Daily Dispatch 2/19/2020: The Camps and States of Exception

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Daily Dispatch

February 18, 2020

Today is the Day of Remembrance. It was on this day in 1942 that Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. 

The order authorized the secretary of war and any military commander designated by him “to prescribe military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The order does not mention Japanese Americans by name. As a result of this order, some 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were removed from the West Coast, most to inland concentration camps. Public Law 503, enacted a month later, allowed federal courts to enforce the military orders resulting from EO 9066.

Executive Order 9066 was the culmination of decades of abuse targeting Japanese immigrants and their citizen descendants, especially on the West Coast. Immigration from Japan had been suspended, along with other Asian countries, in 1917. Japanese immigrants were not allowed to naturalize and become citizens of the United States until 1952. In California they were even denied the right to purchase land. The detention of Japanese Americans was thus not simply a response to war, but rested upon a long history of exclusionary practices targeting Asian immigrants. 

Densho is an organization committed to recording the history of the U.S.detention of Japanese Americans, and keeping that history ever present as a warning about the consequences of racism and nationalism. This week, as part of the commemoration surrounding the Day of Remembrance, Densho is joining immigration activists in demonstrations at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. From Densho:

The Day of Remembrance, Day of Action at NWDC commemorates the 78th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, and the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans that followed. Today, thousands of immigrants and refugees are confined in similar concentration camps. They are subjected to inhumane conditions, family separations, threats of deportation, and countless indignities.

The Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, WA is one of the largest immigration prisons in the country, with a capacity to hold up to 1,575 immigrants per day. Up to 200 people, many of whom are seeking asylum, are transferred from the US-Mexico border to the NWDC each month. Other people held at the NWDC have lived in the US for years, in some cases for the majority of their lives. While some are deported after only weeks, some are held for months and even years, awaiting the outcomes of their deportation cases. Few legal protections apply to these civil detainees, and those held are not entitled to an attorney at government expense; approximately 90% of them move forward in their cases unrepresented.

As survivors and descendants of Japanese American WWII incarceration, we stand united with all those who have suffered the atrocities of U.S. concentration camps, past and present, to say, “Stop Repeating History!”

The internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during the war is emblematic of the structural contradictions of the modern state system, and the foundational concept of sovereign power expressed within the confines of defined borders. Our tendency is to view the power of sovereignty through parallel concepts of the rule of law and/or constitutional order that strictly define the limits of sovereign authority. However, political theorists (with disparate commitments) like Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt and Giorgia Agamben have argued that sovereign power is perhaps better evidenced by the authority to declare “the exception,” or those places where the rule of law is suspended. Agamben argued that this state of exception had become so commonplace as to be the fundamental rule of the modern state. “This is a condition that [Agamben] identifies as one of abandonment, in which the law is in force but has no content or substantive meaning—it is ‘in force without significance.’” We live at the whims of rulers who declare exceptions at will.

Today, on this, the anniversary of the executive order that brought a new generation of concentration camps to the United States, we can see the parallel states of exception being carved out around the world to contain migrants. Millions of people today live in spaces where they have been pushed outside the protections of the rule of law.

Last year Trump declared that people seeking asylum in the U.S. would be forced to “Remain in Mexico” for the duration of their case. What is life like in this state of exception? From the Guardian:

A score or so migrants crouch in the dark corridor of the safe house where they have been waiting for a month. Today, their turn has come to go back on the road again – not across the US border, however, but deeper into Mexico, to save their skins.

Outside, a minivan pulls up, driven by Baptist pastor Lorenzo Ortiz to take the migrants to relative safety, and away from kidnap, extortion and violation.

This is Nuevo Laredo, in the north-west corner of Tamaulipas state, opposite Laredo, Texas, the world’s busiest commercial trans-border hub. The people waiting to board the van have already crossed into the USA, but have been sent back under the Trump administration’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols – known as “Remain in Mexico” – whereby would be asylum seekers must await their appointed hearing south of the border.

MPP was rolled out in January last year, since when an estimated 57,000 people now wait south of the border for their asylum hearing date. Tens of thousands more are waiting just for the initial application for asylum.

These are the faces behind statistics in a shocking report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which found 80% of migrants waiting in Nuevo Laredo under MPP to have been abducted by the mafia, and 45% to have suffered violence or violation.

The door of the safe house opens and blinding sunlight beckons those awaiting, as does Pastor Ortiz, who arrives across the border from Laredo each morning to take a vanload to the larger city of Monterrey, Nuevo León.

There can be no tarrying, explains another local pastor, Diego Robles, from the First Baptist church. “If they walk to the corner of the block,” he says, “they’re likely to be kidnapped.”

Robles knows the risk he runs. Last August, criminals approached Aarón Méndez, a Seventh Day Adventist managing another shelter nearby, demanding he hand over Cubans in his care, whose relatives in the USA might pay high ransoms for their release.

He refused – and has not been seen since, joining the 50,000 disappeared in Mexico’s undeclared war since 2006.

This is the policy of the United States, working with the government of Mexico. Both are constitutional democracies, with clear rules and obligations for the treatment of migrants. Both are signatories to international agreements mandating humane treatment of migrants, including guaranteed access to asylum processes. Both are now placing people in a state of exception to those laws, where they are abused, and many will die.

But the United States is not alone. Across the Atlantic, the European Union has similarly declared a state of exception for migrants – 20,000 of whom live in a refugee camp in Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos

Before reaching the refugee camp’s main entrance, you turn off the road where the police bus is always parked, then walk up the track that runs beside the perimeter fence. You walk past the military post and the hawkers selling fruit and veg, trainers, cooking utensils, cigarettes, electrical equipment – pretty much everything; past huge stinking mountains of bagged-up rubbish – so much rubbish; and past the worst toilets in the world, overflowing with excrement and plastic.

Then, opposite the hole in the fence where people who don’t want to use the main gate come and go, you turn right, into what they call the Jungle, the olive groves into which the camp has exploded, because it was meant for 3,000 people and now has 20,000. Continue along the winding path, watching out for low-slung washing lines, past the burnt-out olive tree and the tiny tent with the family who always say hello, then turn left up the steep hill that becomes a muddy slide after rain. 

Most of the refugees in this camp come from Afghanistan, where the United States has been blowing up houses for 18 years now, though many more are fleeing other conflicts from Syria to Myanmar. Sam Wollastan, writing for the Guardian, visited the camp in order to find some signs of hope – to paint a different picture than the one of constant despair typically projected (a quick review of article titles about the camp at Moria showed most use the adjective “hell” as the main descriptor). He tries – and indeed, there are signs of hope in the very fact that people are trying to build a life in the camp, amidst the violence and utter lack of resources. Within the camp, people organize classes, on everything from the English and German languages to guitar. And yet, outside the camp, Greek nationalists protest their existence and demand the camp’s removal — a reminder that Trump is part of a global reactionary force. Other islanders have embraced the refugees, and provide what assistance they can — a reminder that humanity also still has a chance. 

Wollastan’s article is framed around his visit to a library launched by one of the camp residents. His name is Zekria. Wollastan reaches out to him to clarify some details on the story to find that Zekria has since fled the camp:

Fearing deportation, he and his family managed to get to mainland Greece, where they are staying in a squat. “It’s cold, there is no electricity, it is the life of refugees,” he says. “I hate the fucking politics of the world.”

He has no money left and will try to find informal work, then perhaps try to cross a land border into Albania or Macedonia. The library and the school in Moria are fine, he says. The team is running them; he is in touch regularly. “I have to go,” he says. “We will speak later, my friend.”

I hate the “fucking politics” of the world too. Moria and Nuevo Laredo stand as indictment to the fictions we continue to weave about the sanctity of the state and the sacrament of nationhood. We’ve been here before. 

Never Again Means Now.

If you would like to support the Franciscan Network on Migration, which provides shelter for migrants crossing through Mexico, we are now their fiscal sponsor. You can donate here.

Want to speak out to end the police that is keeping people trapped in Mexico? Veronica Escobar (TX-D) has introduced legislation to defund remain in Mexico and work to extend protections to asylum seekers more generally. The Asylum Seeker Protection Act (H.R. 2662) has 63 co-sponsors. Check to see if your member of Congress is one of them here. If not, call and ask them to co-sponsor the bill!

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Daily Dispatch 2/18/2020: Fear and Loathing and SWAT-like teams

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Daily Dispatch

February 18, 2020

Last time BORTAC units were in the news – seizing Elián González from his uncle’s home in Miami, Feb 2000.

Trump seems to forget that he is president of the United States – the whole thing. Sadly, most of us are not free to forget this. In any event, Trump’s administration now seems set to go to war against large urban areas that are not cooperating sufficiently (in his mind) with his immigration crackdown. 

The New York Times reported on Friday that the administration would be sending Border Patrol Tactical Units (BORTAC) to “sanctuary cities” to begin rounding up “illegal” immigrants. The scale of the operation is not so grand as the announcement – 100 agents, which will include regular CBP personnel as well as BORTAC units. It is reminiscent of Trump’s announcement last year that he would begin rounding up “millions” of immigrants, which quickly, upon fact checks, came only to several thousand people with removal orders and known addresses in 11 cities. That major operation never happened, though 143,000 immigrants were arrested last year (a decline from annual averages during Obama’s years, by the way, for those who long for “better” times). What did happen was the spread of fear throughout immigrant communities over several weeks – as people stayed close to home or did not go out at all for fear of arrest and separation from family. The fear was probably the point back then and is, no doubt, the main point now. The big guns and fancy SWAT gear help.

If one is surprised by this, a quick reminder that Immgration and Customs Enforcement was in the news last year for building training sites modelled on Chicago neighborhoods as well as communities in Arizona. The sites were for their Special Response Teams (SRT). The training sites were located at the Office of Firearms and Tactical Programs’ (OFTP) Tactical Operations Complex (TOC) at Ft. Benning (which is a huge base, where lots of things happen, but perhaps not coincidentally, where the U.S. military has trained Latin American counterparts and police to more or less undermine democracy when they get back home).

So, brace yourself for the alphabet soup of acronyms: ICE was training SRTs at the TOC of the OFTP last year, and now CBP is deploying BORTACs to work side by side with ICE’s office of ERO and possibly ICE SRTs as well. 


Anyway, Sanctuary Cities are one of Trump’s favorite targets for ridicule and condemnation. As such, sanctuary cities have been the target of the administration’s fog of war (lies). Sanctuary cities are crime ridden, we were told. Not true, relatively safer – though probably not for reasons having to do with sanctuary. The administration apparently had discussions about sending people picked up at the border to sanctuary cities as retaliation. Actually, most people go to the so-called sanctuary cities anyway, once they are released, because they are some of the largest cities in the country (New York, Los Angeles, etc).

Sanctuary itself is not very well defined. Most “sanctuary” cities have refused to cooperate with some aspect of ICE enforcement operations, typically this simply means not holding people in jails beyond their scheduled release time for ICE, absent a judicial warrant. It can also mean not using city facilities for detention at all. Or in some cases, not sharing identification databases with ICE. In many cases, these sanctuary policies pre-date Trump, though one impact of Trump’s war on immigrants is to encourage more localities to identify as sanctuary jurisdictions. One of the cities on Trump’s list, Houston, is not a sanctuary city at all. While the city’s government has been generally supportive of the immigrant community here, Texas’s legislature has made “sanctuary cities” illegal in the state. If Houston is on the list for enforcement, it must be for the optics of these operations rather than retribution.

While it is possible the main point of these announced operations is to generate fear (more than actual detentions), enforcement operations will still take place. (They always do.)

As the administration has essentially blocked the border using, well, most of Mexico to do so, there has been concern that the administration will expand internal removal operations in the coming months to generate publicity for his re-election bid. He seems convinced that draconian enforcement measures are good for his re-election chances. 

Which means 10 more months (at least) of grand-standing and outright lies about immigration and immigrants.

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Daily Dispatch 2/14/2020: Targeting civilians, 75 years since Dresden

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Daily Dispatch

February 14, 2020

Aerial view of Dresden following allied bombing

This week marks 75 years since the allied bombing of Dresden. The bombing of Dresden led to at least 25,000 civilian deaths, including many internally displaced Germans who viewed the city as safe – there were no military targets there, and it had been left alone for most of the war. Among the dead were also allied prisoners of war being held in the city. The experiences of prisoners of war during the bombing was immortalized by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the survivors, in his novel Slaughterhouse 5. So it goes.

The bombing of Dresden was part of a larger campaign of “terror bombing” aimed at German cities. Between 1943 and 1945, 600,000 civilians were killed in bombardments on German cities, attacks that were explicitly aimed at terrorizing the civilian population in order to break the will of the German people. Royal Air Force commanders were very clear about the motives. 

The Dresden bombing shocked the world’s conscience. Churchill, not known for outpourings of compassion, was appalled by the savagery of the attack, calling it “an act of terror and wanton destruction.” After seeing photographs of the devastated city, the prime minister asked, “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” In a top secret memo dated March 28, 1945, he wrote:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.

Others defended the bombing. “Butcher” Harris acknowledged that “the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were fully justified.” However, he asserted that terror bombing would “shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers.” Harris infamously added: “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British grenadier.”

Three weeks after the bombardment of Dresden, the United States would unleash the largest bombardment in human history on Tokyo. Over 100,000 civilians were killed in three days of “fire-bombing” in March of 1945. As with Germany, Japan was in retreat, the end of the war was coming. Indeed, by the fall of 1944, Allies had already been plotting the post-War future, penning agreements at Bretton Woods for the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank of Reconstruction and forging the United Nations at Dumbarton Oaks.

By August, with Japan seeking a peace agreement, the United States dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people immediately, and untold numbers in the coming years as the result of radiation poisoning. It was argued that the bombings were justified to bring about the end of the war and save allied lives. This assumes that the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender was just, or worth any means necessary to achieve. Japan was surrendering – and Truman knew it. As Guy Alperivotz argued in Atomic Diplomacy, written in late 1965, as documents from that time were first becoming declassified, the target of the bombings was in some sense the Soviet Union, in essence a demonstration of the military strength of the United States.

Of course the nationalist regime in Japan had engaged in massive violations against civilian populations in China and elsewhere, and Nazi crimes are well known. The siege of Stalingrad alone led to the deaths of over 2 million people, civilians and combatants. Nearly 70 million civilians died in World War II. 

We seem to have never looked back from this destruction. During the Korean War, the U.S. military strafed columns of refugees fleeing south to prevent communist infiltration. During the Vietnam war, U.S. bombardments of Hanoi and surrounding areas obliterated the region and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The secret bombing of Cambodia created a massive refugee crisis inside the country and fomented the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

We live in the wake of this horror. The invasion of Iraq, for example, led directly to the deaths of at least 100,000 civilians, indirectly (through collapsed infrastructure, polluted water, and so on) closer to 1 million.

Elsewhere, war has proven equally deadly. From the Watson Institute’s Cost of War project:

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries. As of November 2019, 335,000 civilians in these countries have died violent deaths as a result of the wars. Civilian deaths have also resulted from the US military operations in Somalia and other countries in the U.S. war on terrorism.

People living in the war zones have been killed in their homes, in markets, and on roadways. They have been killed by bombs, bullets, fire, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and drones. Civilians die at checkpoints, as they are run off the road by military vehicles, when they step on a mine or cluster bomb, as they collect wood or tend to their fields, and when they are kidnapped and executed for purposes of revenge or intimidation. They are killed by the United States, by its allies, and by insurgents and sectarians in the civil wars spawned by the invasions.

Death can also happen weeks or months after a battle. Many times more Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis have died as a result of battered infrastructure and poor health conditions arising from the wars than directly from its violence. For example, war refugees often lose access to a stable food supply or to their jobs, resulting in increased malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.

There are 70 million people displaced by violence in the world today. 

Four days ago the President submitted a budget request that would give the Pentagon $740 billion. This is roughly equal to what the rest of the world combined spends on their militaries. Congress will likely agree. 

And when people come fleeing the bombs we drop with that money, we will shut the door on them. 

So it goes.

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Daily Dispatch 2/13/2020: No Way Out: New Report from Doctors Without Borders; read and take action!

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Daily Dispatch

February 13, 2020


Skip ahead if you want to take action to support migrants right now!

Last week we wrote up a news summary that highlighted the increasingly grave situation that non-Hindu’s and political opponents face in India under the Hindu nationalist BJP. We also discussed the number of people from El Salvador who had been killed following deportation from the United States – most within a year of return, often in the very conditions that were recorded in their asylum claims (for those who had filed). The theme was that asylum seekers are not lying, and making it nearly impossible to safely access asylum processes in the United States means people die.

For those who are following the dismantling of asylum that has taken place under Trump – and working to push back against it – Médicins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (hereafter MSF) has issued a must-read report this week on the violence that people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are facing at home. The report, No Way Out: The Humanitarian Crisis for Migrants and Asylum Seekers Trapped  Between the United States, Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America is available here.

The report is based on interviews of 480 Central American refugees accessing MSF clinics in Mexico, in addition to the review of medical records of 26,000 other migrants. Summary statistics from the report. 

On violence in home countries (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala):

— 61.9 % of the migrants and refugees interviewed by MSF had been exposed to a violent situation in the two years prior to leaving their home country.

Almost half (42.5 %) of those interviewed reported the violent death of a relative in the last two years, 16.2 % had a relative who was forcibly disappeared, and 9.2 % had a relative kidnapped.

— Of those interviewed, 35.8 % had been threatened for extortion, 26.9 % had been victims of some kind of assault, and 5 % had been victims of torture in the two years prior to leaving their country.

— Of those interviewed, 45.8 % mentioned at least one event involving exposure to violent situations as a key reason for deciding to migrate. The most frequently reported violence-related reasons were direct assaults on themselves or their families (20.8 %), extortion (14.9 %), other threats (14.3 %), attempted forced recruitment by gangs (10.5 %), and confinement (5.5 %). People traveling with children more often reported leaving on the grounds of violence (75.8 %).

More than a third (36.4 %) of the migrants and refugees who mentioned that they had fled due to violence had initially been internally displaced for the same reason.

— Of the migrants and refugees interviewed, 52.3 % had already tried to migrate at least once before. Of these, 82 % had been deported at least once before.

— Of the 2,353 people who received a mental health consultation in MSF clinics in El Salvador between January 2018 and September 2019, 62 % had suffered from exposure to violence as a precipitating factor; 23.3 % of all cases were related to intentional physical violence (assault, rape, or torture).

MSF also reports on the extreme amount of violence that migrants face trying to cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border – where so many are now trapped.

— Of those interviewed, 57.3 % had been exposed to some kind of violence along the migration route through Mexico.

— During their transit through Mexico, 39.2 % were violently attacked and 27.3 % were threatened or extorted.

— 5.93 % reported witnessing a death after entering Mexico; in 17.9 % of cases the cause of death was murder.

— Of the 3,695 people who received MSF mental health consultations at health care posts for the migrant population in Mexico between January 2018 and September 2019, 78 % had suffered from exposure to violence as a precipitating factor. With regard to the type of violence to which they had been exposed, 24.7 % presented risk factors associated with intentional physical violence (assault, sexual violence, and torture).

— In the first nine months of 2019, the number of sexual violence cases (277) treated by MSF in Mexico more than doubled —increasing by 134 % compared to the same period last year (118).

— Eight out of every 10 people (79.6 %) treated by MSF in Nuevo Laredo during the first nine months of 2019 reported being victims of violence. 43.7 % of patients said they had experienced violence in the seven days prior to their consultation.

— 18.6 % of the people seen in our mental health program in Nuevo Laredo between January and September 2019 had been victims of kidnapping, and 63 % of those said they had been abducted in the seven days prior to the consultation.

— In September 2019, out of 41 patients in Nuevo Laredo who were returned to Mexico by the US under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), 418 had been kidnapped recently (43.9 %) and an additional five patients (12.2 %) had been the victim of an attempted kidnapping. In October, the percentage of kidnappings among those sent to Mexico under the MPP program increased to 75 % (33 of the 44 new patients).

From the press release announcing the report:

Recent US policies and bilateral agreements reached with Mexico and other regional governments are effectively dismantling the system to protect refugees and asylum seekers. These measures leave Central Americans with nowhere to turn for protection and no viable way to escape the violence.

Insecurity, pervasive violence, and the lack of adequate protection mechanisms have clear impacts on the physical and mental health of the patients treated by MSF. Teams see conditions commonly suffered by people on the move, such as respiratory infections, skin disorders, and acute musculoskeletal problems.

They also treat a range of injuries from weapons and from kidnappings, sexual abuse, and rape. Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress conditions precipitated by a violent event are some of the main reasons why people seek mental health services.

“These policies to block people from asylum and send them back into danger have worsened the humanitarian crisis in the region,” said Marc Bosch, who oversees MSF programs in Latin America. “The US and Mexico must end these policies and governments of the region must put people at the centre of migration policies.”

“The US and Mexican governments must ensure that victims of violence have access to humanitarian assistance, health services and protection,” said Bosch. “All people, regardless of their legal status, deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Take Action!

The Quixote Center is working with the Franciscan Network on Migration, which provides support for migrants traversing Mexico. The network includes the shelter La 72 Casa de Migrantes in Tenosique (MSF works here, among other spaces in the country), and a shelter in Mazatlán. Quixote Center is serving as fiscal sponsor for fundraising activities for these initiatives in the United States. If you would like to support this work, you can do so here.

You can also take action to demand Congress defund the Remain in Mexico policy – Trump has requested $126 million more this year. Congress must tell him “No”!!!!

Veronica Escobar (TX-D) has introduced legislation to defund remain in Mexico and work to extend protections to asylum seekers more generally. The Asylum Seeker Protection Act (H.R. 2662) has 63 co-sponsors. Check to see if your member of Congress is one of them here. If not, call and ask them to co-sponsor the bill!

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 Daily Dispatch 2/12/2020: Administration going after sanctuary jurisdictions again

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Daily Dispatch

February 12, 2020

Attorney General William Barr

Yesterday the Attorney General, William Barr, announced lawsuits aimed at “sanctuary” laws in cities and states that limit local cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Barr announced the lawsuits at an annual gathering of Sheriffs in Washington, D.C., saying, “Today is a significant escalation in the federal government’s efforts to confront the resistance of ‘sanctuary cities.’ We will consider taking action against any jurisdiction that, or any politician who, unlawfully obstructs the federal enforcement of immigration law.”

The laws in question are: A Washington state policy that does not allow Seattle Airport to be used for deportations. A New Jersey law that limits information sharing between ICE and local law enforcement. And a California law that bans the use of private prison companies for the detention of immigrants. None of these laws obstruct federal enforcement of immigration laws. They do, however, limit state participation in federal enforcement activities based on well documented patterns of abuse by these federal agencies. 

These laws also reflect the increasing patchwork of state and local ordinances that have evolved in response to Trump’s hyper-polarization of immigration policy. So, New Jersey and New York City limit information sharing between local law enforcement and ICE; Texas and Florida require local law enforcement’s cooperation. Immigration is the partisan marker of the day, and Trump is leaning in on this further as the key component of his re-election strategy.  As King County, Washington, Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement. “We are already actively engaged in an administrative process with the FAA to resolve our differing interpretations. The Trump administration and Attorney General Barr chose to circumvent this work for the sake of grabbing headlines.” 

As I am writing, Lawrence City in Kansas is considering its own set of sanctuary laws. In Lawrence, as is often the case, the local police department supports the ordinance. The reasoning in a police department memo on the new ordinance is consistent with what other police departments have argued across the country. Immigration enforcement is not their responsibility. Requiring local law enforcement to participate in enforcement activities hurts their relationship with the community, undermines trust, and ultimately makes communities less safe. According to the memo

The need for community trust and cooperation is an essential component of effective policing and public safety. In Furtherance of this principle, victims and witnesses of crime should not be the focus of immigration inquiries and should be encouraged to cooperate in the reporting and investigation of crime. To encourage reporting and cooperation in the investigation of criminal activity, all individuals, regardless of their immigration status, must feel secure that contacting or being addressed by members of the law enforcement will not automatically lead to immigration inquiry and/or deportation.

This reasoned statement of the need for community cooperation with law enforcement can be set against Trump’s statement during the State of the Union address last week. From CNN:

“Tragically, there are many cities in America where radical politicians have chosen to provide sanctuary for these criminal, illegal aliens,” Trump said. “In sanctuary cities local officials order police to release dangerous criminal aliens to prey upon the public, instead of handing them over to ICE to be safely removed.”

The reality is that cities are simply releasing people who have served their sentence. Even in so-called sanctuary cities, officials will hold people if an actual judicial warrant is presented. The problem is that ICE doesn’t do this. They issue administrative warrants, or detainers, for people, who may or may not be in violation of an immigration status. Indeed, as we reported yesterday, they are not particularly careful – leading to 6% of detainers being mistakenly issued against U.S. citizens or people who have no removal order in place. ICE is sloppy. Does this mean that people might be released who then commit a second crime. Sure. It can happen. The point is that such recidivism is not a function of immigration status. If federal authorities have reason to believe someone is a threat, they need to do what law enforcement is supposed to do. Request a proper warrant. Turning local law enforcement into immigration law enforcers backfires in their communities. While law enforcement officials are not of one mind about this, certainly many do not want to be put in this position. It makes it harder for them to do the job they are supposed to be doing. The administration’s irresponsible rhetoric serves one purpose, and that is to scare people and try to win elections doing so. 

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Daily Dispatch 2/11/2020: Defund Trump (i.e. Hate)

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Daily Dispatch

February 11, 2020

Trump presented his proposed budget yesterday. $4.8 trillion. If budgets are, as claimed, a moral statement of priorities, Trump’s moral compass is pretty clearly pointed toward Wall Street’s investment bankers. He proposes cutting food assistance (SNAP), child healthcare (CHIP), MEDICAID by huge numbers (almost a trillion dollars over 10 years!) while giving the military another record breaking $740 billion and adding $2 billion for wall construction along the border with Mexico. Along the way there are ideas not horrible – infrastructure spending, for example, is necessary, and depending on how done, could even represent a bit of foresight. But that is juxtaposed against extending the 2017 tax cuts, alongside assumptions about economic growth that bend the arc of reality – e.g., assuming an average 3% growth rate over a ten year period. Hmmm. 

In any event reception was predictable. The chair of the Senate Finance committee won’t even hold hearings on the budget, because, what’s the point. And this guy is a Republican. Which is to say the budget is largely an electoral set piece, as it will likely never be a governing document. That said, the Democrats will no doubt give in on military and other “security” measures, cuz they do that kind of thing historically (like just six weeks ago), and especially in an election year. Which brings us to the particular focus for this blog post: The budget’s impact on immigration policy.

As noted, the budget includes $2 billion for border wall construction. Just so we are all clear – never, ever, under any circumstance, to be repaid by Mexico. Right?

But wait, Mexico is sort of building a wall for Trump, using, well most of the country to deter, deport, and incarcerate people migrating (or trying to) to the U.S./Mexico border. Among the horrible budget features is $126 million for the Remain in Mexico policy, which could never happen absent acquiescence from Mexico’s government.

The budget also includes a 25% increase for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with a goal of detaining a daily average of 60,000 people. It also includes a significant boost to Customs and Border Protection. Congress really, really needs to say no to all of this.

The Defund Hate Coalition, of which we are a member, issued the following statement yesterday on Trump’s budget:

“For his final budget proposal before the election, the Trump administration is clear on its core motivations: a wholesale, hate-fueled attack on immigrants. In the four years Trump has put forth his annual budget proposal, he has requested a cumulative total of $36.4 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and $72.1 billion for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These totals are on top of the billions of dollars in additional funding he’s called for over the years through supplemental and transfer requests and the billions he stole last year with his ‘national emergency’ declaration.

These taxpayer dollars translate into the separation of loved ones and families, the detention of thousands in abusive and deadly immigration jails, and the degradation of thriving communities nationwide. This year’s budget proposal is shamefully no different. Trump is once again asking Congress for billions to fund his hate-fueled attacks on immigrants — it is a blueprint of terror.”

Trump’s FY21 budget calls for:

  • $10.4 billion for ICE (a $2 billion or 24 percent increase from FY20). This includes another massive increase to the abusive and deadly immigration detention system, funding ICE to jail 60,000 people daily in 2021, hiring 2,844 new ICE agents, and a $2.3 billion increase for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
  • $18.2 billion for CBP ($800 million increase from the FY20 level). This includes nearly $2 billion for 82 miles of southern border wall construction, hiring 750 new Border Patrol agents, and $201.6 million for surveillance technology and equipment that will further militarize the border region.
  • $126 million for the Migrant Protections Protocol (MPP), the Trump administration’s program to force asylum seekers to remain in dangerous conditions in Mexico while their cases are being processed.

The harm that this budget represents is also seen in the massive budget slashes to the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Education. We want our taxpayer dollars invested in critical education, housing, green infrastructure, nutrition and health care programs that support families and create thriving communities that enhance our collective well-being — not on terrorizing immigrants.

Many of our representatives claim they care about immigrant communities while simultaneously voting to fund aggressive immigration enforcement, border barrier construction, and deadly immigration jails. Members of Congress must fight to protect the immigrant community from deportation by rejecting Trump’s budget proposal, and instead call for significant cuts in funding to ICE and CBP and meaningful restrictions on their authority to reallocate funds Congress appropriates.”

The #DefundHate campaign, composed of organizations representing directly impacted communities, faith leaders, and civil rights and immigrant rights advocates, is committed to divestment from agencies that tear apart our families and terrorize our communities. 

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Daily Dispatch 2/10/2020: Big Data is watching….

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Daily Dispatch

February 10, 2020

Remember that time you downloaded a game to your cell phone and gave it (or the people behind it) permission to view your location (as well as all of your contacts and media)? “Certainly this solitaire game doesn’t need to know where I am”, you tell yourself; it must just be some default permission thingy (in tech speak). Well, if you don’t know you should – if the app is free, you, or your personal information, is actually what is for sale in the transaction. 

Enter Venntel. It is just one of the companies who make money off of the data accumulated from millions of people downloading games and other apps to their phones. How? They sell your location data. One of their customers is the Department of Homeland Security, specifically Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol. From Vice:

The federal government purchased access to a database that tracks millions of cell phones and is using the data as part of its ongoing crackdown on undocumented immigrants, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Department of Homeland Security began purchasing location data in 2017 from Venntel, a Virginia-based company which markets itself as a “pioneer in mobile location information,” according to the database of federal contracts. Since then, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has purchased $190,000 in Venntel licenses and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has spent over $1 million on the company’s products.

This is not a huge amount of money as government contracts go, not comparable to the $15 billion received by Palantir, for example. But it is emblematic of the way that government agencies can purchase personal information, as though they were just another vendor, and get around privacy protections. Sort of the tip of the panoptic iceberg.

Notably, ICE was reportedly first given access to the data for usage in anti-human trafficking and drug smuggling efforts, but later began using the data to carry out deportations. The agency wouldn’t confirm or deny that.

“We do not discuss specific law-enforcement tactics or techniques, or discuss the existence or absence of specific law-enforcement-sensitive capabilities,” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told the Journal.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that cellular data obtained from wireless carriers requires a warrant under the 4th Amendment. But by purchasing the data from firms such as Venntel like any private company would, the data has been approved for usage by government lawyers, according to the Journal.

DHS is using data purchased from private companies to engage in law enforcement operations: What could go wrong?

Well…this. You may have heard that ICE issues “detainers” when it is notified by local law enforcement that someone has been arrested. If ICE can match that name to a profile in their database, they request that the person be detained by local law enforcement, not released after they have served their sentence. Trump is currently at war with New York City and Denver, for example, over these cities’ refusal to detain people for ICE unless a real warrant issued by a judge is presented. 

One of the problems is that the databases employed by ICE are not very accurate. Last year, more than one out of every twenty people for whom ICE issued a detainer were either U.S. citizens, or someone for whom there was no actual removal order in place. Not a great record of accuracy. Last week a Federal Court stepped in, following a suit by the ACLU, to stop ICE’s use of these databases for detainers. From ABCNews:

The ruling applies only to the Central District of California, where state law already sharply limits the extent to which state and local law enforcement agencies can honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the district encompasses ICE’s Pacific Enforcement Response Center in Laguna Niguel, which makes requests around-the-clock to law enforcement agencies in 42 states and two U.S. territories.

The ruling, issued Wednesday, applies even if ICE moves the operation from Laguna Niguel, south of Los Angeles.

U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles said the databases are unreliable for people who are not already deported or in removal proceedings before an immigration judge. The best way to confirm legal status is through an interview, immigration records or other documents, he wrote.

But wait. What if the government doesn’t need its own massive, often inaccurate databases, but rather it can simply purchase information from companies that do this stuff for a living and make a killing do it? Easy. The blurring of these lines – between private databases and government use of that data for enforcement purposes absent warrant is the civil liberties challenge of the future – Big Data-Brother, if you will. Alexa doesn’t need to work for the FBI, for example. You’ve already waived a “reasonable expectation of privacy” by inviting her into your home. And what intelligence is gleaned by her is up for sale (or can be).

If a particularly innovative entrepreneur were to say, build a system where multiple databases and surveillance systems could talk to each other, making it possible to create a virtual dragnet for the purpose of tracking people, and sell that to the government, this would be….well it would be Palantir.

Palantir’s CEO Alex Karp is one of many pseudo-liberal tech gurus, who talk progressive values in passing as they defend their cooperation with the government to construct systems that brutalize people. Palantir’s involvement in helping set up ICE operations has been well known for some time – after all they get huge contracts for doing so, which are public records. For the same amount of time, Karp has denied that his systems are used to deport people or separate families. He’s been lying about this for years, or rather, he has been disingenuously playing a verbal shell game to deflect criticism. (Nah, he’s been lying).  Karp’s main line of argument is that the contract is with Homeland Security Investigations, not Enforcement Removal Operations – which are the two main divisions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But his hiding behind the “complexity” of the relationship is a thin defense:

As recently as December, Palantir denied it played any role in family separation by again claiming that it only worked with HSI, not ERO. Even if that were true, it would still be involved in family separation: it has been clear since 2017 that ERO regularly uses Palantir’s technology for its deportation operations.

In any case, HSI is intimately involved in deportations and workplace raids, according to none other than the head of HSI. Under Trump, workplace raids have not only quadrupled but grown larger as Palantir’s technology enables larger dragnet operations that arrest dozens or hundreds of people at once.

In 2018, ICE made nearly ten times as many immigration arrests at workplaces than the previous year. Under Derek Benner, head of HSI, the strategy of targeting “illegal employment” became integral to the agency’s mission.

The most well-known example of a workplace raid enabled by Palantir’s technology might be the series of Mississippi raids that arrested 680 people in one day. Families were torn apart by those raids, which detained and deported parents. In just one example, two children were left alone for eight days after ICE arrested both of their parents during the August 7 raids. To this day, parents arrested in that raid are still detained.

Yet another example can be found in documents released in May 2019 that showed Palantir technology was used in ICE operations targeting unaccompanied children and their families. During the 2017 trial program described in the documents, 443 people were arrested.

Edward Ongweso Jr, writing for Vice’s Motherboard, concludes:

By seemingly refusing to make a choice and appeal to vague notions of “complexity,” Karp is making a choice—to preserve and strengthen ICE’s reign of terror. Karp is actively empowering an agency and administration to pursue racist policies and expand its scope at the cost of children and their families. 

The same could be said for dozens of tech companies, prison companies and the whole network of private firms getting rich from U.S. immigration policy. This has been the case for some time – but Trump is definitely helping their bottom lines more than earlier presidents.

Many times it is said that there is a trade-off between security and freedom. The reality is that there are people selling technology for enhanced security and politicians selling security to constituents. In the course of everybody moving a little product to further their careers or corporate ambitions by instilling fear, peoples’ lives are destroyed. It may be that the trade off is really between convenience and freedom. We’re just encouraged to be too scared to notice. After all, it is not our freedom on the line…yet. 

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Daily Dispatch 2/7/2020: Land of the Captive

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Daily Dispatch

February 7, 2020

Over the past couple of years, my husband and I sponsored two asylum-seekers in our home for a total of 6 months.  Prior to living with us, our guests had been held at two large detention facilities run by the two largest private detention corporations in the country.  We talked a bit – but never too much – about situations in immigrant detention. In these conversations, what I learned was how the point of immigrant detention seems to be isolation and the breakdown of social cohesion.

Mostly, it seemed there were a lot of arbitrary rules meant to keep people apart. 

One day, we brought home a jigsaw puzzle because they are a guilty pleasure of mine – an almost mindless thing to do that brings order in a world that often seems fragmented. Jigsaw puzzles are joint projects and yet can be worked on individually. Puzzles are good, too, it turns out, because they can distract the mind suffering from the effects of trauma. 

It turned out that our house guest – let’s call her Raquel – really enjoyed puzzles too. In fact, she completed one of our puzzles along with us, finishing it while we were at work. When we asked her about it, she told us that puzzles were permitted in detention but that they posed a special challenge. You could only work on a puzzle in a single day. When the last participant left the room, the puzzle had to be put away, so it was impossible to ever complete a 1,000 piece puzzle they had been working on, given the other constraints of their schedule. 

One day, they resolved to make a go of it. As early as they could get up, they went to the room, and they came and went in shifts, working steadily throughout the day. At the end of the day, they had made more progress than ever, but the puzzle still was not complete. On that day, the guard took mercy on them and let them leave the puzzle out, defying an arbitrary and ridiculous rule in an act of human kindness. The next day, for the first time, they were able to finish the puzzle with time to spare, an accomplishment that had previously been foreclosed to them. 

This is what community is about – being able to build something together over time through shared effort and initiative. And so it is obviously the opposite of everything that detention stands for. Detention follows the model of removing people from the body politic – stripping them of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, if not of life itself. This disarticulation of the social body is, of course, the point of detention and of nearly the entire immigration enforcement apparatus in which we find ourselves implicated today. And such disarticulation is part of a larger system that has worked to disenfranchise, imprison, and otherwise separate persons of color from the body politic since the nation’s founding.  

Last week, with the DC Detention Visitation Network, I visited a detention center, the Worcester County facility in Snow Hill, Maryland, which houses around 180 detainees under a contract with ICE. Although much of the coverage that we read about ICE detention focuses on the for-profit prison industry, which houses well more than half (estimates range from 60-73%) of the detained immigrant population, the majority of actual sites are county and local jails with much smaller populations. For what it’s worth, such facilities cost less and conditions seem better for detainees, since there is no profit motive interfering with good treatment of the human beings in the care of the county officials. 

My conversations with four men on a recent visit were pleasant enough. They didn’t have any truly damaging complaints to make about their care, although the food and the beds could be better. Their lengths of stay varied substantially, from a few months to nearly two years. As one of my interlocutors commented, the main problem is not the living conditions. His expectations with respect to shelter and food did not tend toward luxury anyway, so the facts of uncomfortable mattresses and institutional food are not major impediments to his happiness. 

Rather, he is impacted by the biggest loss for most people in detention – his personal freedom. 

This tradeoff is one that many immigrants face in our country today. They must choose between a country of origin where their lives are threatened by violence – whether political or personal, gang or structural – and one where their liberty is not a given, the United States, which fails to live up to its moniker of being a “land of the free” every time it imprisons an immigrant. 

What we can learn by visiting our neighbors in detention is the concerns and the realities of people who were our valued community members one day and were thrown behind bars the next for having the wrong paperwork. (This is why the term “undocumented” is more accurate –  because the offenses of the vast majority of migrants in detention and deportation proceedings amount to administrative infractions.) 

It is natural to ask, “How should we feel about all of this?”

A first response might be overwhelmingly sorrowful at the detention of human bodies after so much previous trauma and loss.

Beyond that, we might feel anger at those who created this system and live off the wages of sin. And perhaps, remorseful for our own complicity in that system we pay for with our taxes.

But finally, I have decided to feel hopeful that those of us who want to see the body politic enriched by the diversity of humanity can come together to heal and prevent the further dismemberment of our society caused by the capture, separation, and expulsion of some of us to the diminishment of the whole. 

Together, we need to work to become this better body politic. I maintain that this goal will be best achieved not by scattering our community members to all the corners of the earth or locking them away in separate boxes but through the creative process of bringing many distinct individuals together into a more perfect union.

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Daily Dispatch 2/6/2020: Asylum seekers are not lying

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Daily Dispatch

February 6, 2020

Cover of Human Rights Watch report – read here

Asylum seekers are not lying. The Trump administration has gutted the asylum process in the United States on the assertion that most asylum seekers are trying to game the system. His administration has attacked the bases for seeking asylum (restricting asylum for those fleeing gang or domestic violence, or threats to family members), detained tens of thousands of people for extended periods of time while their asylum claims are processed, and has forced nearly 60,000 people to wait in Mexico for asylum hearings that take place in tents with judges thousands of miles away, and in which less than 1% are granted asylum. He is now denying asylum to people who cross through a third country before arriving at a U.S. border, and has begun sending asylum seekers (regardless of where they are from) to Guatemala – one of the least safe countries in the hemisphere.

But asylum seekers are not lying; they are not mostly trying to game the system. They are fleeing conditions that are dangerous, and seeking safety here in United States.

Below we discuss a report issued yesterday by Human Rights Watch about people deported from the United States to El Salvador who were killed upon their return. We also highlight an article about the emergence of Hindu Nationalists (not a new phenomenon, but now firmly in power) and the recent dramatic increase in asylum seekers from India.

Human Rights Watch: Deported to Danger

Human Rights Watch issued a report yesterday showing that many people who are deported back to El Salvador end up raped, murdered or tortured. Though impossible to track every case, based on press reports and court filings, HRW was able to identify 138 people who had been murdered since 2013 following their deportation from the United States. They also documented over 70 cases where people deported had been raped, tortured or suffered other harm on return. All of these numbers are undercounts. The information is difficult to track and certainly sexual violence is severely underreported in El Salvador, as it is in most countries. 

110,000 people were deported to El Salvador from the U.S. between 2014 and 2018. The mortality rate demonstrated by these numbers is well above the current murder rate (just over 20 per 100,000 recorded YTD in November 2019) – an even higher than the peak rates recorded in 2015 and 2016. In many cases, HRW was able to track the cause of death to conditions claimed in asylum requests. Some examples:

  • In 2010, when he was 17, Javier B. fled gang recruitment and his particularly violent neighborhood for the United States, where his mother, Jennifer B., had already fled. Javier was denied asylum and was deported in approximately March 2017, when he was 23 years old. Jennifer said Javier was killed four months later while living with his grandmother: “That’s actually where they [the gang, MS-13 (or Mara Salvatrucha-13)] killed him.… It’s terrible. They got him from the house at 11:00 a.m. They saw his tattoos. I knew they’d kill him for his tattoos. That is exactly what happened.… The problem was with [the gang] MS [-13], not with the police.” (According to Human Rights Watch’s research, having tattoos may be a source of concern, even if the tattoo is not gang-related).
  • In 2013, cousins Walter T. and Gaspar T. also fled gang recruitment when they were 16 and 17 years old, respectively. They were denied asylum and deported by the United States to El Salvador in 2019. Gaspar explained that in April or May 2019 when he and Walter were sleeping at their respective homes in El Salvador, a police patrol arrived “and took me and Walter and three others from our homes, without a warrant and without a reason. They began beating us until we arrived at the police barracks. There, they held us for three days, claiming we’d be charged with illicit association (agrupaciones ilícitas). We were beaten [repeatedly] during those three days.”  

The broader conditions described in the report demonstrate the grave insecurity facing so many in the country. There have actually been more disappearances recorded in the decade from 2010-2019, than were recorded during the civil war (1978-1992) – almost 11,000.

Death squads are still operating in El Salvador as well

UN agencies, human rights observers, the press, and government all acknowledge that death squads and extermination groups still operate in El Salvador today. Three individuals interviewed for this report, all of whom were gang members but told us they left the gang prior to their deportations from the United States, expressed their fear of these groups to Human Rights Watch. Often, when these cases are described by journalists in press accounts, the assailants are described as “men wearing black” or men “wearing military or police-style” uniforms; victims are sometimes described as blindfolded, with their hands and/or feet tied behind their backs.

Gang violence is a well known source of violence. However, the police are also responsible for considerable violence. From the report:

In 2019 alone, the Central American University Human Rights Institute received seven reports of elite Salvadoran police units burning victims. For example, in March 2019, Tactical Operation Section agents beat, strangled, blindfolded, and handcuffed a 20-year-old man in a sugarcane field in Apopa municipality whom they suspected of gang membership or hiding weapons or drugs, and set fire to the field where they left him unconscious. He emerged from the fire with burns to his face and feet. Victims or witnesses of eight arbitrary arrests in two incidents in 2019 and late 2018 told Human Rights Watch of beatings at police barracks.

In August 2019, the Lethal Force Monitor reported that Salvadoran police and soldiers killed 1,626 people from 2011 through 2017, including 48 boys, four women, and 355 men in 2017. Authorities recorded every year more than 92 percent of victims as gang members and nearly all incidents as “confrontations” or “shootouts.” However, also in August 2019, the PDDH reported that it had examined killings of 28 boys, seven women, and 81 men and found few resulted from confrontations.

The report does a good job over providing an overview of U.S. immigration policy and its impacts on asylum seekers from El Salvador. The list of recommendations for steps needed to support the rights of those seeking aslyum include: end the Migration Protection Protocols (“remain in Mexico”), end the Asylum Cooperation Agreements that are sending people seeking asylum to Guatemala (and eventually will include El Salvador and Honduras), end prolonged detention within the U.S. for those who have established a credible fear of persecution or torture, and pass legislation that codifies international obligations into U.S. domestic law regarding asylum.

There is little discussion in the report of U.S. support for El Salvador’s police and military, historically or in the current period. Certainly any future assistance to either should be blocked until there is an end to police arbitrary killings and the numerous reports of cooperation between police, local officials and gangs is investigated.

Asylum seekers from India on the rise

We have been reporting about five men (now three) who have been on hunger strike since October. The men are asylum seekers from India. One has been deported, another released last week. Three remain on strike and in detention in Jena, Louisiana.

In recent years the number of people seeking asylum from India has increased dramatically, parallel to the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which is in firm control of the country’s government now.

After migrants from Latin America, more Indians are detained at the US southern border than citizens of any other country. 2018 (the last year for which figures are available) saw the highest number of detentions ever recorded: nearly 9,000 Indians were caught by the border patrol, a dramatic increase from a decade before when only 77 were caught.

As they make their journey halfway around the world, Indians face the same dangers as other migrants do: they risk rape, robbery and death on the border – a six-year-old Sikh girl died while crossing the Arizona desert in mid-June. And the dangers persist when they reach American soil: five Indian asylum seekers have been on hunger strike for more than 90 days to protest at being held in a Louisiana Ice detention centre, and two of them have been force-fed.

Earlier this week, the Guardian ran a profile of conditions in India, and the situation of asylum seekers trying to get relief in the United States.

Migration is driven by a host of causes, but many US immigration lawyers say the rise in undocumented Indian migration is linked to the ascent of the BJP – and the sectarian violence the party has inspired.

“If you look at when this uptick began, it really stems from when the BJP came into power,” said Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration lawyer who frequently works with Indian asylum seekers.

Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, vigilante violence by militant Hindu nationalists in India has surged. As many as 90% of religious hate crimes in the last decade took place after Modi was elected, according to Factchecker.in, an Indian group that tracks religious hate crimes.

Victims – often Muslims, low-caste individuals and other minorities – have endured forced conversions, fatal beatings and even lynch mobs. Extremist groups have attacked fellow Indians suspected of stealing or slaughtering cows, which are sacred in Hinduism. These vigilante Hindu groups killed at least 44 people between May 2015 and December 2018, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.

People around the world are on the move, fleeing violence or simply searching for opportunity and security. The numbers are increasing every year now – over 70 million currently displaced around the globe. The response in many places has been weaponized identity politics, mobilized by nationalists, like Trump, like Modi, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, and neo-fascist parties in Greece, France and elsewhere. Alongside this response, are efforts to craft new international agreements on migration to protect the rights of people. Some days it feels like a race to see which side will win – at the moment, the side for humane treatment for people forced to migrate seems to be lagging behind. 

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Daily Dispatch 2/5/2020: #SOTU: The image is our reality

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Daily Dispatch

February 5, 2020

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tears up her copy of President Trump’s s State of the Union address. Alex Brandon/AP

In case you missed it last night, Trump announced that the United States is now the greatest country on earth, indeed the greatest country that ever was, never any better, not in any era. I mean it’s HUGE. This greatness was achieved in just three years, due to his singular efforts to lift us all from the grips of an American “carnage” of widespread government regulation overseen by a sort-of-socialist who might have been born in another country. 

Never a better president. Ever. Certainly among the top three presidents who have faced impeachment.

Meanwhile the Democrats are trying to figure out how to read partial results from a delegate distribution system that no one seems to understand. Iowa was supposed to narrow the field and begin the process of slowly unifying the party behind a candidate. I guess that’s New Hampshire’s job now. Pelosi was seen ripping the results apart last night (or was that a speech?) In any event, confusion reigns.

And then there is the great acquittal we are all waiting for with bated breath. Some time today the Senate will do what everyone has known they would do since the entire discussion of a possible impeachment – for any reason – first emerged sometime in January of 2017. Oh the anticipation. 

I am nerdy enough to have a favorite Marxist (or is that Marxian? yeah even nerdier than you thought!) political theorist. Currently Guy Debord has replaced Antonio Gramsci on my list. There is a logic to that segue. 

Guy Debord, you may know, wrote a book 50 or so years ago called The Society of the Spectacle. It is a maddening mess of propositions about “the spectacle” as a metaphor for the emerging mass consumer culture of capitalism, obsessed as it was/is with image and advertising. People are starting to take another look at Debord in more recent years, because his diagnosis seems even more accurate today than it might have been back in 1967.

For example, the “book” begins with this: 

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

And then, a few passages later, this:

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

Heady stuff. Debord was largely riffing on long established themes in Marxist/Marxian political thought concerning the function of alienation in a capitalist society. But his particular focus on the “image” as a mediating force – standing between us and reality, and indeed, taken for reality – sums up the debacle social media has made of politics today. Facebook is sort of the pinnacle of mystifying and dividing the world where we actually live into niches for the marketing of values and politicians, vacation hide-aways and “low-T” treatments. Debord was talking about a different world – but he describes the current one pretty well.

Basically, Trump is the first social media president. He was made on Twitter and Facebook, and may well be re-elected on Twitter and Facebook. No amount of fact-checking will tilt the scales. He pretty much lies about everything. It doesn’t matter. Politics has always been much more about perception than any agreed upon set of facts anyway – and, thus, the ability to spin information into tight little ideological sound bites is more important than any analysis. That dynamic, coupled with social media’s necessarily decontextualized, abbreviated reliance on images, has been a disaster. I think most of us understand that the world we actually live in today almost never meets the world we debate on Facebook, or watch on cable news (through carefully curated clips on YouTube). 

We might shake our heads at policy pronouncements and foreign policy decisions announced on Twitter. But these tweets will dominate the news cycle. Who tweeted in response? What did they say, in 280 characters or less? Did they “own” the President with a witty take down? Does it matter? Sadly, yes. Apparently.

And the opposition? Shredded a speech on stage. The take down, call out culture of social media now dictates political strategy. It will be a viral image to be sure, but also vacuous conceptually, ready to be spun endlessly: Social media magic.

So, if you are a refugee, asylum seeker, or simply someone who is looking for a more secure living for your family, you’re done. Because you are no longer any of these things in political terms. You are simply a symbol in someone’s tool box. An image to be rolled out as a stand in for a point of view. In short, a re-presentation of “the problem.” 

Trump talks about immigration by showing us victims of violence. He talks about arresting “criminal aliens,” and gives us a stream of decontextualized “facts” that don’t mean what he says they mean. (The most common arrest leading to “criminal removal” proceedings is for traffic violations). We know that Trump has done the least of any recent president to remove traffic violators (and other criminals). And has, instead, used his authority to dismantle every authorized path to immigration that exists. No to refugees. No to asylum seekers. No to family members of U.S. citizens. No to people who can’t demonstrate the means to purchase medical insurance (without defining what the “means” are). No to people who do everything right, except they put a dash or “N/A” in a field on their visa form that did not apply to them, instead of writing, “this does not apply to me.” No. No. No. There is no “doing things right.” No line left to stand in. 

People are dying because of this president’s immigration policies. They are forced to live on shit-strewn streets in makeshift tent cities at the border, because the “image” of a Border Patrol agent who loves his country is more powerful than the image of 10,000 refugees trapped in Ciudad Juarez after seeking asylum in the United States.

And we cheer for shredded paper. GTFOH

Welcome to the actual State of the Union. 

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