Solidarity with immigrants
As thousands made the journey toward the United States-Mexico border – in the hopes of gaining asylum and a chance to provide for their families – the rhetoric around immigration and the border hardened, with President Donald Trump invoking fear of the other through his use of “strangers.”
“A powerful wall,” “a steel barrier,” “a militarized border,” he tweeted, are needed to keep America safe from crime, drugs and gangs. But the Central American migrants making the long walk to the US southern border are not criminals. They’re seeking out a better life. A bus fare collector. A kid in a hooded sweatshirt on the shoulders of his father. A man in a wheelchair who hopes to get prosthetics in America.
Immigration is a labor issue. Many PSC members recognize that the crisis at the border is linked to global inequality and the economy’s need for the movement of labor. Below, PSC members share some of the ways they expressed solidarity from New York City to Tijuana.
A workers’ movement
By Tony O’Brien
On a cold New Year’s Eve morning, 20 New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) volunteers gathered in a San Diego church to prepare for our work with asylum seekers at the border. Among us were a steelworker’s daughter from Ohio, a New School freshman, a doula, a Google worker in tech solidarity, a program director of health nonprofits, a California teachers’ local delegate and two PSC members.
Working against White House anti-immigrant rhetoric that wants us to wall off refugees as our enemy, the NSC uses the Quaker word “friend” to describe those vilified by the government. Not enemies, not victims either, not clients. Friends – or fellow workers, as the Wobblies said.
Our friends’ work had been to band together in an organized caravan and get here in one piece. Our work was to help them cross this last artificial barrier to somehow make a life here, the country largely responsible for making their lives unlivable at home. Our aim was to help them win asylum on the excellent legal grounds of their “credible fear” that return meant death.
“Border imperialism” is a new conception of what is happening at the border and why we must fight it (see Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism). Of course the United States has been the imperialist colossus in the Americas for more than a century of economic domination, political manipulation and military intervention. Walia’s concept highlights new ways the border itself is being used not as a defense, but as a weapon of aggression against migrating workers and as the central trope in racist propaganda for domestic use.
The term also refers to collusion of the Mexican and US governments at the border. “Two governments, one system,” activists at the border say. While we were there, Mexican police blockaded and threatened to evict everyone at one of the refugee camps.
On our side, it’s “two countries, one movement,” as US volunteers and National Lawyers Guild attorneys stood together with our friends at that refugee camp and Mexican attorneys won an injunction against the evictions.
That week, the NSC volunteers worked at the food-aid group World Central Kitchen (WCK) and the legal aid group Al Otro Lado (AOL), both in Tijuana. One day we made 1,700 sandwiches at WCK. My main work was at AOL, serving the beautiful food to the hundreds of asylum seekers who came for legal help in preparing their case.
As the food table was piled with sandwiches and oranges and hot casseroles and rice, I saw the heavy faces of depression open a little into half-smiles. My coworker went out to buy warm boots for a mother who made the winter trek in flip-flops. Two teenagers who looked like they’d never smile again were laughing together at day’s end in the warm room. And on the roof there would sometimes be a wedding – “the happiest spot in Tijuana at 3 pm” – with a glass of champagne and a rose.
Yet we knew that if they got in at all their next stop would be a freezing ice-box jail cell. The struggle continues on this side of the border, where we need to form “welcoming communities,” as NSC says. An international movement of fellow workers is building.
Tony O’Brien is a retired Queens College English professor and a founding member of the PSC International Committee.
United in resistance
By Stuart Davis
In mid-November of 2018, I went to the United States-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, for an encuentro, a meeting of the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a group founded in the 1980s to protest America’s role in the proliferation of military dictatorships in Central and South America. The theme for that year’s meeting was “border imperialism,” an idea that connects the creation and maintenance of empire around the movement of displaced people. Recent migration, for example, from Honduras and Guatemala can be linked to American military intervention and coups.
The encuentro included a march to the Eloy Detention Center, a major ICE facility in southern Arizona, and a vigil at the border fence to remember everyone in the Americas who was killed as a result of US foreign policy.
A presentation about the Mérida Initiative (a program where the US government provides training and weapons to Mexico as part of the ongoing “war on drugs”) hit home for me. It featured Jessica Molina, a young college student from Laredo, Texas, whose husband was kidnapped – and now “disappeared” – across the border by an elite unit of the Mexican Navy funded through the Mérida arrangement. I taught at the university in Laredo that Jessica attended. Listening to Jessica talk about her current ordeal reinforced the point that if our country stopped meddling in other countries’ politics, then people like Jessica’s husband might still be living happily with their families.
Attending this event as the only representative of the PSC – and seemingly the only representative from a union – I was consistently met with the question: “Why is a teacher’s union in New York interested in this?” While attempting to answer, I quickly realized that as teachers and union activists we have an important opportunity to teach our colleagues that migrants are not a threat, but instead they could be our students, co-workers and friends.
Stuart Davis is assistant professor of communication studies at Baruch College and secretary of the PSC International Committee.
By Anh Tran
When I was seven years old, my family and I emigrated from Vietnam to the United States. Vietnamese immigrants who arrived before July 12, 1995, enjoyed protected status (until Trump tried, but failed, to roll it back last autumn).
My family and I didn’t meet the cutoff date for protected status, but we did obtain green cards, and family members already living in the United States sponsored us. I am now a citizen because both my parents passed the citizenship test before I turned 18.
Like me, the Central American migrants fled countries still suffering from a legacy of US military interference and economic domination. But unlike me, they had to walk thousands of miles across hot and uncertain terrain, only to face tear gas, border police and racist threats once they arrived at the border.
It struck me how lucky I was that my journey to find a new home was exciting and hopeful, rather than dangerous and frightening. And the PSC Delegate Assembly was right there with me. Hearts were receptive to the pleas fellow PSC members and I made for donations and signatures of support for the caravan. Together, the Delegate Assembly gave exactly $600. This is how we crumble borders…with solidarity!
Anh Tran is an adjunct lecturer and a PhD student in political science. She also is a PSC delegate representing the Graduate Center.