Cesar Vargas of Dream Action Coalition and Helena Olea of Alianza Americas discuss Donald Trump’s address to the nation on the wall and border security – with Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
On Tuesday night, Donald Trump was so alarmed at what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexican border, the crisis, that he had to interrupt primetime television across the country on major networks and cable TV in order to raise the alarm to the American populace. Here’s a little clip from that speech.
DONALD TRUMP: Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with criminal records, including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes and 4000 violent killings.
PAUL JAY: That was Donald Trump Tuesday night in his address to the nation. Bernie Sanders came on a little later in the evening and pointed out that, according to an American government report, something like 90 percent of the drugs that come across our “southern border” come through legal ports and are smuggled in through that way. It has absolutely nothing to do with refugees coming from Central America. And I’m sure you’ll find, all over the internet, many refutations of Trump distortions in that speech. But tonight, we’re going to try to dig in to a little bit more of why there is a crisis, perhaps not the one Trump is describing.
And now joining us to discuss Trump’s speech, first of all, from Chicago is Helena Olea. Helena is an international human rights lawyer serving Alianza America as human rights adviser. She’s also a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice and Latin American and Latino Studies. And joining us from New York is Cesar Vargas. Cesar is the codirector of the Dream Action Coalition and one of New York’s first undocumented attorneys. Thank you both for joining us.
CESAR VARGAS: Thank you so much for having us.
HELENA OLEA: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: Helena, let me start with you. There is a crisis. To the link of the crisis to heroin, we’re in Baltimore where our headquarters is, and to think that refugees coming from Central America are creating the heroin crisis in Baltimore is beyond–I can’t even call it a joke, it’s too morbid, including the American war on drugs that has helped create the conditions for having such a market for such drugs. But the confrontation that’s taking place at the border, the mass movement of refugees for decades really now, but it’s certainly gotten worse recently. And it ain’t for no reason people are risking such a horrible journey. And even if they’re successful getting into the United States, they face pretty horrific conditions.
Off camera, you told me, while we discussed how the roots of much of this has been U.S. foreign policy over the decades, and a very bipartisan U.S. foreign policy, the Democratic Party have been as much involved in supporting the oligarchy in Central America and such, although perhaps the Republicans slightly more viciously, but not necessarily, but the Trump administration has actually made this crisis worse. What did you mean by that?
HELENA OLEA: Well, I think that when we look at the root causes and we look in particular into the situation of the Northern Triangle of Central America, we should look at what Trump’s policy has been regarding both Guatemala and Honduras in particular. We should remember that the current president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was reelected through a very fraught electoral process. And the first president that was congratulating him and expressing his support was president Donald Trump, and that’s why he was able to remain in power.
We should also not forget the crisis regarding corruption and impunity in Guatemala, in which the UN has tried to bring about a commission to address the rule of law in Guatemala, and the fact that there is no support to that commission and that the Guatemalan government is trying to expel that commission from the country. And once again, the U.S. government has been silent. So what we have is the U.S. government contributing to aggravate the conditions in those countries, which are the root causes that are expelling those thousands of individuals who are trying to seek the conditions of protection and of safety that they are not finding in their countries of origin.
PAUL JAY: Describe a little bit the conditions people are escaping, particularly women and children, and sometimes even children on their own, making this horrific journey.
HELENA OLEA: Well, we have, first, organized crime operating at a very great scale. Many individuals leave because they have to pay bribes to the gangs, and if they do not, they are really fearing for their lives. And many just flee after a family member is killed by a gang, we should not forget that. Women are also victims of all forms of gender violence in the country and they do not find any form of protection or any form of justice in the country. And so, many of them decide to take this very dangerous journey, understanding that they really risk being raped because they are trying to seek the protection that they are not finding in their countries of origin.
So if we do not address the root causes, we are going to continue observing these numbers of individuals fleeing, who have now found in these massive flows, the conditions of protection traveling through Mexico that they were not finding before. And that’s why we are observing the increasing numbers in the northern border of Mexico.
PAUL JAY: Cesar, some people here, especially people that might have voted for Trump, but not only, they say, “Well, there’s gang violence that’s driving people out, why is that our problem, why is that our fault? If these societies can’t control their own violence, then why should American people pay the cost for that?”
CESAR VARGAS: Well, Helena pointed out something very, very accurate, that when we talk about immigration, we’re not just talking about the eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S or we’re talking about the Dreamers, those who came here as children. But when we are talking about immigration, we need to consider the past, which is foreign intervention that the U.S. has played a key part in, destabilizing regions in Central America and across the world. So when people are leaving their homes, yes, it’s not a consequence of the U.S. saying, “Hey, we’re going to come here,” but it’s throughout history. Like in 1954, in Guatemala, at the behest of the United Fruit Company, a U.S. company, the CIA overthrew a democratically elected president. In 1973 in Chile, the U.S. participated and funded General Pinochet’s overthrow of another democratically elected government. We’re seeing the consequences of this right now.
So when we are talking about immigration, let’s remember that the U.S. has played a part and we need to take responsibility. Where we are at this moment, it’s about ensuring that when we are discussing any possible legislative solution, we need to address, yes, the undocumented population, yes, we need to address border security, but we also need to address foreign policy to ensure that we are not the cause of people being displaced, whether it’s in Central America, South America, Europe, the Middle East, we need to be a better neighbor to the world to ensure that we don’t have this crisis happening right at our borders.
PAUL JAY: Helena, Trump focuses a lot on gang violence in the United States that has its roots in Central America. But is that actually where the roots of some of these gangs came from?
HELENA OLEA: No, I think that your question is great. We should remember that the crisis started with gang members in the U.S. who were deported to Central America. So there is a very clear connection between the gangs in Central America and the gangs in the U.S. And Central America has had to grapple with the gangs which were imported to those countries from the U.S. So it’s really a crisis created in the U.S. and exported to Central America.
PAUL JAY: Now, it’s several decades that there has been this kind of migration. There was a peak, I think, in 2014, but it’s continued. Why, all of a sudden, has this become such the issue? In terms of the size of the American population and the American economy, this is really small stuff, but it’s become such a big issue, at least in terms of electoral politics. Helena, you go first.
HELENA OLEA: Well, I think that we have to remember, and the speech tonight was also a replay of the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump has really used this xenophobic discourse against immigrants as part of his political platform. And so, this idea that immigrants are responsible for crime in the U.S. has been central his political stance. And that’s why he’s bringing over and over again the same issue and he is replaying these, as you pointed before, false facts in terms the of responsibility of immigrants for crime in the U.S. which are absolutely false.
PAUL JAY: Cesar, I want to play you a clip from Chuck Schumer. This is a line that he sort of ended his counter to Trump with.
CHUCK SCHUMER: The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a thirty foot wall.
PAUL JAY: The Statue of Liberty should be the symbol of America, not a thirty foot wall. It’s a nice line. The problem is Chuck Schumer is the Senator that’s most closely associated with representing Wall Street and the values that actually led to a tiny percent, one percent, controlling most of the wealth not only in the United States but of the world. And Chuck Schumer was very closely connected with Barack Obama, whose nickname was Deporter in Chief. The counter to the Trump Wall that the Democrats are putting forward, which is what, I think they want 1.2, 1.3 billion to beef up border security and so on, they don’t want a big thirty foot wall. But aren’t they actually buying into the same kind of underlying assumption of what the problem is and what the solution is, even if maybe it’s a difference in scale, but not really in substance?
CESAR VARGAS: Absolutely. Both parties are at fault where we are at this moment. Both parties have contributed to this crisis, whether it’s in 2006 when Senator Chuck Schumer, the person who’s claiming that the U.S. should be represented by the Statue of Liberty, well he’s the one that supported 700 miles of border fencing, wall, you name it, it’s the same still concept. And in 2014 when the Senate was debating comprehensive immigration reform, they also, him and along with some Republicans, put forward almost 40 billion dollars for border enforcement, walls and so forth. So yes, both parties are at fault.
At the reality where we are at this moment, President Trump is clearly fear-mongering and is distracting with what’s an issue, which is an economy that favors the ultra-wealthy, when we are seeing CEOs getting paid 300 times in comparison to a worker that’s making about 68,000 dollars, compared to 1978 when they were making about 30 times over their worker. We are seeing a discrepancy in our economy where workers are making less, both in the U.S. and across the world. And what happens? It’s natural push-pull factors. People are going to leave their home country if they don’t have an opportunity to feed their children and vice versa. Here in the U.S., people get desperate, people get fearful when they cannot pay their mortgage. And what happens? People point fingers at each other, whereas politicians in Washington DC keep playing games with people’s lives. And we need that to stop.
PAUL JAY: Now, Trump, in his speech, said that illegal migration, illegal immigration, drives down wages, strains public resources, “drives down jobs and wages” was his quote. How do you respond to that?
CESAR VARGAS: Well, a White House top economic advisor has written, before he joined the Trump administration, he said that immigrants spur economic growth. And there is countless research, whether it’s the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showing that undocumented immigrants contribute eleven billion dollars to city and state economies, thirteen billion dollars into Social Security, money that many baby boomers, pretty much native born Americans, are going to be counting on when they retire or when they get hurt at the job.
PAUL JAY: But when undocumented workers fear for their lives, fear deportation, it seems to me that it’s kind of obvious they are willing to work for lower wages than people who are citizens, and that may have a downward pressure on wages.
CESAR VARGAS: Oh, no question. No question about it. But all the economists have proven this, that only if they compete directly in the job. So for example, if they are competing with farm workers, of course they’re going to be lowering jobs. But legal and undocumented immigrants are doing the jobs that Americans won’t do, whether it’s farm working, agriculture, cleaning, delivering food.
PAUL JAY: But the counterargument to that is Americans won’t do them because of such low wages. There is a point where Americans will do it if wages get high enough.
CESAR VARGAS: We are living at a time where it’s not about who gets paid less or who gets paid a penny more, it’s about when employers, whether it’s Amazon receiving multibillion dollar subsidies at the expense of taxpayers, that’s what we’re talking about, that it’s not the immigrant that’s at fault, it’s simply our economic policies do not help our economy, do not help our population to build the American dream that we saw in 1978 a few years ago.
PAUL JAY: See, this is something that’s kind of been bothering me when I hear advocates like yourself, and I’m not trying to pick on you. Because I think the answer is not that there’s some general economic plus from having undocumented workers here or it’s because of the bad policies of employers. I mean, all that’s true of course, but I think the key issue here is the reason there’s a downward pressure, to whatever extent it is, at the low end of the wage scale, is because people are being terrorized. And when people are being terrorized, threat of deportation, arrest, jailing, yeah they’ll work for lower wages.
So what’s the solution? Citizenship and stop terrorizing people so people have the ability to organize into unions and join already citizen Americans in a fight for better wages. I don’t hear that argument made enough, linking the issue of low wages to the issue of ending the terror by full legalization. It would be so much in the interest of all American workers if there wasn’t this large undocumented workforce.
CESAR VARGAS: And you have said it perfectly. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the past 20, 25 years, to get a path to citizenship for all immigrants so we can all have a level playing field and make sure that everyone gets a decent wage and allow our economy to actually boom for everyone, not just a few.
PAUL JAY: Helena, just a final question. You were saying earlier off camera that you think the specific Trump policies at the border is making the crisis worse. What are you talking about?
HELENA OLEA: It’s trying to deter asylum seekers from being able to request protection in the U.S. And he has put in place a number of practices, one of them named “metering,” which establishes a cap in the number of persons who are interviewed daily among those thousands that are waiting in the border trying to seek asylum to the U.S. So Trump is trying to deter asylum seekers by simply making them wait a longer period of time in Mexico with the expectation that some of them may decide to ultimately seek asylum in Mexico, or that they may be deported or something will happen. So this is a crisis that has been made by the Trump administration.
He has also decided to put emphasis on some policies over another. He eliminated the priorities in terms of immigration enforcement. And so, this is a crisis in the making by the Trump administration. And if we really want to address that crisis, then we should be looking into the humanitarian protection needs of those asylum seekers, not in deterring them.
PAUL JAY: But Trump supporters will say that the facilities are overwhelmed by the numbers.
HELENA OLEA: But there are ways in which they do not have to remain in detention. They can be released immediately and then they would not be overwhelmed. There are policy changes that can be made if we want to address our humanitarian and international human rights obligations.
PAUL JAY: OK. Well, we’ll pick this up again in another interview and talk more specifically what those things would look like. Thank you both for joining us.
CESAR VARGAS: Thank you so much.
HELENA OLEA: Thank you very much.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.