On a Saturday morning earlier this summer, I joined a group of immigrant rights activists under a canopy of tall trees in Lower Manhattan. We were preparing to form a human chain around a federal immigration courthouse to protest the unbridled deportations tearing immigrant families apart. Our action was held in tandem with coordinated efforts occurring that day around the nation.
Hundreds of people began to amass: Latino families with their children, workers still in uniform from the night shift, Korean grandmothers with matching visors, youth activists known as “Dreamers,” and a church group. The organizers were from Palestine, Mexico and Sri Lanka. I saw many familiar faces. Together, members of this group had taken caravans of buses together to march with tens of thousands of supporters in Washington, D.C.; we had faced arrest at civil disobedience actions; we had canvassed New York’s five boroughs; and we had fasted for weeks in the shadow of the Capital. There were many members of the press and few police.
We all understood what was at stake: It was June 28, one year and a day since the Senate had passed an immigration reform bill that Congress had since failed to act upon. The window for potential reform was growing narrower by the day.
The sun filtered through the branches and shined on our faces, and despite heavy hearts and two broken megaphones, we sang and chanted, waving signs showing the outlines of hands to symbolize the separation of families. Some children held enlarged photographs of their parents who had been deported, often for crimes like driving with a broken headlight. Under the Obama administration, more immigrants have been deported than under any other president — an average of nearly 400,000 people each year. The policy leaves thousands of children in the hands of the state, many of whom are United States citizens.
Watching these children, I was reminded of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have traversed the border from Central America to the United States — an estimated 52,000 since October of 2013. The events organized across the United States that day also sought to shed light on their plight. Kids as young as seven and eight — fleeing violence and poverty, human trafficking and coercion to join gangs — have been coming in droves, most of them making the journey on top of trains and crossing on foot.
Suddenly, very incongruent sounds cut through the sky. “Ill-e-gals, Ill-e-gals,” angry voices screamed. At the far end of the mobilization, a group of counter protesters had gathered. They wielded their own homemade signs reading: “No Amnesty,” “Illegals go home,” and “Get out of my country.” We were familiar with this group of bigots, who were mostly middle-aged men wearing American flag T-shirts. One woman carried a sign reading, “Hispanos against immigration.” They were well-organized, monitoring our events and showing up regularly, but they were never willing to engage.
As the derisive cries grew louder, some of our organizers moved between them, forming a sort of human shield. With so many children present, it wasn’t safe for us to expose ourselves by forming a chain where individuals could be singled out. Thus, we shifted and congregated more tightly, with a black female choir group keeping the momentum in the middle.
Despite my reverence for freedom of speech, I was repulsed by the deep displays of hate that day. The whole event took on an almost surreal quality. This group had joined under the arms of these great trees to yell slurs at singing families and stab their American flags in the air like weapons as double-decker buses of tourists slowed on Broadway to take it all in. It made my stomach turn. What begets such hatred? What does it feel like to scream in the face of a stranger who merely turns a shoulder to shield his or her children from your contempt? This was a person whom you don’t know a single thing about except that he or she had been born on the other side of a man-made line.
A few days later, I would learn about a similar protest in Murrieta, Calif., which would also make my head hang in shame. Detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border had become overcrowded by the influx of newly arrived immigrants, many of whom were children. As images of holding cells packed with small bodies rocketed through the media, the migrants began to be transferred to other states, including California. On July 1, some of these migrants were being bused to Murrieta to be processed at a Border Patrol facility there when they encountered an angry mob of both local residents and others. They had gathered to oppose the plan for the city of Murrieta to receive these immigrants, even though the migrants were only to be housed in facilities there as they awaited deportation proceedings. As the buses approached, the protesters, bearing many of the same hateful signs we’d seen in New York, blocked their way. “Not our children, not our problem!” they cried, waving flags and shouting slurs.
Enrique Morones, director of Border Angels, an organization that provides water to migrants crossing the deadly desert border, was present at the protest as an observer, and he recalled the events in an interview with Democracy Now! “It was horrific to see, because the children inside the bus and their moms were crying. They don’t speak English, but they understand hate,” he said. “What we witnessed that day was the worst of the American spirit.”
This account evokes another struggle — not over borders but over skin color. I recall the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, when black and white civil rights activists rode interstate buses together into the deeply segregated south. They wanted to test the Supreme Court’s rulings that segregation of public buses and rail stations was unconstitutional. In Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., these riders were met by mobs that included Ku Klux Klan members, who descended upon the bus. While the police looked on, Klansmen beat the riders with chains and pipes and clubs. Have we evolved so little since May 14, 1961, when one of these buses was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., with the Freedom Riders trapped inside?
The bus carrying those children never made it to the detention facility in Murrieta, and similar events have unfolded across the country. There have been coordinated national actions to protest the migrants. On July 8, the Texas town of League City passed an ordinance that would ban undocumented children from being processed and detained in its municipality. A Republican state legislator in Arizona proudly turned away a bus of kids on July 15, only to learn they were YMCA campers.
Again I ask: What does it feel like to bear such hatred? What compels a person to bang against the windows of a bus carrying children? What did those people feel as they saw the faces of young immigrants on the other side of the glass? Did they know most of the kids hadn’t seen their parents in months, perhaps longer? That they had clung atop a moving train, gone without food and water and walked across a desert to traverse the border alone because back home children were being murdered? The United States, the young boys and girls must have believed, was a nation with a respect for human rights.
It is important to place this border surge into historical context, considering the role of U.S. foreign policy — namely military and economic intervention — in directly contributing to today’s violence and unrest in Central America, especially in Honduras. The U.S. government has a long history of destabilizing democratically elected governments in the region, having heavily funded bloody right-wing dictatorships throughout the 1980s. In fact, some of Central America’s most murderous gangs, including the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, formed in Los Angeles among men displaced by those civil wars. Many gang members were eventually deported back to Central America, where the gangs flourished. Then the 2004 Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement restructured trade relations in the region, passing off unprecedented power to U.S. corporations, shrinking the Central American job market and crippling local economies. More recently, the U.S.-backed 2009 Honduran coup that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya opened the doors to further corruption and violence.
As a result of these interventions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been reporting extreme violence and abuse in the Central American countries of Honduras — widely considered the murder capital of the world — Guatemala and El Salvador, the three countries from where the majority of the children are fleeing. In the United States, asylum claims from those countries have increased exponentially, though the United States is not the only country experiencing this spike. Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize combined have documented a more than 400 percent increase in asylum applications by individuals from these three countries.
The numbers fully undermine attempts of some opponents to blame the influx on Obama’s administrative relief policy Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which they say has been a magnet for young people to travel to the United States. In reality, as United Nations’ interviews with the minors reveal, these kids are fleeing sexual abuse, violence, hunger and coercion to join gangs. They were faced with a decision no child should ever have to face, and they chose to escape, knowingly risking their lives because whatever they were fleeing was worse. The United Nations has underscored that many of these migrants qualify for refugee status, but the U.S. government has been failing to provide legal representation to minors, some as young as 10, who are facing deportation. How can we expect children — many of whom speak only indigenous languages and may not read or write, and who have not received support services for the trauma they have undergone — to stand alone in a courtroom and mount their own defense as to why their lives are worth protecting?
Just as the eyes of the international community turned with horror to Anniston, Ala., the world is now watching. America: These days will be remembered in infamy.
In New York City that morning, as the anti-immigrant group’s chants continued, a black female pastor moved to the middle of our group. She was a slim but stately woman with angular features and a booming voice. In a most oracular moment, she began to sing “We Shall Overcome,” the protest anthem of the civil rights movement. The gospel choir began to sing with her, and their voices soon reached the edges of our crowd. We all joined them, the hymn ringing beautifully in the voices of many different tongues. The hateful taunts were drowned out, and songs of freedom resonated high toward the skyscrapers overhead.