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IPS’s Khuri Peterson-Smith joins Marc Steiner to talk about the connection between the new US military budget and its direct connection to the the immigration crisis and Trump’s policies in both areas

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to be here, glad you’re with us.

This has been a week that saw Congress pass a $716 billion military budget, while Trump announced his intention to drastically curtail immigration and completely redefine what is a refugee, and who is a refugee, and who can immigrate to the United States. What’s behind this influx of refugees and migrants? What’s the connection between this expanded military budget and immigration to this country?

Well, that’s what we’re going to explore in this episode here at Real News with Khury Peterson-Smith, who is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. and Khury, welcome. Good to have you with us.

KHURY PETERSON-SMITH: I appreciate being here, thank you.

MARC STEINER: It was interesting, because when I first knew you were coming on, I read the piece you wrote in In These Times on immigration. Which I thought was fascinating, because you took us behind immigration, and told the story under immigration in terms of what causes people fleeing from El Salvador and Guatemala, what causes people to flee from Yemen and get out, what causes people to leave Syria, which is what we don’t look at, and what our involvement is as Americans. And then I was thinking about the military budget, which I know you’re also working on, and what that means. And really, they’re tied together.

But let me start at immigration, and work my way to the military budget with you. Because when we look at where we spend our money, one of the things you posited in the immigration piece that you put up was that what we don’t talk about is how our own policies have fueled the immigration that we have to America today, and the immigration across the globe.

KHURY PETERSON-SMITH: Yeah, it’s absolutely right. I mean, it’s a very good and important thing, actually, that there’s been so much attention in the U.S. in the past couple of months to the question of migration, and the horrendous practices of United States commits and its border, detaining migrants, detaining families and separating families, and caging children. There’s been too little attention, I believe, even among those of us who are in solidarity with migrants, and who are calling for their entry into the United States. There’s been too little discussion about what situations are so nightmarish and so many people would make that perilous trip north, and from Central America. And to ask that question and answer it honestly, one has to ask what the United States has done historically in Central America, and what it continues to do in El Salvador, and in Honduras, and Guatemala.

And then it’s also the case, I pointed this out in the piece, you know, we are in a really horrific and dramatic way, I think, people in this country were forced, we came face to face with the reality of what the U.S. is doing at the southern border. But there’s quite a distance between the conversations that we have here in the U.S. and what the United States does in a country like Yemen, and the Yemeni migrants who also are trying to get into this country, and who are also barred from doing so in so many ways, including Trump’s infamous travel ban.

MARC STEINER: So you talk in this one article you wrote in In These Times about how the bogeyman thrown up a lot by President Trump is MS-13, the El Salvadorean gang. But we don’t talk about what you did talk about, which was the root of that gang, and what the root of that gang is, and also the root of why people fled El Salvador and Guatemala in their civil wars that we helped fuel with our money. So talk a bit about that as we kind of wind our way into this military budget.

KHURY PETERSON-SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s really striking. I think we have a problem- we have a lot of problems in the U.S. But one of them is that there are discussions about policies carried out by the government, and there’s no historical context whatsoever. You know, and so Donald Trump demonizes people from Central America. He calls them criminals and says that they are part of this gang MS-13. And there’s no conversation whatsoever about the history of migration from Central America to this country, or the history of MS-13, et cetera.

So you know, throughout the 1980s the United States supported really brutal right-wing regimes in El Salvador, and in Guatemala, and in Honduras, actually. Right-wing paramilitary death squads in those countries. And created a situation that was so horrendous that many people from Central America, from those countries, came north in the 1980s and into the 1990s. While they were- the U.S. responded to that migration in a number of different ways. One through repression, and there was actually really amazing solidarity movement here in the ’80s to win sanctuary for people coming north. There were points where the U.S. actually granted in 1986, a number of migrants from Central America were granted amnesty. And then there are also other times when the U.S. is more repressive.

Well, in the 1990s- actually during the ’80s and ’90s, especially in the ’90s when mass incarceration really exploded in this country, among the people ensnared in incarceration were migrants from Central America, from El Salvador in particular. So MS-13 as a gang, really, it’s not accurate to point to it as this thing that just originated abroad in El Salvador, and now is coming to the U.S. borders. In fact, the gang, members, there were Salvadoreans who join gangs in Los Angeles, where there were a number of gangs and people joining gangs. For a number of reasons, including to protect themselves and their communities. But those gangs were incubated in the prisons of Southern California, and then Salvadoran migrants were deported back in El Salvador. And it was really in that dynamic between people migrating north, being incarcerated, and being deported back, it was that context that produced MS-13, among other things.

So we should have an honest conversation about the role of the United States actually producing a number of nightmarish situations in Central America, including the emergence of MS-13 as a gang.

MARC STEINER: So this may be a difficult bridge for some people to cross. I’m going to to across this bridge with you. So we saw just a few days ago that Donald Trump announced that he wants to change immigration and refugee policy to limit families from being able to bring people into this country, and bring their relatives into this country, and base this on what skills people could bring rather than what we’ve done historically in the United States, even given what happened under the Obama administration, in a negative sense. At the same time, we just passed the largest military budget, $716 billion. And the budget that was passed was a budget that focuses a great deal on Russia and China, focuses on war and support of Saudi Arabia, and other countries like Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Peninsula, Oman and more. And which is also fueling this refugee crisis, and fueling the kind of terror that’s taking place in Yemen.

And what we don’t often make a connection here is you have this military budget that also is what fueled the migration out of Latin America. And tie in the idea of why refugees run, where war money comes from, and how we spend the military budget and why it was pushed through so fast, faster than it ever has been before in the history of Congress, tie that very difficult knot for us.

KHURY PETERSON-SMITH: Yeah, it’s really important make those connections. The first thing, I just think it has to be said, that migration, the freedom to migrate is a human right. And it’s on that basis alone that people should be able to come to this country and go anywhere they please from where they come from, not on the basis of what skills they bring or whether or not they’re contributions to the U.S. economy, they have the right to come here. But for what it’s worth, it’s the United States, actions of the United States is actually what produces migration in so many ways to begin with. So it’s really, I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say at all that the military budget is part of military operations projecting U.S. military power. It’s also part of a war on migrants.

So if we’re talking about- of course there are so many regions that we could talk about. But let’s talk about Yemen in particular, where, by the way, just today Saudi and United Arab Emirates aircraft bombed a schoolbus full of children, wounding and killing dozens of children who were in a summer camp in Yemen. Those bombs were from the United States. The aircraft is made in the United States. The aircraft are refueled by American planes. So in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are carrying on a scorched earth war. The United States is essentially doing everything except dropping the bombs itself.

So that is the situation in Yemen that makes people want to leave. It’s such, it’s such a nightmarish reality. And it’s also the case that not only does the budget that was just passed by Congress continue in practice to fund those atrocities by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and other U.S. allies, it also gives money to Oman to strengthen so-called border security. And Oman actually happens to be building a wall on its border with Yemen. So the United States is not only contributing to making a hellish reality for people in Yemen, is also contributing to walling in the people of Yemen; not only keeping Yemenis out of the United States with the travel ban, but even keeping them out of neighboring Oman by funding so-called border security for the Omani state.

MARC STEINER: And oddly enough, this military budget that was just sent by Congress also does some very strange things. I mean, it takes back some of the restrictions that were going to be put on Russia in terms of, in terms of allowing Russia to sell arms and parts to other countries. So that there would have been against Russia. It also takes back some of the trade war with China that Trump wants to do. So it’s a very, kind of a strange budget that ties all these things together. And I think that sometimes we don’t get into the nuances of what all this really means and how it could affect where we’re going over next several years.

KHURY PETERSON-SMITH: Right. Yeah, it’s complicated because it also gives more funding to European allies of the United States to actually militarize Europe at Russia’s borders. So I believe the way to read the budget is that on one hand it is funding really inexcusable things the United States is doing right now, but it’s also preparing for conflicts in the future. It really has an eye to the future.

So just to give you one example, one of the things that the budget funds is $65 million for research and development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, so-called low-yield nuclear weapons. Now, the notion of a low-yield nuclear weapon is so misleading, because there’s no such thing as a nuclear weapon that’s limited in its destruction. But the idea is to create so-called tactical nuclear weapons that can be used on the battlefield. It’s worth, by the way, saying that as we’re talking about nuclear weapons and the U.S. funding a new generation of research and development for them, today is the 73rd anniversary of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Just a few days ago it was the 73rd anniversary of the U.S. dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. And the United States remains the only country in world history using nuclear bombs in combat.

So that said, if you look at the supposed, the so-called war on terror that the U.S. is waging, really throughout the world, you know, even from a kind of military strategist standpoint, why would you need nuclear weapons? There’s no there’s no basis for, you don’t need nuclear weapons or new naval ships, which the budget also funds, to fight al Qaeda or ISIS. These aren’t naval powers. But China and Russia are. Actually, that’s what this budget has an eye to, is future conflict with these rising powers.

MARC STEINER: Well, Khury Peterson-Smith, Institute for Policy Studies, it is really a pleasure to talk with you. And we’re really looking forward here at The Real News to bring you back to delve into both immigration and military issues and more, and to bring your voice to the airwaves. Good to have you with us. Thank you so much.

KHURY PETERSON-SMITH: I really appreciate it. Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. Thank you all so much for viewing. We’ll talk together soon. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.