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U.S. Ramps Up Border Militarism as Trump Appoints DHS Head General John Kelly to Chief of Staff

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday embraced a proposal to slash the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. by half, in what would be the biggest overhaul of immigration law in over half a century. The RAISE Act would create a so-called merit-based immigration system that would favor applicants who speak English, have advanced degrees or can demonstrate job skills. The announcement comes as Trump replaced his ousted chief of staff, Reince Priebus, with retired General John Kelly, who was head of the Department of Homeland Security. We speak with two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist John Carlos Frey, whose new investigation in partnership with ABC’s "20/20" is titled "Life and Death at the Border."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Donald Trump Wednesday embraced a proposal to slash the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. by half, in what would be the biggest overhaul of immigration law in over half a century. The RAISE Act would create a so-called merit-based immigration system that would favor applicants who speak English, have advanced degrees or can demonstrate job skills. This comes as Trump ousted his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and replaced him with retired General John Kelly, who was serving as the head of the Department of Homeland Security.

This week, I spoke about these developments and more with John Carlos Frey, the two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. I asked him about the head of DHS, retired General John Kelly, who is now President Trump’s chief of staff.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: He was the former head, most recent former head, of the Department of Homeland Security, which is the umbrella organization of ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents. This is a task force, a police force, of over 75,000 individuals who secure the border and the seaports. And those are the people that we interface when we come into airports from an international flight.

And he is in concert with the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. He was a head of this organization that wanted to institute the Muslim ban. He also is in favor of deporting the parents of DREAMers, the undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children. He would like to deport them. He is also trying to get—or was, at least, trying to be tough on enforcement, going after people who have committed crimes, even though they may not be violent crimes, trying to deport. It seems like we’ve ramped up deportation in the United States. The numbers are a little bit murky, but it seems like ICE is a little bit more freewheeling than they were during the Obama administration. And he was the head of these organizations that participated in that kind of law enforcement. So, he is Donald Trump’s right-hand immigrant enforcer or immigrant law enforcer. So, sitting at the right hand of the president now, it doesn’t seem like he was in any sort of protest against any of the Trump administration policies when it comes to immigrants.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Donald Trump introducing General John Kelly as his new chief of staff.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Reince is a good man. John Kelly will do a fantastic job. General Kelly has been a star, done an incredible job thus far, respected by everybody—a great, great American. Reince Priebus, a good man. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump on his way to give a speech in Brentwood, Long Island, New York, which encouraged police brutality, so much so that he was condemned and criticized by many of the top police organizations in this country, with even his own head of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, sending out a staff letter saying do not abide by what he says.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s just a side note. But there is—

JOHN CARLOS FREY: No, I’d say it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: —his endorsement of General Kelly as his chief of staff.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right. But it’s a culture that also trickles down to Border Patrol agents, to ICE agents, to customs agents, as we saw those two customs agents that got away with poisoning a kid, a 16-year-old, who ended up dying, with no repercussions, no reprimand, no trial, no indictment. There is a culture of cruelty within law enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border. And it seems to be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s rhetoric. They are applauding a militaristic approach. The way that we manage our borders is by building a border wall, increasing the number of agents, allowing them to be more freewheeling. And probably, you know, we’re asking for it here. We’re going to—we’re going to probably see an escalation in excessive use of force. That has been meted out in the past, when we increased the force. As a matter of fact, the increase in the force of law enforcement at the border is being handled by dumbing down the admission requirements. They’re trying to force the—to make sure that there are no lie detector tests. They’re trying to make sure that they get as many agents in as quickly as possible. I mean, what could possibly go wrong if you do that?

So, at the border, we have a very serious problem. The issue of immigration is important. The issue of managing a country’s borders is also important. But the root cause of migration has nothing to do with a militaristic approach. These are not the enemy. So, to point a gun at a person who’s leaving their home country because they’re poor and because they’re looking for a job seems to be excessive. And that seems to be the one and only approach that the Trump administration is employing: Let’s use as much military force at the U.S.-Mexico border as we possibly can to stop migrants, who harvest our crops and work in our restaurants, from coming into the country. They’ve portrayed these immigrants as criminals, as terrorists, as gang members, when the U.S. Border Patrol statistics actually prove that over 99 percent of all undocumented immigrants have no criminal record. The only crime that they’ve committed is crossing the border without papers, which is a violation of immigration law. But they’re all portrayed as hardened criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you one more question about John Kelly. He’s now the chief of staff of President Trump. Before that, the general was the head of Department of Homeland Security. He became the head of the Department of Homeland Security after being the head of U.S. Southern Command for something like four years. Can you talk about that trajectory of General Kelly and the significance of being—him being head of U.S. Southern Command in places like, oh, Colombia?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: It goes to the point that I think that you’re alluding to and that we can see, is that the U.S.-Mexico border is not a war zone. But if you take a look, we fly Black Hawk helicopters. We have three unmanned drones that fly 24/7 over the U.S.-Mexico border. There are vehicles, armored vehicles that look like tanks and Humvees, that patrol. We can stop people at checkpoints and violate civil rights. And people do not have freedom to move around that region at the U.S.-Mexico border. So if you have somebody who has a militaristic approach, who has a background as a general, trying to mitigate an influx of people who are poor, and turning it into a war, that seems to be what we have right now.

I’ve always made the claim that we are actually at war with Mexico by the way that we manage Border Patrol agents. There hasn’t been one Border Patrol agent in the 100-year history of the U.S. Border Patrol who’s been indicted for murder. Yet Border Patrol agents have killed dozens upon dozens of people, and none of them have ever gone to trial.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos, this issue of the wall and the DHS granting a waiver to itself?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: It’s not uncommon. During the Bush administration, a dozen years ago or so, we built border walls in Arizona and California, and the exact same procedure was followed. The federal government waived a series of laws and restrictions along that thin strip of land so that they could go ahead and build more border fencing. We’re talking about environmental laws, water rights laws. In one small section in San Diego County, there was believed to be an Indian burial ground with some artifacts that had not been—that had no anthropological testing done at the time, and they were basically all just bulldozed over to build the border wall. So, the federal government owns about 60 feet from the border line itself northward, so there’s a thin strip of land in California, Arizona and New Mexico that the federal government actually owns. And they’re basically allowed to do anything they want with that piece of land. And waiving environmental laws or waiving any sort of restriction is, as you’ve said in your intro, a possible violation of constitutional law, but they go ahead and do it anyway.

In Texas, it’s a little bit different and a little bit more difficult to build the border wall, because the homeowners, private land owners, own the land right up to the line itself. The line in Texas is the Rio Grande river. So, people can own a home, and their land can butt right up to the U.S.-Mexico border. So the federal government actually has to purchase the land before they build any sort of a border structure. In many cases, that’s where the border wall building stops, is in Texas, because a lot of land owners have protested. But it looks like they’ve already cleared—the federal government has already cleared these restrictions.

To my knowledge, they have blueprints drawn for this border wall. They’ve already started to meet with defense contractors to start building the wall. This is something that the administration, it—you know, we’re not hearing much about it, but it looks like they’re going full steam ahead here.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about exactly what this wall is? You even have President Trump talking about putting solar panels on it, so it would generate electricity. It would be cheaper for the Mexicans to pay for. But at the same time, in Congress, voting to pay for the wall in exchange—in order to what? Help to balance the budget, throwing trans soldiers out of the military. A very, very strange connection, but do you know the connections between this?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yeah. You know, it’s all still sort of murky. But according to—according to what I’ve gleaned from reports is that Trump wants this wall. He promised this wall. He campaigned on this wall. His supporters shouted and cheered for the wall. So he wants it done. And if he has to throw transgender military servicepeople under the bus in order to get it done, that seems to be the deal that he brokered. There were some right-wing anti-gay Republicans who basically said, you know, "We’ll help you push your border wall forward, if you make sure that trans people can’t serve in the military." That seems a simplified way of saying it, but that seems to be what’s happened here. Obviously, we can’t build—

AMY GOODMAN: Or they said, "We don’t want to pay for gender reassignment surgery," and they wanted to take that cost, something like $8 million, out of the budget, and apparently, at least according to one article, as one top Republican official put it, "We asked him to light a candle on the table, and he burned the whole candle down," by calling for something that none of them were calling for, which was a ban on all transgender people in the military.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Right. Well, if you take a look at what the border wall costs, some estimates have it at about $10 million for a mile. You know, obviously, we don’t know what it looks like at this point, but that would mean that those cost savings would get you about three-quarters of a mile of a border wall. The border wall—the border itself is a couple thousand miles long. So I don’t think that we’re going to get much of a border wall if he takes money from, you know, some sort of reassignment surgery pot of money that they’re—that’s available. So, it seems like a strange approach, but he wants this border wall, and, as you said, he’s going to burn the candle all the way down to the ground in order to get it.

We don’t know what the border wall is going to look like. There haven’t been any real plans. The border, if you’ve ever been down there, is different depending on what state and what part of the state you’re in. There is desert sand, so that has to be some form of construction to deal with the shifting dunes. There are rivers. There are mountains in some places that are 8,000 feet tall. Are we going to build the border wall up on the mountains? There are also washes that can fill with water within minutes, you know, dry riverbeds that are 40 feet long after a long rainstorm, so we have to divert water. There are also border crossings in areas. There are ports of entry. So how do we manage those? So the border wall is going to have to be different. I’ve heard anything from making it a virtual border fence, where there is some sort of technology that can detect people coming across, to actual physical structure, to what you said, the solar panel wall. So, it’s different in all different places, and there really doesn’t seem to be a plan.

And money hasn’t been appropriated. The border wall construction that’s going on now and that we’re hearing a little rumbling about is fortifying fence that already exists. There has been not one inch of new border wall constructed yet. So, we’re only fortifying what we already have.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Carlos Frey, two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. His work focuses on the experience of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexican border.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, Las Cafeteras.

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