Interview with Immigrant Rights Activist E.J. Esperanza on the Meaning of the Border Wall Agreement
(reprinted from the February 2019 issue of The Organizer newspaper)
[Note: The following interview with E.J. Esperanza, an undocumented organizer with the Immigrant Liberation Movement (ILM) in the San Francisco Bay Area, was conducted by The Organizer newspaper on February 12, 2019 — two days before President Trump announced that he would sign the Congressional agreement on the spending bill, to avoid another government shutdown, while also declaring a national emergency to secure more funding for the border wall. See front-page editorial on the political and Constitutional crisis opened with the Trump declaration of the national emergency.]
The Organizer: Tell us about the most salient developments today in relation to the struggle for immigrant rights.
E.J. Esperanza: There are two matters that are important right now. One is the tentative compromise around extended government funding beyond February 15, which is the government deadline for temporary funding reached last month. This includes more funding for the wall and for more detention centers inside the United States. It’s a tentative agreement that impacts border enforcement and separation of families within the United States.
The second matter to discuss is the Trump administration’s unprecedented policy of denying asylum-seekers the right to enter the United States and avail themselves of a legal process that they’re entitled to by keeping them on the other side of the border in Mexico while their claims are pending.
The Organizer: Let’s deal with the first point: the meaning of this tentative agreement and the issue of government funding.
E.J. Esperanza: Initially there was a breakdown of negotiations regarding the amount of detention beds. The question of interior enforcement and detention centers has been, probably for the first time in many years, at the forefront of the debate.
It’s important to understand that bipartisan bills for Comprehensive Immigration Reform under the Obama administration called for increased funding for detention beds. So there is nothing different about the tentative agreement reached today. This tentative agreement provides funds for 40,000 detention beds.
The Democrats, it appears, are framing this as a victory because it supposedly decreases per-night bed space by 17%. But their claim is misleading, as the current Congressional funding for detention bed space is already at 40,000 people. What Democrats are getting at is that the Trump administation has been moving funds around to be able to detain an unprecedented number of people, up to 48,000 to 49,000 — which is the highest rate that the country has ever seen — even though the Congressional funding remains the same.
In a nutshell the status-quo is family separation and the minimum of 40,000 people on any given night in a detention center, even though these people have not posed any actual threat to national security or to the community. This is the same political cover that the Obama administration used to ratchet up support for increased immigrant detention.
There has been a Congressional quota in effect since 2002 in relation to the number of detention beds. This issue of quotas is important because, essentially, it incentivizes ICE to go after immigrants, regardless of whether or not they pose any threat or have violated any immigration laws. It creates a one-way incentive for large-scale family separations.
The other item that is included in the funding is $1.375 billion in border security. This will fund 55 miles of border barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. This, too, is not something new. The Democrats have supported the militarization of the border for many years. More funding for “border security” and more funding for detention has been commonplace in past bills for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
We are talking about 55 more miles of a border where there are already tremendous human rights violations. By increasing that barrier, immigrants are going to have to pursue more difficult routes and, as we all know, this will lead to more deaths at the border.
This is a very scary prospect, and the scariest thing of all is that it will probably be framed as a success for the “resistance” of the Democrats.
So we have to mobilize and say that any funding for DHS and ICE is funding for family separation, detention, and continued onslaught against the most vulnerable sector of the working class, which are the immigrants and asylum-seekers. It’s funding that will lead to more deaths at the border. It’s funding that’s immoral and inhumane.
The second thing that is happening at the border is that for the past few weeks the Trump administration has continued to deny asylum to the people who the U.S. government, through its foreign policy, has displaced from their communities and their countries. This includes, for example, U.S. direct involvement in the coup d’etat in Honduras in 2009. It also includes involvement in economic displacement through the destruction of the economies of Mexico and Central America by “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA. The U.S.-promoted crisis in Venezuela, with an attempted coup and likely U.S.-backed military intervention, is another example of U.S. imperialist foreign policy.
The U.S. government is at the origin of the migration crisis. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to prevent those people from availing their right to asylum at the port of entry. In fact, Trump has enacted a policy that will keep asylum-seekers in Mexico while their appeals are pending in the United States.
As you can imagine, this raises the issue of how these asylum-seekers will be able to contact people who can enable them to fill out their claims. But it also raises the question of their safety; many, in fact, fear continued persecution. Many others are forced to remain in their countries of origin — the very countries from which they are fleeing from violence and persecution — while they appeal for asylym. They are facing threats, including death threats, from the cartels.
But on this issue, too, there is time to push back and fight these inhumane policies.
The Organizer: Is there anything you would like to add?
E.J. Esperanza: Yes. I would like to add something in relation to the struggle to abolish ICE. This slogan, which has been embraced by many Democratic Party politicians, means nothing if you continue to fund these heinous policies at any level.
We must call for defunding ICE and defunding DHS! We must call for zero dollars for detention beds and zero dollars for the border wall!
It’s going to take people power to push back.