How to manufacture a humanitarian catastrophe

March 7, 2019 4:18 pm
migrant families

More than 20 migrant families from Central America were dropped off at a Phoenix church by in a Department of Homeland Security bus the night of Tuesday, October 9. Overall, migrant families and minors crossing the border unaccompanied are accounting for an increasing share of the total arrests on the border. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen this week, as The New York Times put it, “implored Congress to confront” what she called a growing humanitarian catastrophe on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Under normal circumstances and under a normal presidential administration, Nielsen’s entreaty might well have seemed appropriate or even compassionate. Then again, this is someone who has refused to acknowledge that the chain-linked cages immigration agents have been using to detain children separated from their families are actually cages. Nielsen prefers, she actually insists, on calling them “holding areas.”

Given this context, Nielsen’s call to end what so many agree is in fact a “human catastrophe” was more of a cruel joke than a genuine appeal to our country’s better angels.

At her appearance Wednesday before the Democratic-controlled House Homeland Security Committee, Nielsen was right to say our southern border has become the site of a mounting human calamity. Where her rank hypocrisy gets exposed is in the fact that she, President Donald Trump and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions are as much or more to blame for what’s happening at the border as the insidious forces driving the ongoing mass exodus of refugees from Central America.

To add irony to hypocrisy, much of the murderous weaponry being used today by Central America’s criminal gangs and corrupt police to spread terror in the region was left behind by U.S. and Soviet arms suppliers during the proxy Cold War conflicts of the ‘80s and ’90s. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of guns have been trafficked as part of a lucrative black-market pipeline involving American gun dealers and Latin American crime rings.

Endemic corruption, rampant crime and grinding poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are driving a record number of refugee families north, not a desire, as Trump claims, to wreak havoc in the United States. Making matters worse, the Trump administration is purposely slowing the processing of asylum applications at the border, which has forced an increasing number of refugees to avoid ports of entry and cross instead at dangerously remote crossing points.

Ultimately, the humanitarian catastrophe at the U.S.-Mexico border is largely of our making – and thanks to Trump’s policies, it’s only getting worse.

Nielsen’s short-sighted non-solution solution? Build Trump’s wall and crack down even harder on the flood of desperate, shell-shocked asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants at our border. Trouble is that’s exactly the same failed approach our government has applied for more than 30 years.

True, we actually haven’t yet built that 2,000-mile-long wall from San Diego to Brownsville that Trump’s been asking for. But the approximately 650 miles of barriers already in place, if nothing else, are proof-positive that people are smarter than walls, meaning they’ve gotten good at figuring out how to get over, under or around them without much trouble.

Meanwhile, Trump’s made-for-TV-this-will-get-me-re-elected human rights crisis is hardly confined to the border.

Last week, KJZZ, the Valley’s National Public Radio affiliate, reported on the chaos (my word) that’s ensued in the wake of the federal government’s embarrassingly inept policy (my characterization) of releasing hundreds of refugees without notice by dumping them at local bus stations and churches.

“Advocates said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released hundreds more migrants and asylum seekers [last weekend] than the agency had told volunteers to expect, and the system to help them was overwhelmed,” KJZZ’s Matthew Casey reported. “Since early October, ICE has been releasing families to Valley churches and activists who give the migrants temporary shelter, food and healthcare.”

The system that church volunteers have created spontaneously to help the refugees is a testament to the proverbial kindness of strangers, and not any grand plan devised by federal immigration officials on how best to address the record flow of refugees from Central America.

One volunteer told Casey how she and other volunteers worked feverishly to ready meals for migrants released from custody, adding that her group had been expecting “to feed 200 people over the weekend, but ended up needing enough food for 500.”

ICE officials have been dropping busloads of refugees at churches for months, even as the number of migrant families apprehended at the border has doubled as compared to the same time last year.

Church pastors and immigrants rights leaders say most of the churches involved are keeping a low profile, fearing harassment or retaliation by right-wing activists – many of whom, ironically, would be quick to insist that they’re good Christians.

At the risk of casting the first stone, I think the “good Christians” among us are the tireless volunteers working to feed and clothe refugees in the wake of the Trump Administration’s comparatively unholy efforts to manufacturer its own special brand of human catastrophe.

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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.