After holding an annual vigil for 25 years at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, the human rights group SOA Watch is moving its convergence to the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. Activists throughout the US and Mexico have gathered on both sides of the US-Mexico border for an October 7-10 Border Convergence to highlight and protest US state policies linked to the root causes of migration, as well as to multiple levels of violence against migrants and more broadly, against Black and Latinx people.
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People from Latin America continue to be forced to flee from US-trained repressive security forces, only to be confronted with a militarized border, racist immigration laws and the xenophobic rhetoric we see escalating during this election cycle. Black and Brown bodies in the US continue to be targeted, criminalized and systematically imprisoned and killed in the same way. We can no longer separate these issues and this weekend we have gathered to say “enough!” We cannot look at immigration reform without looking at its root causes. We cannot discuss police brutality or the prison industrial complex in the US without discussing its root purpose. State violence is used to exert control and oppress Black and Latinx communities in order to maintain an exploitative racist system that benefits the few. SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois has said:
We need to build broad-based grassroots power across borders, and push back against neoliberal politics of privatization of the commons, the militarization of our communities, and the upholding of profit interests over life, that permeate today’s political discourse. We will stand on the side of mutual aid and solidarity, and build power for a culture shift.
Traveling for that last two weeks through local communities in North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas on my way to the Border Convergence, I have been listening and learning from the voices of those directly affected by this US state violence based on racism, greed and fear of the “other.” The main goal of my storytelling journey of acompañamiento (accompaniment) was to bear witness to US state violence beyond an abstraction, to its lived experience in real bodies and communities. State violence, like all other forms of violence, is a visceral experience embodied most potently as death, but also as racial profiling, incarceration, deportation, labor exploitation, sickness, depression, fear and much more.
I began in Charlotte, North Carolina, just days after Keith Lamont Scott was unjustly killed by the police. A diverse coalition of local community members called #CharlotteUprising continues with their demands for justice for the family of Keith Lamont Scott, more transparency and accountability from the police, and a dismantling of the police state targeting poor and Black communities among other demands. Asian Pacific Islander organizers from the Southeast Asian Coalition, as well as local organizers identified as Latinx for #BlackLivesMatter, have joined in solidarity with the mobilizing efforts in part because they understand that the state violence that kills Black men is deeply connected to the state violence that targets all people profiled and feared as the “other.”
Stopping in Atlanta with Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) and in New Orleans with the Congress of Day Laborers, I joined their weekly community meetings where migrants come together to struggle against the dehumanizing pain enacted daily through detention and deportation. These communities know that President Obama’s administration is lying when it says it is prioritizing the deportation of violent criminals.
In Atlanta, where local police cooperate with ICE through a problematic program called PEP [Priority Enforcement Program], migrant communities are fighting against the pending deportations of three of their members — Cindy’s son Wilhen, Juan and Irvin — none of whom should be considered priorities for deportation. In New Orleans, they tell me they are seeing a rise in the manufacturing of criminals through unconstitutional policing and unjust prosecution priorities led by US Attorney Kenneth Polite, who is expanding felony convictions for the nonviolent “crime” of illegal reentry of migrants who are fleeing violence or seeking to reunite with their families, as is the case with William Diaz-Castro, whose wife and US-born children want him home from jail.
I visited the graves of a growing number of unknown bodies found en route to cross around checkpoints that exist 70-100 miles beyond the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley. The South Texas Human Rights Center nearby receives phone calls every day inquiring about disappeared family members lost in the brush at night.
Eduardo Caneles, the director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, calls this US policy of deterrence, “death by policy.” The US intentionally chooses to police safer routes, leaving a funnel open through the most dangerous landscapes; in this way, it uses the landscape itself to kill migrants. The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is now asking for $1 billion, after already receiving $800 million, to work alongside the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS ) to secure the border. What I saw while in the Rio Grande Valley could aptly be described as “low-intensity warfare,” not that dissimilar to what I observed on a trip to Palestine. The fierce women organizers making up the growing Fuerza del Valle Workers Center are fighting against the wide practice of wage theft while supporting each other in the face of depression, fear of deportation and violence from employers.
During a brief stop in Austin, Texas, I was able to meet Hilda Ramirez at St. Andrews Presbyterian church, where she and her son Ivan have found sanctuary after she was denied asylum from the violence she is fleeing in Guatemala. Since presenting herself at the border to seek asylum in the summer of 2014, she was incarcerated at Karnes Detention Center with her son for 11 months, housed at Posada Esperance while humiliated with an ankle bracelet for another seven months, and for the last nine months, restricted to the confines of the church where she has sought sanctuary. “Me da coraje,” she tells me: “It gives me courage and anger.”
She tells me she will continue to struggle not only for her own freedom, but also for the end of all family detention centers. Seventy-three percent of the nearly 37,000 migrants incarcerated on average daily are locked in privately owned prisons contracted by ICE. A recent policy paper by the ACLU sheds light on the abuses, calling for an end to incarcerating families, children and people seeking asylum. Migrants represent a growing number within the profit-making prison industrial complex. On September 28, 2016, former migrant prison detainees accompanied by #Not1More Campaign, Color of Change and Black Alliance for Just Immigration confronted Jeh Johnson, secretary of the DHS, outside a public speaking event to demand that he address the crisis inside immigrant detention and cut the department’s contracts with private prisons.
“What gives you hope,” I was asked on this journey to the Border Convergence. My hope is grounded in the work and struggle of all these amazing grassroots leaders organizing against US state violence. They are not waiting on politicians for hope. They have each other in the struggle for human dignity and freedom. And this is why we are gathering together this weekend at the Border Convergence, to say we have each other and together, we will not stop our struggle until US state violence against our communities has ended and we are all free.