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Over 44,000 immigrants are being held by a system that is increasingly privatized, while a humanitarian crisis is looming at the border

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great having you with us.

Immigration was an important issue in this last election. It remains so now. The first group among several caravans of Honduran and Central American people are now camped out in Tijuana, right by the U.S. border. Trump has sent down thousands of American troops to that border at a cost of at least $200 million. We’re incarcerating more people now than ever before, over 44,000 people at last count. Over half of those incarcerated have been in custody for over two years, many with no deportation, nor hearings, nor court dates. People are arrested and often shipped thousands of miles away from where they were arrested; away from their families and any legal assistance they were used to. More than 14,000 children are being held alone without their parents, or having been separated from their parents. The conditions in many of those facilities where immigrants are being detained have been reported to be abysmal. People are being denied medical treatment and assistance, access to attorneys, held in facilities either too hot or too cold, and vastly overcrowded. And if they protest, it’s been reported they’re being separated from their children.

On top of that, the entire process of arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of immigrants is being privatized. The cost of private imprisonment is now $150 a day per person, as opposed to the public cost of detention at around $99 a day. Private prison corporations are making hundreds of millions of dollars. They seem to be totally unaccountable and unanswerable to the conditions in those facilities to anybody.

Our guest is Dr. Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and the coordinator of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Salem University in Massachusetts. She’s a noted author of numerous books. Some of those books including the book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. And her latest book is They’re Taking Our Jobs, and 20 Other Myths About Immigration. And Aviva Chomsky, welcome back. Good to have you with us.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Great to be on the show. Thanks for inviting me.

MARC STEINER: It’s almost hard to know where to begin, given this incredible thing that we’re facing here right now. But let me just begin with your take on what’s happening at the border, this unprecedented move of Trump sending all these troops to the border–at a cost of $200 billion at least, people are saying in some of the more recent articles. I mean, that is almost unheard of, especially with General Mattis now saying as well this is like fighting Pancho Villa in 1917.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Yeah, so the situation at the border is a humanitarian crisis. It’s a humanitarian crisis that has been a very long time in the making. It’s not new. That is, the caravans that are now arriving represent something that have been gone–are just one piece of a puzzle that’s been building and going on for a very long time.

In large part I think that the administration’s response to this particular group of migrants arriving at the border was an electoral ploy; including sending the troops was part of an electoral ploy. But clearly he’s using it to further his rabidly anti-immigrant agenda that we’ve seen ever since his campaign. He’s building on policies that have been put into place by previous administrations, but he’s taking things much further in a much more egregiously punitive and harmful way. Part of what we see is a media play on the part of Trump, trying to rile up his base. It was definitely an electoral, you know, how much he has made of this caravan.

But he’s also definitely using it, and the sort of public agitation that he’s been able to stir up, as part of the attempt that we’ve seen going on since the very first days of him and his administration with the travel ban to simply find any spaces in immigration law that he can use to overturn laws, to go against what actually our laws say in order to push his anti-immigrant agenda.

MARC STEINER: That reminds me; when you and I spoke, the president was Barack Obama, and we talked about the impressive numbers of people being arrested and deported under Barack Obama. But it seems to be an exponential rise. What’s the difference between what happened then under President Obama and what’s happening now under Trump?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Well, there’s a couple of new things that Trump has implemented, or tried to implement–and in many cases failed, but it’s still pushing. We had the travel ban which President Trump tried to implement, and has gone through various iterations, challenged in court, and is now–its current iteration is being implemented, which he sort of got around the courts by including some non-Muslim countries. We have DACA, which was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals established by President Obama in 2012, 2014, to allow certain undocumented young people to gain a temporary legal status in the United States. So once again, President Trump tried to overturn DACA. He was challenged in the courts, and that also was sort of still in process.

Some of the things that he’s doing now, one of the most shocking things that he’s doing now, that deliberately, directly contradicts the Immigration Nationality Act of 1965, is saying that he’s not going to allow people to apply for asylum if they reach the U.S. border, if they cross the U.S. border. Now, the INA, which has been law since 1965, complies with international law by stating that anybody in the United States has the right to apply for asylum. Trump is now saying that if you come into the United States without documents you do not have the right to apply for asylum. So many of the people who–so this is a direct contravention of of U.S. law. It’s different from what was the case under Obama, and has been the case since 1965, and is definitely going to be challenged in the courts, but it’s just being threatened or being implemented now until it’s successfully challenged.

One thing that we’ve seen happen over the past 15 years has been a large rise in both unaccompanied young people crossing the border and families crossing the border. So the detention of unaccompanied minors and the detention of families have been issues that have been contested repeatedly. But since 1997 we have been operating under the Flores Agreement signed by the Clinton administration, which states that unaccompanied minors must be must be detained under the least restrictive conditions possible, and must be released as quickly as possible to family members or guardians. Trump is really trying to overturn that, as well.

One of the ways that he’s trying to prevent that, and one of the things that’s contributing to having large numbers of young people in detention, is saying that if potential sponsors or guardians for these young people have to be vetted by ICE–by Health and Human Services, HHS, but that that information will be turned over to ICE. So many of the children are coming here to families who include undocumented people. And it’s now become impossible for those families to step up to take these children on, and this is causing children to be kept for long periods of time in detention.

Family detention is yet another thing. Since 2014, the Obama administration actually–so, what happens when children come with families? Can they be detained indefinitely with their families? Or did the Flores agreement apply to them, too? Well, Obama tried to allow for long-term family detention. There are several family detention centers in the United States; two of them built under Obama. But in theory, the Flores–according to the courts, Flores also applies to children who are detained with their parents. Now, Trump is trying to use this in order to separate children from their parents. This was what he resorted to. Whereas under Obama parents were then released with their children, now Trump is trying to use it to insist that children be detained with their parents, and trying to use this to try to force–again, to try to sort of undermine people’s rights under asylum law.

MARC STEINER: We saw in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle there was an article that talked about over 14,000 children are now being detained; separated from their families, or–either came across more about themselves, or have been separated from their families. But 14,000 children detained. I mean, what do we know about the–what do you know, what do we know about the conditions in those facilities for both those children, those 14,000 children, which is a huge number of kids by themselves, and there’s 44,000 numbers of people who are being also detained. What are the controversies around the conditions that we know about people are being held in?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Well, the children are under the auspices of HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But these agencies do not have the capacity to hold that kind of number of children. The system that was set up under the Flores settlement of putting the children under the control of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement was to try to get them out of immigration detention and into conditions where they would have access to education, where they would be quickly reunited with their families, because these are agencies that are like social service agencies for actually helping people.

But these agencies are completely overwhelmed. So they’ve been building tent cities. I mean, they have no choice, because they are forced to comply with the regulations that were imposed. But HHS has been complaining about the situation. They want to be able to release the children to families. So they’ve been building tent cities. The systems that were set up to grant children access to decent conditions, to education, to recreation, all of those have just been sort of totally thrown out the door under these new regulations with the huge increase in number of children who are being kept in detention.

In terms of immigrant detention more broadly, aside from the child detention system, this is actually, like–the numbers are higher now, but they’re not that much higher now, because the norm over the past 10, 20 years has been having 33,000 beds filled a night. So now we’re up into the 40,000s. So it is a significant increase, but it’s not something that’s like completely unprecedented or new the way what’s happening with the children is. Most of these immigrants are kept in private detention centers. There’s very little oversight–that is, privately run detention centers. Part of the private prison system. It’s a for-profit system. And the conditions tend to be very, very bad. And the other thing that you should know about the immigrant detention system is that because it’s separate from the criminal justice system, the minimal rights that people have when they’re detained under the criminal justice system they don’t have under the immigrant detention system. So there’s no guarantee–they don’t even have to be informed as to why they’re being detained. They don’t have to be offered bonds, or even have a bond hearing. They don’t have the right to legal representation. So people are just basically being thrown into dungeons.

MARC STEINER: And the privatization, this process of privatization that we’re seeing now, I mean, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on these private corporations. And the consequence of that, not just in terms of costing more, but just that you, what you just described–there’s no oversight. We don’t know what’s going on inside there. These are private companies housing people, immigrants, with our public money, and we have no idea what’s happening in those institutions, and very hard to get inside to see what’s happening.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Aalthough I should say that even in the publicly run prison system, most of the population of the United States has no idea what’s going on in there. So it’s not only in the private system.

MARC STEINER: Right. Right. And so when you see this juxtaposed what’s happening on our border right now, the march is coming from Honduras, through Mexico. Many are in Tijuana. More are on the way. And this is being used as, seen by Trump as this invasion force of of Central Americans, coming to America to take whatever these people are trying to take. Set up for what you think could possibly happen here. This is–I mean, this is huge. We’re talking about–and I’ve seen numbers from 2000 to 8000 now, nobody really knows exactly how many people are marching. What do we know about that? What do we need to know about that?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Well, so the first people from the caravan have arrived in Tijuana, and they’re not receiving a very warm welcome in Tijuana, either. Tijuana also doesn’t have–because of the new regulations, the proclamation made by Trump, that people who cross the border outside of authorized border points are not going to be granted the right to ask for asylum. And that is going to be for the next 90 days. Again, that’s going to be challenged in court. But right now that is standing. So anybody who crosses the border is going to be deprived of their right to ask for asylum, which is what most of–I mean, this is something that has happened a lot, especially with young people and families, is that they cross the border outside of a border, an authorized border crossing point. But their goal is to be picked up byU.S. Border Patrol so that they can request asylum. So that option has been gotten rid of.

Now, Trump is saying everybody should go through the authorized entry points. But those other entry points are not equipped to deal with anything like the numbers of people that there are. And that’s what’s pushing people to cross unauthorized. If there were actually enough agents and a system and a process for people to cross through authorized boarder points, everybody would be going there. Nobody wants to risk their life crossing in the desert if they could actually go through an authorized border point. But those are so clogged up people are waiting for weeks or months to even get to the border point to be able to request asylum.

And Tijuana also has no way of dealing with this huge influx of population that’s happening. There simply aren’t facilities. Shelters in Tijuana are being overrun. So this is a, this is a humanitarian crisis completely of the making of the U.S. administration, and it has no plan for how to deal with it except to hope that people die. I mean, it’s horrifying.

MARC STEINER: When you say the, completely of this administration’s making, completely of the making of the United States government. So let’s talk about the origins of this caravan in Honduras, at the border, where they’re actually treated very well by most Mexican people on the way to the border. It’s when they got to Tijuana that people kind of turned on them, at the border in Tijuana itself. So what do you mean of the making of this country when it comes to this caravan, and what can happen next?

AVIVA CHOMSKY: OK. So when I just said that a moment ago, I was referring what’s happening in Tijuana today.

MARC STEINER: OK. I’m sorry. OK, gotcha.

That is, the [crosstalk] by the Trump administration; the way the United States is dealing with the border at this very moment. But you’re absolutely right. As I said the words I was hearing them in the back of my mind, that this humanitarian crisis that is driving people out of Honduras is also of the making of the United States. That is, Central America has been treated as the so-called backyard of the United States for 150 years. There’s been repeated U.S. interventions to establish an economic system that’s to the benefit of U.S. investors. And whether this is the banana companies in Honduras in the 19th century, first half of the 20th century; the maquiladoras, the investors, the neoliberal system. Honduras also served as the staging point for the U.S. war against the Nicaraguan revolution, so the entire country of Honduras was turned into basically a U.S. Army military base.

And since the end of the Central American wars, Central America has been turned into a manufacturing base for the United States. And when I talk about this in my classes and ask students to look at the tags on their clothing, they find ‘Made in Honduras,’ ‘Made in El Salvador,’ ‘Made in Guatemala,’ ‘Made in Nicaragua.’

But in Honduras specifically we need to go back to 2009 and the coup that was carried out under the Obama administration–I should point out, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–with the total approval of the United States. A military coup carried out to overthrow a popularly elected, mildly progressive president who was trying to implement some policies in the interests of Honduran peasants and workers. Now, if you’re a Central American political leader and you try to implement policies in the interests of peasants and workers in your country, you are automatically seen as working against the interests of U.S. corporations in your country, because the U.S. corporations want the maximum conditions for profit. Peasants and workers want a share of the resources and returns on the labor that they do in their country.

So this was just one of many, many historical cases where the United States has intervened to put into place a ruler who’s going to be more compliant towards the interests of U.S. corporations with absolutely devastating effects for the population. And that’s what the population of Honduras is suffering under now, and that is precisely the context that’s leading to so many people fleeing the economic disaster and violence that was implemented by that government that was put into place by the United States.

MARC STEINER: So I conclude here, Aviva, I know you’re not prescient. No one really is. But you have a really serious and deep analysis. Where do you think this can lead, what’s happening now at the border? The combination of the numbers of people being detained in the United States, being arrested, children and adults both; and this massive group of people, massive in terms of numbers, whether there’s two, three, four, or 5000, whatever the number really is, coming to the border. What could be the outcome of all this? I mean, this is–it looks like we’re at a point where something could kind of really erupt.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Well, I have to say that the border–I last visited the border in March of 2010. Again, that was under the Obama administration. The humanitarian disaster in the border is not new. We’re at a particularly grave moment in this humanitarian disaster with what’s going on right now, but it is not new. The border has been a humanitarian disaster for decades already, dating at least back to the Clinton administration and the new sets of policies put into place under the Clintons, under Bill Clinton, to try to criminalize immigrants, and kill immigrants, and turn immigrants–make it impossible for immigrants to get to the United States. So you know, take the humanitarian disaster that I witnessed in 2010 and multiply it by 500, and you have the humanitarian disaster that is just in the making right at this very moment.

What could possibly happen? You know, we have a new Congress. Is it going to rein in Trump a little bit and try to restore some humanitarian rights for these migrants? That’s a possibility. We have a lot of organizations around the country trying to challenge these policies on many different levels, from immigrant accompaniment to legal challenges that have gone all the way up to the Supreme Court, and we’ll continue to do so. We definitely have voices in Congress that are going to be coming out in favor of the human rights of immigrants. But where it’s going to go, I tremble to imagine. Things could very well get much worse on the border before they get better.

MARC STEINER: Well, Aviva Chomsky, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I appreciate you taking the time here at Real News for us today. Thank you so much, and I look forward to talk to you again very soon, and we’ll see how this unfolds. Thank you so much, Aviva.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Thanks, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Our guest has been Aviva Chomsky. I’m Marc Steiner. Thanks for watching us here on The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Take care.

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Aviva Chomsky is a Professor of History and coordinator of Latin American Studies at the Salem State University and author of many books the latest 'Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal'.