to address a collective Jewish community response to the issues learned during the day. Those suggestions will be forthcoming, Davis said.

Seed funding for this trip and ongoing community collaboration is provided by supporter and mobilizer Stanley Feldman and community donations.