Witness: I Am On the Refugee Caravan and Saw the Tear Gas Attack. Here Are Our Demands.

A conversation with Milton Benítez, Honduran activist and host of the popular television program El Perro Amarrillo.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco and Sarah Lazare

Central American migrants and refugees run along the Tijuana River near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana,Baja California State, Mexico, near US-Mexico border, after the U.S. border patrol tear gassed them on November 25, 2018. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sun­day, the Unit­ed States fired tear gas on asy­lum seek­ers — includ­ing chil­dren — at the San Ysidro cross­ing between San Diego and Tijua­na. In the days since, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has dou­bled down on its vio­lent stance on the south­ern border.

There aren’t words to describe that moment when tear gas was used to attack a human wall asking for the possibility of applying for asylum.

Pres­i­dent Trump has smeared the refugees as stone cold crim­i­nals,” while Cus­toms and Bor­der Patrol Com­mis­sion­er Kevin McAleenan hit the media cir­cuit to defend the attack. On Mon­day, Home­land Secu­ri­ty Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen made the out­ra­geous — and base­less — asser­tion that chil­dren are being used by refugees as human shields,” echo­ing rhetoric used to jus­ti­fy Israeli attacks on Pales­tini­ans. NPR report­ed Wednes­day that Trump is expect­ed” to extend the deploy­ment of active-duty U.S. troops — who now have per­mis­sion to use lethal force against refugees — into next year, rather than with­draw­ing them in December.

In the face of this onslaught, asy­lum seek­ers — pri­mar­i­ly from Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries — are not giv­ing up. They are mobi­liz­ing behind a series of demands call­ing on incom­ing Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Unit­ed Nations and the U.S. gov­ern­ment to take imme­di­ate action to stop the vio­lence, halt arbi­trary depor­ta­tions and pro­tect the human rights of migrants at all times.” Many of those demand­ing entry into the Unit­ed States come from coun­tries that have been torn apart by U.S. poli­cies, from enforc­ing free trade to back­ing right-wing gov­ern­ments — includ­ing the 2009 coup in Hon­duras. That coun­try has since seen a dra­mat­ic esca­la­tion in vio­lence against labor orga­niz­ers and indige­nous activists.

In These Times spoke with Mil­ton Benítez, a par­tic­i­pant of Hon­duran social move­ments and host of the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion pro­gram El Per­ro Amar­ril­lo, who wit­nessed Sunday’s tear gas attack. Benítez, who was named by the car­a­van assem­bly as one of its nego­tia­tors with the UN in Mex­i­co City, explains that many refugees are expe­ri­enc­ing deep sad­ness because they came from repres­sive coun­tries only to be con­front­ed with a high­ly mil­i­ta­rized coun­try, throw­ing tear gas from helicopters.”

While some have returned home, he says, many asy­lum seek­ers remain — and are call­ing on peo­ple through­out the Unit­ed States to protest and demand that refugees are allowed entry.

In These Times: Describe the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s tear gas assault on asy­lum seek­ers in Tijua­na. What hap­pened and how are peo­ple doing now? What is the cur­rent mood among those seek­ing asylum?

Mil­ton Benítez: There aren’t words to describe that moment when tear gas was used to attack a human wall ask­ing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of apply­ing for asy­lum. It made the peo­ple lose the last bit of trust they had in the UN. On pre­vi­ous occa­sions, the exo­dus had asked to be rec­og­nized as a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis. But nev­er­the­less, there has been silence.

The peo­ple are now in stu­por and shock. Some peo­ple even start­ed to leave Tijua­na on Mon­day and return to Hon­duras. The migrants didn’t imag­ine that Unit­ed States would con­tra­dict its laws. I think that gen­er­at­ed a deep sad­ness, because they came from repres­sive coun­tries only to be con­front­ed with a high­ly mil­i­ta­rized coun­try throw­ing tear gas from helicopters.

These were scenes we were able to, as a media out­let, record in the moment — when they were throw­ing the tear gas from the heli­copters, and also just toss­ing tear gas grenades. All of this exposed peo­ple to a very pre­car­i­ous health sit­u­a­tion. I don’t have the words to describe that kind of col­lec­tive pan­ic. The peo­ple were fenced by a cur­tain of tear gas that came close to endan­ger­ing the lives of children.

In These Times: Many of those seek­ing entry to the Unit­ed States come from Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries that have been torn apart by U.S. poli­cies — for exam­ple, U.S. sup­port for the coup in Hon­duras. Can you explain why this group of peo­ple is seek­ing entry into the Unit­ed States?

Mil­ton Benítez: The absence of the oppor­tu­ni­ties exac­er­bat­ed the lev­els of vio­lence. Let’s recall that Hon­duras has been vic­tim of extrac­tive pol­i­tics that the Unit­ed States, Cana­da and Europe imple­ment­ed. Like­wise, free trade agree­ments like the Free Trade Area of the Amer­i­c­as and the Cen­tral Amer­i­ca Free Trade Agree­ment are all linked to the cor­rupt gov­ern­ments in our area. By the way, three days ago, Anto­nio Hernán­dez, the broth­er of the Hon­duran pres­i­dent Juan Hernán­dez, was caught on nar­co-traf­fick­ing charges. The court argued that Anto­nio Hernán­dez con­spired to bring drugs into the Unit­ed States.

A dichoto­my exists between soci­ety and the state, which rep­ri­mands any sign of pub­lic dis­con­tent, which is a prod­uct of extrac­tive poli­cies and grow­ing debt. Hon­duras is behold­en to the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund, among oth­er finan­cial insti­tu­tions. All of this is caus­ing nev­er-before-seen lev­els of pover­ty in our coun­try, with over 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing at or below the pover­ty line. In oth­er words, tomor­row in Hon­duras, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion will wake up with­out any chance of eat­ing, and one out five sur­vive on a lit­tle more than dol­lar a day.

And then there’s the cor­rupt polit­i­cal class. More than 100 deputies are cur­rent­ly involved in cor­rup­tion cas­es. Min­is­ters of the régime, the ex-pres­i­dent of the cen­tral bank, and oth­er cor­rupt indi­vid­u­als, have con­fessed to con­spir­ing against Hon­duran soci­ety. Two years ago, this brought on an inter­ven­tion from the Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States, which launched the Mis­sion to Sup­port the Fight against Cor­rup­tion and Impuni­ty in Hon­duras.” The results are mixed.

It’s worth high­light­ing that, in the last cou­ple of years, we’ve start­ed resem­bling the Colom­bian pri­va­ti­za­tion mod­el pop­u­lar­ized by Álvaro Uribe Veélez. The Unit­ed States, if you’ll remem­ber, also installed the Puebla-Pana­ma Plan that Colom­bian­ized our coun­try. And even though Colombia’s strat­e­gy against nar­co-traf­fick­ing was nev­er effec­tive, it was nev­er­the­less imple­ment­ed in Hon­duras, and this only gen­er­at­ed more vio­lence. It turned us into one of the most vio­lent coun­tries. And so, the peo­ple fled the country.

The idea that the migrants are groups orga­nized by polit­i­cal par­ties has been debunked. No, it’s the hunger, the mis­ery, the pain and — of course — the struc­tur­al cor­rup­tion that forces our com­pa­tri­ots to flee only to encounter this igno­min­ious reality.

In These Times: What are asy­lum seek­ers plan­ning next, giv­en the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s crack­down? What are your aims and goals?

Mil­ton Benítez: The migrants are wait­ing for the UN to define their cen­tral pol­i­tics, which is the objec­tive of the Decem­ber 10 Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Con­fer­ence to adopt the Glob­al Com­pact for Safe, Order­ly and Reg­u­lar Migra­tion. The UN’s role in this case has been disastrous.

The migrants out­lined five demands: an end to arbi­trary depor­ta­tion; to make pub­lic the names of the deport­ed; for incom­ing Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Andrés Manuel López Obrador to nego­ti­ate a solu­tion for migrants who wish to stay in Mex­i­co; to speed up the appli­ca­tion process for asy­lum to the Unit­ed States; and to pro­tect the human rights of migrants at all times.

We’re hop­ing for Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions to argue for more asy­lum cas­es to be heard, for those who opt for asy­lum in the Unit­ed States.

In These Times: Many peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are hor­ri­fied at the vio­lence against bor­der crossers. How can they show sol­i­dar­i­ty? What con­crete steps they can take?

Mil­ton Benítez: I think that con­crete steps are to pres­sure the Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors to agree to a world­wide com­pact on migra­tion, that uni­fies 192 coun­tries. Oth­er things include peace­ful protest that demands that cas­es of asy­lum that deserve atten­tion are right­ful­ly heard. Also, the Lati­no pop­u­la­tion can con­tin­ue to write to Demo­c­ra­t­ic and UN offi­cials for the migrants to be heard and be allowed entry — to avoid the unjus­ti­fied repres­sion from Gringo authorities.

In These Times: Is there a mes­sage you want to send peo­ple in the Unit­ed States right now? Is there any­thing you haven’t said that you want to com­mu­ni­cate to our readers?

Mil­ton Benítez: I think that this is an impor­tant moment in human his­to­ry. I think that human­i­ty should focus on the hun­dreds of peo­ple who seek suc­cor from being gov­erned by cor­rupt offi­cials and extrac­tive poli­cies that deplete our resources and pub­lic goods. This is one of the, speak­ing social­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, most painful moments of the last 50 or 80 years. This is an expres­sion of coun­tries con­vuls­ing social­ly because of the pover­ty and sys­temic corruption.

Juan­pablo Ramirez-Fran­co is an edi­to­r­i­al intern for In These Times and Doc­u­menter at City Bureau. Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch.
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