Letter from the US: Refugees facing brutality, injustice

Rally for refugee rights in Los Angeles, July 7.

There has been a huge rise in refugees from Central America seeking asylum in the US, many of them unaccompanied children.

So far this year, the Border Patrol says more than 50,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border with Mexico. This is double the number for all of last year and five times that of 2009.

Those grabbed by authorities have been subjected to widespread and systematic brutal treatment, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights groups said.

Widespread abuse

“Children are being abused on a huge and widespread scale,” said James Lyall, a border litigation lawyer for the ACLU in Arizona.

The ACLU describes children and teenagers being shackled in stress positions, kicked, yelled at, forced to drink from toilets, and denied food and medical care.

These youngsters have been held by the government for prolonged periods in crowded, unsafe and freezing detention cells.

The Washington Post posted videos showing makeshift holding areas at the McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol station. The videos show dozens of women and children sprawled on concrete floors, in the cold without blankets.

The ACLU said a 13-year-old boy picked up near Brownsville, Texas, said that a Border Patrol agent set his service dog on him. The agent then denied the boy medical treatment for his bloody facial wounds and impaired vision from the attack.

A 16-year-old girl travelling with her two-year-old son was put in a cold holding cell, jammed in with 30 others. After three days, she noticed that her son was feverish. He was given a wet towel, but denied any further medical attention.

A 17-year-old girl cut her hand on the border fence. The Border patrol agent who apprehended her not only refused her medical treatment, but “squeezed the wound, causing her great pain”.

Then he told her: “It’s good that you are hurt, you deserve to be hurt for coming to the US.”

About a quarter of the minors that the ACLU interviewed, aged from five to 17, reported they were physically abused. Half said they were verbally abused and denied medical care, including a child whose asthma medication was taken from her even as she suffered multiple attacks.

Shaken by the publicity of these terrible conditions, President Barack Obama said the situation amounted to a “humanitarian crisis.”

'Deporter in chief'

But, much to the dismay of immigration activists and many in the Latino community, Obama's solution is to step up the process of deporting these children.

This proposal fits with Obama's record as having deported more people than any other president, earning him the title “Deporter in Chief” from young Latino activists.

To understand Obama's proposal, it is necessary to see why these refugees from Central America mainly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fall into a different legal category to immigrants from Mexico.

Refugees from Mexico are immediately deported back under the law. But refugees from countries not bordering the US fall under a different law. This stipulates that they must be processed in a court to determine if they will be given asylum.

Obama has sent a proposal to Congress for US$3.8 billion to deal with the crisis. About half of these funds would be spent on opening facilities to house refugees in more humane conditions while their cases are being processed.

The rest would go to hiring more judges, and greater forces on the border.

The refugees are not allowed any legal representation in these courts. So a child can be brought into a court to defend themself with no understanding of what is going on.

The White House states unequivocally that virtually all these refugees, including children, will be found not suitable for asylum and will be deported.

This makes the “judicial process” a farce, as the outcome has been decided in advance.

Some Republican politicians stone cold open racists are complaining about the money that would be spent on minimally improving the conditions of the refugees' jailing.

The trip these refugees make to get to the US border across Mexico is arduous and dangerous. Gangsters called “coyotes” charge huge sums to ferry the refugees across the Mexican desert, and abuse them.

Women and girls are raped. Some die from lack of food or water.

Poverty and violence

What drives these people into the extreme desperation to even contemplate such a journey? Extreme poverty and violence.

And these conditions are created by US imperialist exploitation and policies.

Workers and peasants in Central America and Mexico have borne the brunt of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This further opened these countries to imperialist exploitation and penetration — “free trade” in capital and goods, but not in labour power.

One example, among many, has been the effect on peasants in these countries growing the staple, corn (maize). US capitalist farms grow corn much cheaper than the peasants can.

As a result, since NAFTA was implemented in 1994, cheap US corn has flooded Central American and Mexican markets. This has impoverished millions of peasants and driven them into already overcrowded cities, and adding to chronic unemployment.

Then there has been the disaster caused by the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Workers in the advanced capitalist countries have suffered greatly in this period, but when the imperialist centre experiences economic crisis and stagnation, it spills over into even worse conditions in the oppressed countries on top of their “normal” over-exploitation.

The other factor in the rise in people seeking refuge has been the upsurge in organised crime-related violence. Much of this, too, has its origin in the US through the “war on drugs”, which is really a war to keep drugs illegal and the source of super-profits.

“Organised crime” refers to capitalist enterprises dealing in services or goods declared illegal. Since these enterprises are outside the law although law enforcement agencies are deeply intertwined with them those involved are armed and violence is frequent.

Their inter-capitalist competition is regulated by armed thugs.

These cartels have grown so large in Mexico and Central America that they operate with virtual impunity. Honduras, for example, has become the murder capital of the world. The resulting violence forces many familes to flee.

It is also a side business of these cartels to dispatch the coyotes to further prey on those seeking asylum.

Some of the new crop of children refugees have parents who are already in the US, with or without documents. These parents work in the hardest and often most dangerous jobs. They send much of their meager earnings back to relatives in their home countries.

I have friends who work in these low paying jobs in the US. They have told me of terrifying instances where their relatives are robbed of these remittances at gunpoint right at the banks where they receive them.

Asylum needed

This crisis, involving so many unaccompanied children refugees, underscores the broader catastrophe of US immigration policy.

The immediate need is to grant all these children asylum now.

This would be a first step towards a real reform of the US immigration system. Further measures needed include granting citizenship to immigrants who want it and opening the borders for labour as well as capital and goods, as a step toward a world without borders at all.

To do what both the US's big capitalist parties propose to deport these children is a crime against humanity.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]