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David Bacon: Senate Democrats’ $2.7 billion proposal would escalate border enforcement but ignore the trade policies that drive migrants to the United States in the first place

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Senate Democrats have introduced a bill allocating $2.7 billion this year to deal with the surge of unaccompanied children and families from Central America entering the United States. This bill is $1 billion less than what President Obama requested as supplementary emergency funding for the U.S. border. The $2.7 billion would be for more immigration judges, detention centers, and resources for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is our guest, David Bacon. He is an author and journalist, and his latest book is titled The Right to Stay Home.

Thanks for joining us, David.


DESVARIEUX: So, David, is there anything in this bill that you like?

BACON: Well, I think that the appropriation for the Department of Health and Human Services recognizes that what we’re talking about here are children and we need to treat them as children, as our children would be treated, meaning that we have to find these kids a decent place for them to stay and then arrange for them to find a responsible adult who can help to care for them while their legal proceedings move forward to determine whether, for instance, they have asylum claims or some other basis for staying in the United States. So that part of the bill, I think, is okay.

The rest of the bill, though, I think actually is going to contribute to the problems we already have.

DESVARIEUX: And how so?

BACON: Well, the enforcement part, for instance. We already spend more money on immigration enforcement than all the other enforcement programs of the federal government combined, including the FBI, DEA, and so on. So simply dumping more money into enforcement, first of all, is not going to stop people from coming to the United States, because it doesn’t deal with the reasons why people are coming here to begin with. And further, there are actually parts of the enforcement appropriation that would provide money to, for instance, the Central America Regional Security Initiative, which is the U.S. program for funneling money into the police departments and the militaries of some of the most right-wing, repressive governments in Central America who have created some of the conditions that children and families are trying to get away from by coming to the United States to begin with. So I think we need to separate the enforcement parts of this proposal from the parts that actually would provide some kind of humanitarian help to children.

DESVARIEUX: And this bill that’s being proposed by Senate Democrats is, I should say–there’s a distinct between Democrats and Republicans on this issue–slightly, but there is. The Democrats want to keep a legal protection that was granted 2008 to unaccompanied minors that come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, while Republicans are arguing that minors from those countries should be treated the same way that Mexican minors are. Basically, they’re processed very quickly, screened, and deported. So what’s really at the heart of this difference?

BACON: Well, the heart of the difference is the way we treat children. I think, actually, that the way we treat children from Mexico is pretty inhumane, because when children come to the United States, first of all, they need to have their claims examined as to whether or not, for instance, people are fleeing some from some reasonable fear–the fear of violence, plus the inability of their families to actually have enough work to be able to support them, the impact of U.S. trade policies. All these things are the reasons why people are coming here to begin with, whether it’s from Mexico or from Central America.

But what the 2008 law says is that at least in the case of children, in other words, people who are under 18, that these children should be treated as children. And so the first priority should be to house them in a decent place–in other words, not send them to a prison, which is where deportees are sent to before they get deported. And the second thing should be to try to find responsible adults who can take care of these children so they don’t just simply remain in a detention center forever. And the third priority should be to give them a date in which their claims for asylum or claims for being in the United States can be heard and examined in a fair way, which means that the kids need lawyers, they need access to the legal process that would actually help them to make those claims. That’s what the 2008 law provides for them.

And what the Republicans are saying is, no, we’re just going to simply throw them back on the other side of the border or put them on a plane and send them back off to Honduras or El Salvador and to face the same conditions that caused them to come to the United States to begin with. I don’t think that that’s a humane solution. And it’s also a very ineffective one, because it doesn’t, again, deal with the roots of why people are coming here to begin with.

DESVARIEUX: David, you’ve been covering immigration for some time now, so I don’t really need to tell you how hot of a topic it is here in the United States. But you often hear from those who say that we as taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting paying for these detention centers and feeding these, quote-unquote, illegal immigrants with our tax funds and supporting things like the Department of Health and Human Services in housing these illegal immigrants. Why are we spending so much money on this? Why not just send people back right away?

BACON: Well, I certainly don’t favor spending millions and hundreds of millions of dollars, which is what we do, on detention centers and on enforcement. It’s a boondoggle. That’s a source of enormous wealth for corporations like the Geo corporation and Corrections Corporation of America, who are the private operators that run detention centers. And the conditions in these detention centers for adults are extremely inhumane, which is one reason why children shouldn’t be thrown into these prisons. So I don’t think that prisons and spending money on immigration prisons, which is, I think, the real name for detention centers, is an answer.

But I think that we have to take a look at, again, the reasons why people are coming here to begin with and what we could do in this country to change our policies to give people the ability to grow up and to have a decent life in the communities where people are living and where they are today. The migration from Central America, for instance, started because the Reagan administration armed to the teeth the right-wing governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, which waged wars against their own people, with massacres of tens of thousands of people, creating such violence, such a situation, that people were forced to flee. That’s why 2 million Salvadorans live in the United States today is in great part because of those wars.

We also negotiated trade treaties for the benefit of U.S. corporations that wanted to do things like dump agricultural products like corn on the markets of Mexico and Central America in order to make a lot of money, but in the process made it impossible for farmers and rural people in those countries to make a decent living and to sell their products at a price that would actually pay the cost of growing it. That contributed to the migration to the United States as well.

So we need to change those policies, so that instead of kind of pulling the rug out from under communities economically and also encouraging the violence in those communities by supporting some of the most right-wing and repressive military and police organizations in this hemisphere, we actually do things that make it possible for people to lead a peaceful and decent life, have employment and those things that all of us want. So I think that that is a good alternative to the policy of building prisons.

But if young people are fleeing these conditions and coming here anyway, which they are, building more walls, hiring more border patrol agents, sending a thousand national guardsmen down to the borders (Governor Rick Perry in Texas just did yesterday) is not going to have any impact in terms of stopping the migration, because it doesn’t deal with the root causes and all it does is it essentially criminalizes people. So I think that this is really a bad solution.

But we need to treat people in a humane way. We need to think of the children who are coming here and the young people who are coming here as though they were members of our families. Instead of thinking of people as the other, as them, as those people, we ought to take a look at them and recognize our own mutual humanity and recognize the family values that we say that we’re for–in other words, the protection of children and the protection of young people, trying to help them get a decent life here.

DESVARIEUX: But, David, if you do agree with that premise that you propose, you know, people deserve a decent life, what should we as Americans be focusing our attention on if we really want to deal with this influx of children from Central America? What specific policy should we be pushing our lawmakers to be fighting for?

BACON: Well, I think that we need to stop, for instance, negotiating trade treaties which basically deepen the poverty that exists in Mexico, Central America, and other countries. You know, this administration has negotiated and put into effect three trade treaties. We could go all the way back to the North American Free Trade Agreement that was negotiated by the first president Bush and then signed by Clinton, as a result of which 8 million people came from Mexico to the United States because people really had no alternative if they needed to survive. So that’s one thing that we could do is we could have a much fairer trade regime that existed for the benefit of ordinary people, little people on the ground, rather than for large U.S. corporations.

But I think also that we have to decriminalize migration, decriminalize the movement of people. Instead of seeing that or instead of thinking that the answer to people crossing borders is to put people in prison or to fire them from their jobs or deport them, we need to treat people as we would ourselves expect to be treated as human beings. So I think both of those things are the real alternatives: the decriminalization of migration, and also taking a look at root causes and at least trying to stop doing–do the things that are causing people to lack any alternatives to leaving home in order to survive.

DESVARIEUX: Do you think that we should be labeling these migrants as refugees, these children? Specifically, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that it views these Central American migrants to the U.S. as refugees. Do you think it’s apropos to call them refugees? And why?

BACON: Well, if children and families are fleeing violence in Central America–and it’s true that in cities like San Pedro Sula in Honduras, violence and gang violence has become an extreme problem for families in many neighborhoods–when people flee that, they do have a legitimate claim under our laws for refugee status, and those claims need to be taken seriously and examined so that people can find some kind of safe haven. That is in the tradition of this country, which has been a safe haven for people–or at least we have thought of ourselves as something that we wanted to be, a safe haven for people who are fleeing repression and unbearable conditions where they come from. That’s why we have this category of political asylum and refugees.

But we also need to go beyond that and we need to take a look at where the violence is coming from, because in part the violence that exists in San Pedro Sula is a product of poverty. It’s a product of the deportation of people who were forced into gangs in Los Angeles, who were then sent back to Honduras. It’s a product of the war, of the fact that we supported extremely repressive governments in Honduras because they supported President Reagan and the war against the government in Nicaragua, the so-called Contra War. It’s also a product of the fact that in Honduras a legitimately elected president, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed because he proposed to raise the minimum wage and to make conditions better for people. And instead of protesting against this, our government simply sort of gave the seal of approval to the coup government that followed. All of these things create the conditions which essentially force people to leave home. That’s what people are fleeing when they are coming from San Pedro Sula in Honduras. And so we need to take a look at root causes.

But we also need to treat people who are coming here as being refugees when they are in effect fleeing these unbearable and these very violent conditions.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. David Bacon, author of the book The Right to Stay Home .

Thank you so much for joining us.

BACON: My pleasure.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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David Bacon is an award-winning photojournalist, author, and immigrant rights activist who has spent over twenty years as a labor organizer. He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service, and writes for TruthOut, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Bacon covers issues of labor, immigration and international politics. He is the author of The Children of NAFTA, Communities without Borders, Illegal People and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration.