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“Worst of the American Spirit”: Advocates Decry Anti-Immigrant Protests, Urge Asylum for Children

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As thousands of migrants continue to arrive in the United States seeking escape from violence in Central America, this week the Texas town of League City passed a resolution banning undocumented children from entering its municipality. The move echoes sentiments that flared up just before July 4 in Murrieta, California, when police blocked three buses of migrants from reaching a federal immigration facility there. The buses carrying dozens of children flown in from an overcrowded detention center in Texas were then surrounded by demonstrators who chanted anti-immigrant slogans. “A society is judged on how we treat our children, and what we witnessed that day was the worst of the American spirit,” says Enrique Morones, director of the group Border Angels. This comes as reports show Honduran children are increasingly being targeted by gang violence and Border Patrol statistics indicate a strong correlation between Central American cities with high homicide rates and waves of children who come to the United States. “What we need to do is give them, as we would refugees anywhere else in the world, access to territory and access to procedures in order to establish their status and care for them as people who need international protection,” says Shelly Pitterman, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office in Washington, D.C. He represents the office to the United States and Caribbean governments.

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StoryJul 17, 2014U.S. Turns Back on Child Migrants After Its Policies in Guatemala, Honduras Sowed Seeds of Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue now to look at the humanitarian crisis unfolding with thousands of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. This week the Texas town of League City passed a resolution banning undocumented children from entering its municipality, and refusing to accept federal funds to operation detention centers in the city. The move echoes sentiments that flared up just before July 4th in Southern California, when right-wing demonstrators blocked three buses of migrants from reaching a federal immigration facility in the town of Murrieta. The buses were carrying dozens of children flown in from an overcrowded detention center in Texas. Demonstrators blocked the road and chanted anti-immigrant slogans.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this week, immigrant supporters gathered in Murrieta to hold a vigil calling for compassion—among them, the parents of two detained minors, aged 10 and seven, who were taken into custody in Texas, are now being held in a shelter awaiting processing. This is their mother, Elva.

ELVA: [translated] At this moment, my only wish is to hug my children and to have them close and tell them I love them. I want to be able to recuperate all the missed time that has passed without them. But sometimes it’s not possible to make up that time. I just want to make sure that they are OK.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This family is from Guatemala, and they’re among thousands who are fleeing violence there as well as in Honduras and El Salvador. The New York Times reports Honduran children are increasingly being targeted by gang violence. In June, 32 children were murdered in Honduras, bringing the number of youths under 18 killed since January of last year to more than 400. Border Patrol statistics show a strong correlation between cities with high homicide rates and waves of young people who come to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations refugee agency says it’s witnessing extreme violence on the ground in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Asylum claims from those three countries have skyrocketed more than 700 percent in the last five years. This comes as the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have sued the U.S. government for its failure to provide legal representation to immigrant children in deportation proceedings. The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight immigrants aged 10 to 17 who the ACLU says have not been able to find a lawyer.

For more, we’re joined in San Diego by Enrique Morones, director of Border Angels.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Enrique. Can you tell us what happened in that confrontation with migrants, young migrants coming into town, and the police and the anti-immigrant activists who blocked them?

ENRIQUE MORONES: Sure, Amy. A pleasure to be with you and Juan. So, a couple of Tuesdays ago, I was here in San Diego, very busy with our work with Border Angels, when I got a call that maybe I should go up to Murrieta, because there were some protesters being very loud and chanting these anti-immigrant and racist slogans, and maybe I should go up there. It’s an hour north of San Diego. So I went up there. I went up there, I did a couple of interviews, and I went to observe.

And what I observed was the freedom of speech in action, which everybody supports. The protesters were on the sidewalk yelling their chants and so forth. I was just minding my own business. And then I saw the three buses coming in. And Juan mentioned the buses being turned back. I want to make it very clear that those three buses were turned back by the Murrieta police, not by the protesters, because as the buses were approaching, the Murrieta police stepped in front of the buses and blocked the buses, which made absolutely no sense, because they could have just kept on driving and gone into the Border Patrol facility. So I told one of the officers, “Why are you stopping the buses there?” And then a protester came out, and then other protesters came out, and of the 50 protesters that were there in total, about half of them eventually came out in front of the bus, as did about 25 or 30 media people. And they were banging—the protesters were banging the American flag against the bus, screaming these racist taunts.

And it was horrific to see, because the children inside the bus and their moms were crying. They don’t speak English, but they understand hate. And it brought tears to my eyes, and I even saw some media people with teary eyes, because we saw the worst of the American spirit. Regardless of how you feel about this issue, which side of the political aisle you’re on, these are children. These are children, and we need to embrace and love our children. And a society is judged on how we treat our children. And what we witnessed that day was the worst of the American spirit. And I really believe that that moment will live in infamy. And it can be the turning point, as it already has become a little bit, in this immigration issue. We really need to have humane immigration policies. They don’t exist in this country right now. And the whole world saw that hateful display of those 50 people, and the consciousness of this country is saying, “That is not who we are.” That is not who we are. And I’m asking President Obama that when he tucks his two girls in, and they ask him, “Daddy, are you doing everything possible to help those children?” he can be honest and say, “Yes, I am,” because he stated it’s a humanitarian crisis. And it is. We need a humanitarian solution, and we have not seen that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Enrique, when I interviewed you last week for my column in the Daily News on this subject, you told me that you recognized a lot of the most vocal of these anti-immigrant activists that day, the protesters, from other right-wing movements and causes in the—that you’ve witnessed in Southern California now over decades. Could you talk about that?

ENRIQUE MORONES: Sure, that’s right. Thank God, the Minuteman movement has pretty much shut down. This country would not tolerate that type of hate. But some of the individuals are still around, and some of those individuals were there in Murrieta that day. They’re not from Murrieta. Of the 50 people, I would say about half of them were from Murrieta, and the other half were these ex-Minuteman type of people—neo-Nazis, members of the Federation of American Immigration Reform—people that have been practicing hate for a long time. And they have gathered there, like they had gathered a week earlier in Escondido, when they said, “We don’t want the children in Escondido,” and they were saying the same old things. They have the same signs, the exact same signs. And they have the same sayings about disease and criminals and so forth, the chants.

And it’s a very scary group, because it only takes one. And my example that I usually use is Shawna Forde, a member of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a hate group, from Yakima, Washington, comes to San Diego, trains with the then-San Diego Minutemen, goes to Arizona and kills nine-year-old Brisenia Flores. Hate talk—people like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, before he was fired—hate talk leads to hate actions. Shawna Forde is an example of that. What we saw there, what we saw there in Murrieta with those people, that was—they were motivated by hate talk from some of these right-wing nativists that promote these ideas and these messages that aren’t true, but get these people all riled up. And we saw what happened. That hate talk got them all fired up, and it was horrible.

AMY GOODMAN: Enrique, I wanted you to respond to the right-wing pundit Glenn Beck, who asked his supporters to donate money so he could bring food, water and teddy bears to the migrant children held in detention at the border. In the same show, he also said he would be going to the border to document immigrants being released from custody after they were caught.

GLENN BECK: Through no fault of their own, they are caught in political crossfire. And while we continue to put pressure on Washington and change its course of lawlessness, we must also help. It is not an either/or. It is both. We have to be active in the political game, and we must open our heart. I have never taken a position more deadly to my career than this, and I have never, ever taken a position that is more right than this. I’m going down on the border on July, I think it’s 18th—it’s a Saturday, 19th, and I’m going to bring my cameras down. And I’m trying to see if we can even maybe spend a night, that night, at the border with some night vision cameras to show you how bad it is. I don’t need to show you that. You know how bad it is. I’m going to show you the illegals who are being caught and released.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the right-wing pundit Glenn Beck. Enrique Morones, your response? And also, going back to the point of it not just being the activists, but the police, reminding us of, for example, Selma.

ENRIQUE MORONES: That’s right. I believe that that Murrieta moment, it brought me back to Selma, Alabama, and how people remember what was taking place in Selma. Now when people think about Murrieta, they don’t think about it in a positive manner. People didn’t used to think about Murrieta, but now when they see it, they’re thinking Selma, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; and that horrific treatment of our African-American brethren back then—and sadly, in part, still now.

But the Glenn Beck issue, the best thing that he could do, if he’s serious, because he’s a very dangerous person, is get off the air. He is partially responsible for what happened in Murrieta, with that hate talk that he preaches and his—you know, his using the term “illegal,” for example, in that. There is no such thing as an illegal human being. He has been promoting hate and fear for a long time. He is somebody that should be off the air. If he’s serious about compassion and helping this issue, get off the air.

We, the Border Angels, started a campaign to help these children three weeks ago, when the flights were coming into Arizona. And then when they started coming into California a little over a week ago, and the Murrieta incident took place, now we received over 40 tons of food, clothing, toys. We started a project called Project Teddy Bear about 10 days ago, about eight days ago. Project Teddy Bear is collecting teddy bears and stuffed animals for the children. We have housed several of the families. We had three families yesterday right here in San Diego. We love these children, and not only in words, but in actions. And somebody like Glenn Beck is not somebody that we want in front of these children or observing the situation, because he has helped promote this hate and this fear, as have other right-wing pundits. And, Amy and Juan, your show and what you do is so important, because people need to know what is really taking place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Enrique, I want to bring in Shelly Pitterman, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office in Washington, D.C. He represents the office to the United States and Caribbean governments. Shelly Pitterman, could you talk about what you believe needs to be done with the refugee situation and the children crossing into Texas now, 52,000 over the last several months?

SHELLY PITTERMAN: Thank you very much for having me. This is, as it’s already been said, a humanitarian situation. There’s a refugee dimension to this influx of individuals, children as well as families and adults. It’s been going on for some time, of course. It’s been framed as an immigration challenge, but we also know that there are refugees included in this mixed population. Some are coming for economic reasons, but there are children—and we know that from having interviewed several hundred of them last year, and we’ve issued a report to that effect. There are many who have also expressed, articulated very clearly, fears that have driven them to leave their families and their homes and to come to the United States, as well as to other countries in Central America. So what we need to do is give them, as we would refugees anywhere else in the world, access to territory and access to procedures in order to establish their status and to care for them as people who need protection, international protection.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Shelly Pitterman, that issue about other countries, that most people here are not aware of that, that there’s been a huge surge in asylum applications in Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico—not just the United States, right? So that would indicate that people are not just fleeing directly to the United States.

SHELLY PITTERMAN: That’s true. The numbers—the absolute numbers are of course much lower than in the United States, but as we heard also yesterday in the testimonies before the Senate Appropriations Committee, there has been a sevenfold increase over the last five years in the number of applications by individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in neighboring countries—in Mexico, in Costa Rica, in Panama, in Nicaragua.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who told government officials from Guatemala and Mexico the Obama administration will seek to speed up deportations, and said children will not be exempt.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JEH JOHNSON: We believe in the U.S. that it is important that we add additional resources to more efficient repatriations back to Central America, that occur quicker, more efficiently. And we’re building resources to accomplish that. That includes the children. But we are pledged to do so consistent with our laws and in a humanitarian fashion.

AMY GOODMAN: Shelly Pitterman, your response to the homeland security secretary?

SHELLY PITTERMAN: Well, the key is, of course, that it’s consistent with the laws. And in other statements, Secretary Johnson has also spoken to the moral values of Americans. And that’s clear and very—very welcome. We think that the Department of Justice needs more resources, as well, to deal with the backlog and to be able to prioritize the individuals that are coming now, especially the children, and to provide legal representation so that they’re able, before an authority—and not necessarily a judge, but an asylum officer, as well, of the Department of Homeland Security—to articulate their claim and to get protection, if they need it. There are mixed movements of population around the world. And there are conventions, international—there are national laws, as well—that guide states in providing protection to individuals who are afraid and have a well-justified fear of harm should they be returned to their home country.

AMY GOODMAN: Shelly Pitterman, we want to thank you for being with us, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office in Washington, D.C., representing the office to the United States and Caribbean governments. And we want to thank our previous guest, Enrique Morones, director of Border Angels. That does it for this segment, as we turn to the debate on Gaza. Stay with us.

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