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We Can’t Stop the Horrors of Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Unless We Reckon With Obama’s Role

As Trump threatens sweeping raids, it’s important to remember how we got here.

BY Roqayah Chamseddine

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The liberal impulse to absolve the Obama administration of responsibility in order to sanitize the former president's record collapses in the face of what we know happened inside the facilities Obama oversaw.

The makeshift encampment outside of the McAllen Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas—an overcrowded slum where asylum seekers are forced to sleep on the ground outside in piles within a narrow compound fence—is a harrowing example of the institutional brutality at the heart of border policing and immigration control. Those fitting the national security state's classification of “illegal alien” are subjected to violent administrative detention processes and a myriad of enforcement procedures intended to discourage unauthorized border crossings, including family separation. And now they face Trump's renewed threat to unleash sweeping deportation raids this weekend. Trump’s spectacular crackdown—while an escalation—is not new: These abuses are an enduring legacy of the Obama presidency, which—along with previous administrations—laid the groundwork for the policies being condemned today.

Targeting aid workers

The Obama years saw Arizona's notorious SB 1070, as well as the federal prosecution of humanitarian worker Dan Millis who provided water, food and first aid supplies for migrants (Millis was cleared of wrongdoing). In 2013, border patrol agents were caught on camera destroying water jugs, stealing blankets and intentionally sabotaging other supplies left out for migrants. The Obama administration, which spent an astounding $18 billion on border enforcement the previous year alone, took no action to stop this treachery. The same year border patrol agents were caught obstructing aid supplies, there was a violent confrontation at San Ysidro during which border patrol agents pepper sprayed migrants who were accused of rushing across the border. According to available Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data, between 2012 and 2016, border patrol agents were using pepper spray an average of 1.3 times per month.

Longstanding immigration policy aims to punish not only those who fit the state's classification of “illegal other,” but those offering reprieve, including clergy members and human rights advocates. This trend has escalated under the Trump administration: No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren is being retried after a jury refused to convict him for supplying two migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert with clean clothes, food and beds. If convicted, Warren faces 10 years in prison. Amnesty International describes the state's targeting of advocates like Warren as “politically motivated legal harassment” that flouts both U.S. and international law. Amnesty's report also argues the unlawful surveillance watchlist of journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders compiled by the Department of Homeland Security has a chilling effect on humanitarian relief.

Displacing and imprisoning people

The criminalization of aid workers stems from the profound dehumanization of immigrants themselves. Sophia E. Gurulé, a staff attorney for the immigration practice of the Bronx Defenders, represents indigent people detained during their deportation proceedings. She tells In These Times that in September of 2018 she witnessed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorney refer to a person as a “barbarian” during a bond hearing to justify that person's continued incarceration and family separation. “When the State employs racists like this, it shows their true motivations: to police, incarcerate and deport Black and brown people no matter the devastation they inflict on families,” she says. “We cannot repeat their racist rhetoric and perpetuate this dehumanization.” 

Gurulé describes a deportation apparatus that mirrors the oppressive criminal justice system: People are detained for what is the equivalent of “pre-trial detention,” and they are imprisoned due to poverty, she notes. In 2018, immigration judges routinely set median bonds at $7,500, which means that donating to bond funds is crucial, Gurulé says, to “help liberate people from jails so they can fight for their right to stay in the United States with the immediate support of their family, friends, community and legal services.”

Brenda Valladares, volunteer organizer with immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha, has witnessed first-hand the impact of immigration policies on immigrant communities. Valladares, who spent a month walking with the migrant caravan from Ciudad de México to Tijuana, tells In These Times that Trump arrived during a period when Central American nations, specifically Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, are going through profound internal political turning points, causing more children and mothers to flee. In Honduras, the deep-rooted history of U.S. exploitation of the people and the land includes a direct role in 2009 coup. In Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed “contra” war against the Sandinista government unleashed a torrent of horrors, from kidnappings and torture to rape and widespread executions.

Caging children

The rise in the number of women and children attempting to cross the border during the Obama administration was labeled a “humanitarian crisis” by media outlets and lawmakers. In 2014, during a CNN-hosted town hall event, Hillary Clinton talked about sending a clear message to this vulnerable community: “Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.” At the time, Vox writer Dara Lind said Clinton's proposal would “mean ending asylum as we know it.” Obama made family detentions a cornerstone of his response to displacement from Central America, defying criticisms from immigrant organizations, mainstream human rights groups, and the U.S. government’s own Commission on Civil Rights.

The Obama administration's practice of family detention escalated under Trump to become family separation, while the number of child migrants in detention has climbed, arguably playing a role in the rising death toll among children. “This means that [some] detention centers that were created to inflict torture and trauma to a demographic of mostly men, are now being used against women and children as well. Children cannot endure those same conditions,” Valladares says.

With Donald Trump at the helm, there has been a greater public focus on the conditions of children and mothers. Yet there is a glaring failure to examine the violence against men, including those with criminal convictions and migrating workers, which has resulted in the suppression of the largest demographic in the detention population. According to Valladares, this negligence has allowed for their detention and deportation to be permissible. “This is something the Obama administration did a lot,” she says. “They excused the 3 million deportations by saying that they were 'criminals.' The label continues to be used today, even though the reason why people are getting criminal charges is for doing things that have been intentionally criminalized to increase the number of deportations.”

Valladeres emphasizes, “We need to challenge this bad and good immigrant narrative.” 

A culture of violence

The liberal impulse to absolve the Obama administration of responsibility in order to sanitize the former president's record collapses in the face of what we know happened inside the facilities Obama oversaw. Between January 2010 and September 2017 there were 1,224 sexual abuse claims “primarily about incidents that took place in ICE custody,” as The Intercept reported. Documents published by CBS News reveal that from October 2014 to July 2018, 4,556 sexual abuse complaints were reported to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the organization in charge of overseeing unaccompanied migrant minors. In 2014, as deportations surged, a hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington began. At its peak there were 1,200 women taking part in the strike, according to strike supporters, hoping to draw attention to deportations, living conditions and abuse they faced at the hands of ICE agents. In one jarring case a border patrol agent confronted a 15-year-old high school student named Jahveel Ocampo, threating her with rape, according to a complain filed by the girl: ““Right now, we close the door, we rape you and f*** you. If you cooperate with us, we can deport you to Mexico. Otherwise, we will take you to jail and deport your entire family.” This was in 2009.

While they received far less attention, these atrocities were no secret. In an interview with Democracy Now!, undocumented immigration activist Maru Mora-Villalpando said at the time that the Obama administration had criminalized migrants and decided to “vanish” undocumented people from the country. The American Civil Liberties Union published a report based on more than 30,000 pages of government documents that include allegations of child abuse, neglect, denial of medical services and physical abuse dating between 2009 and 2014—what the ACLU describes as “a federal immigration enforcement system marked by brutality and lawlessness.” The Obama administration's “felons not families” campaign and explosive deportation policy culminated in what advocates described as a “culture of cruelty,” where abuse in detention was commonplace and reached the level of torture. 

Despite these facts, historical revisionism prevails. Writing for Salon earlier this month, Amanda Marcotte referred to the election of Donald Trump as marking “the end of the treat-migrants-like-people era,” claiming that the Obama administration was requiring Border Patrol agents to “treat detained immigrants like human beings.” This narrative of a kinder, gentler immigration system having existed under Barack Obama is likely the reason viral photographs showing children in cages—taken during Obama’s tenure—being quickly misattributed to Donald Trump, even by establishment figures like Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. 

Since Trump has been in office, there have been 26 known immigrant deaths at adult detention facilities, but children in CBP custody have not been spared. Carlos Hernandez Vázquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan teenager, was the fourth to die after being interned by CBP. The facility in McAllen, Texas where Carlos was held is described by The New York Times as “a giant open warehouse [with] chain link fencing separates groups of people.” And where there are deaths inside cages, there are deaths near the border. The remains of 127 asylum seekers were recovered in southern Arizona last year alone thanks in part to the efforts of volunteer organization Águilas del Desierto, or Eagles of The Desert, whose members comb scorched terrain for hopeful signs of the missing, and the remains of the dead. In Falfurrias, Texas, an hour's drive to the nearest border crossing, forensic anthropologists uncovered 52 burial plots filled with the skeletal remains of migrants. Bones were found inside trash bags and shopping bags, and some not in any bags at all. In the last 15 years alone, at least 700 have died passing through due to dehydration and heatstroke. As border militarization continues, with bipartisan support, there will be more bodies in the desert.

Fighting back

Reaction to border atrocities is not all hand wringing. In 2015 Jennicet Gutiérrez, activist and founding member of La Familia: Trans Queer Liberation, interrupted an ornamental Pride Month event at the White House to demand that Barack Obama “release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” Gutiérrez was heckled, booed and thrown out, but not before Obama made his disdain clear: “You're in my house,” he said. “Shame on you.” 

Speaking to In These Times, Gutiérrez argues that in order to understand what is happening under the Trump administration, “people in our communities need to understand what was happening under the Obama administration. Part of the accountability must include that under Obama, close to three million people were deported. It is the highest number of deportations of any administration in U.S. history.” 

Gutiérrez, who is also an active member at the national political organization Mijente, says that at the time of her White House protest it was difficult to get people to understand that the Obama administration was complicit in these human rights abuses because of the widely held belief that he was on the side of immigrant communities. “[Campaigns like #Not1More] are ways to hold Democrats accountable and remind them that we will never forget the harm, pain, and terror they created in our communities,” Gutiérrez underscores.

The Trump era has seen its own share of protests, many of which are focused on highlighting the systemic nature of the U.S. policy on immigration.

Sophie Ellman-Golan, Never Again Action (NAA) organizer, tells In These Times that Jewish activists are doing just that. Motivated by border atrocities, 102 activists associated with NAA have been arrested thus far, with the possibility of further arrests to come. “Imprisoning people in concentration camps, vilifying and rounding up people who are deemed 'outsiders,' and turning away asylum seekers and immigrants hits close to home for Jews,” Ellman-Golan says. “We’ve seen this before, and we won’t wait for it to get worse to take action.”

Eli Valley, writer, artist and author of Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, explains that the language used by organizations like NAA shows a blend of Jewish values and consciousness that so many have wanted to see in action. “It's amazing to see it emerging on the streets in a spontaneous manner, sometimes by people who had never before found an outlet to express [these values], filled with the ferocity of history and memory during the current crisis.” 

Valley, whose artwork has challenged leading Democrat figures on their response to the immigration crisis and their own capability in perpetuating it, argues that “while Republican Leadership bears the brunt of the blame for deliberately exacerbating a crisis into actual crimes against humanity, Democratic leadership has not put up nearly enough fight, and has not marshaled the full scope of its powers since winning the House, against an administration adamant about pursuing policies of ethnic cleansing.”

Trump's zero-tolerance policy is a ruthless continuation of existing U.S. protocol, which allows for this administration to lavish in the cruelty of an immigration system that is designed to brutalize. But Donald Trump was right about the warehousing of immigrants and the tools he inherited. The cages were already built.


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Roqayah Chamseddine is a writer, researcher, and host of the Delete Your Account podcast. Her work has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, ELLE Magazine, Splinter, Overland Journal, among others.

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