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Fernando Garcia: The Militarization of the U.S. Border Will Spread If We Don’t Fight Back

Web ExclusiveNovember 14, 2018
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Nearly 6,000 active-duty troops are currently stationed in Texas, California and Arizona, following Trump’s escalating attacks against the Central American caravan heading toward the border. We speak to Fernando Garcia, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy organization based in El Paso.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our discussion, bring you Part 2 of our discussion with immigrant rights leader Fernando Garcia. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the U.S.-Mexico border, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis travels to McAllen, Texas, today to visit some of the thousands of troops deployed there by President Trump. Nearly 6,000 active-duty troops are currently stationed in Texas, California and Arizona, following Trump’s escalating attacks against the Central American caravan heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Daily Beast is reporting that ICE is currently imprisoning an all-time high of 44,000 people. The figure is 4,000 more people than Congress has granted funding for ICE to hold. ICE and the Department of Homeland Security have not responded to requests to explain where the additional money is coming from.

The Washington Post is reporting that President Trump is preparing to oust Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Nielsen came under intense fire this summer over the administration’s family separation policy, with Democratic lawmakers demanding her resignation.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as new court filings show there are still 171 children separated from their families in U.S. custody, more than four months after a judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite all families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

So, we’re continuing our conversation with Fernando Garcia, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy group based in El Paso, Texas, who is here to be honored by the group Witness at a large gala tonight. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Fernando, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the caravans, as they’re moving forward from—through Guatemala, through Mexico now, the response of the Mexican government to the folks who are crossing their country?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, at first, I mean, we need to understand that there is—I believe that there is a vacuum in Mexico right now, because the whole government is essentially leaving in a few weeks probably. The Peña Nieto government is going to be gone, and then there’s the new López Obrador government coming into the government. So, I think there is a vacuum. There is an absence of a policy of how to deal with the issues of the caravan and on immigration in Mexico.

We have seen a couple of things, though. I mean, the one thing that we heard is that migrants were attacked by police at the Guatemala-Mexico border. I think there were some incidents where there are reported human rights violations already. So I think that was the initial response of the Mexican government. It seems that, since then, there has not been any major incident.

But the other thing that had happened is that the civil society is the one that had to respond to it very well. I mean, the NGOs, the churches, from different denominations, they came forward. They came forward to actually support the caravan and the immigrants and their families.

It’s important also to say that the decision for them to come together in a caravan, these immigrants or migrants, it was very organic. I mean, it was not a political decision. It’s because in the numbers they feel more safe, I mean, because the journey, it is very dangerous. I mean, they are being extorted by corrupt police in Mexico, in Guatemala, in El Salvador. There are gangs. There are robbers. I mean, they go through a very difficult journey to come to the United States. So they decided to come together, because in numbers they feel safe. So I think that’s the reason why the caravan was created.

We know already that some members of the caravans—of the first caravan, because there are several caravans already—they reached the U.S.-Mexico border already, especially in Tijuana.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about who organized these caravans.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, I don’t think there is like one organization putting it together. I think there is—I believe that the Trump administration, they want to blame somebody to actually organize—to organize this caravan. Well, it’s not true. It came very organically, as I explained. I mean, even without the caravan, people would still come the United States, because the force that is pushing them from their countries is stronger than that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the recent elections here now, with a Democratic majority in Congress. The Democratic leaders are already preparing their priorities. And remarkably, dealing with immigration is not one of them not.

FERNANDO GARCIA: I’m not seeing it there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about that, given how much they protested what the Trump administration was doing, that the Democratic leadership is now not even mentioning immigration reform as one of its priorities.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Oh, that is disappointing. Let me say that, because many of the issues continue happening. You just mentioned that there were like some separated children from families that had not been reunited. Well, let me tell you, right now in Tornillo, Texas, there are close—more than 2,000 children in detention already. So, the Trump administration doubled down on the incarceration of children. The border wall is still being constructed. The “zero tolerance” operation is still in place, so they are criminalizing people that is coming through. The deportations are a historic high at this point.

So I cannot understand why the Democrats are not taking this as a major issue, not only to push back on that, but really have a discussion on immigration reform. I mean, how do we actually now grab this moment, where they will have at least the majority in the House, to have a substantive discussion about how do we deal with immigration? And they are not doing it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Not to mention that the fate of the DREAMers has not yet been fully resolved.

FERNANDO GARCIA: No, I mean, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. I think there are 700,000 DREAMers right now that they don’t know what is going to happen. I think there was a clear mandate by the people to the Democrats. I mean, they rejected it, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump, and they wanted the Democrats to do something different.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that’s really important, because you have, in the lead-up to the midterms, Donald Trump threatening migrants, saying any migrants throwing rocks at soldiers along the border could be shot. Well let’s go to what he said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re not going to put up with that. If they want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. We’re going to consider it. I told them, consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say consider it a rifle.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump. And at the same time, as you were saying, it seems like the midterm elections were a complete repudiation of this rhetoric. And you have a lot of firsts going into Congress—for example, the first two Latina congressmembers from Texas. You have Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar. Early on Election Day in Escobar’s district, which is where you are, in El Paso, the U.S. Border Patrol initiated an unannounced crowd control exercise, only to immediately cancel it because there was such outcry. This was on Election Day?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Yeah, yeah. Actually, we were there. I mean, we were surprised, because I think we saw this as a voter suppression action, because they wanted to do that dog and pony show about crowd control on the Election Day, on the morning of that Tuesday. They wanted to create this scenario that there’s is a lot of danger and fear of invaders at the border, which none of that is true. I mean, let’s be very clear. None of these pieces of the agenda, at least none of the rhetoric about the border or the rhetoric about immigrants—the bad hombres, the criminals, the Middle Easterners—that is not true.

However, I mean, the climate has been set up in a way that now we have soldiers, that they are not trained to deal with a civilian population. I mean, they are trained to actually shoot and go to war. And the question is why they are there. I mean, who they—who is the enemy here? And obviously the enemy, in this case, it seems that the children are the enemy, or the immigrants and refugees are the enemy.

This is setting up an important precedent, because if we accept the militarization of the border the way that it’s happening, I think we will accept that in the future anywhere in America. I think this is a very dangerous, dangerous decision by the president. And if we don’t push back, if the Democrats don’t push on that, I think we’re going to have the risk of having, in the future, the militarization of New York City, of Los Angeles. So I think we need to be very careful about what do we do next.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us an update on the Tornillo detention center, where undocumented children are being held, the facility set for expansion to 4,000 beds? And this latest, judge rules all families have to be reunited, but still we hear more than 140 kids are still separated from their parents.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, listen, this is—I mean, there’s just so many things happening at the same time, and it’s—we never had that many things happening at the border and with—and this unprecedented aggression against immigrants. Never in the past.

But in the case of Tornillo, I think that reflects the expansion of detention facilities in America. Obviously, some people is making money out of it, and we know that there are the private companies pushing for these detention centers. But I think what is dramatic is, if you would have asked me a year ago if we would end up with a policy that would separate children from mothers, I will tell you no, because this is America, right? We embrace liberty, freedom and all of these things that you know. And however, it did happen. We have children, 18-year-old—18-month-old babies separated from their parents. So I think this was ridiculous.

And apparently, there was a decision by the president, an executive decision, to stop that. Well, it did not. We still have children that had been—that are still separated, more than a hundred children. But also, they doubled down on that. Now, Tornillo, it is conditioned to have up to 4,000 children in detention. We have more than 2,000 already there. So, I think the—I mean, we never had so many children incarcerated. These are not day care centers. These are jails. These are detention centers. I mean, it reminds us of those—the Second World War concentration camps in America. At the same time, they are planning to have Fort Bliss and Goodfellow, the two military bases in Texas, to be expanded to actually host—to have more than 7,000 immigrant families there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you the response of the border community residents themselves, because you come from El Paso, I think the city with the highest percentage of Latinos of any major city in the country.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Towns like McAllen and Brownsville, these are all towns 65, 70 percent Latino. And what is the reaction of those U.S. citizen Latino residents of the border to what’s going on there?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Let me be very frank. There are some people at the border, even some Latinos, that they believe this anti-immigrant rhetoric. I mean, it seems that they’ve forgotten where they came from, right?

I mean, but the vast majority, the vast majority of our community, local elected officials, faith-based organizations, county officials, at the border, they’ve actually shown a tremendous solidarity towards these families and towards children. I think, in El Paso, we organized like major mobilizations. We closed the international bridge. We actually closed an ICE detention center, massively, because I think it was undignified. This is un-American, what is happening.

So people feel like that, because this is not only impacting immigrants, and immigrants coming into the country, but this is impacting the border and border residents. Having soldiers in your backyard, it is not the American way of doing things. And having these dog and pony shows of the Border Patrol and soldiers creating fear in our communities, that is not the way to go. I mean, they believe that the playing with fear is going to immobilize people and that we’re not going to do anything.

Well, it’s happening the opposite. El Paso had one of the highest—actually, a historic record of voter turnout. And that’s how we got the first Latina elected from Texas to Congress, with a lot of expectations, Veronica Escobar—

AMY GOODMAN: First two Latinas.

FERNANDO GARCIA: The first two Latinas, one in Houston and the second one in El Paso. I think that is unprecedented. And that’s because Latinos in Texas—Beto O’Rourke was just 3 points away from Cruz. And this is a very conservative state. I mean, at least they thought it was conservative. And Beto O’Rourke ran with a very liberal, pro-immigrant agenda and almost won Texas.

So, something is happening on the ground. It’s not only fear, but actually people is getting upset, and people is getting organized, and people is coming out. So I think—I have hopes that things are going to change. And I hope that the immigration is going to be resolved in a much better way than we are doing it right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what about Beto O’Rourke’s defeat? Well, he’s from El Paso, right?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And as Cruz tried to point out, you know, he’s not the Latino one here, right? And that he’s trying to masquerade as one with his name, Beto. And then he’s showing a shirt his mother had sewn in his nickname when he was 4 years old, being Beto. But the significance of his position. He goes from a congressmember, with almost no chance of winning, to coming within percentage points of unseating Cruz. What does this mean, after the midterms? Do you consider it a total defeat?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, you know, I think, as an organization, NGO, we don’t actually go for Democrats or Republicans. Let me say that. I mean, we need to actually be very neutral about it.

But also, let me tell you that we know Beto and Veronica way back in our community. So I think they do represent many of the values of our border community. I think they had grasped this idea that this border, the U.S.-Mexico border, represents, in a positive way, the new Ellis Island for America. It is. It is, because the aspirations of these immigrants coming through this border, it is the same aspirations and hopes that people had in New York City back a thousand—a hundred years ago, when they came to Ellis Island fleeing persecution, poverty. Isn’t it Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty created the ideal of America? So I think that’s what we want to actually do. We want to continue saying that instead of militarizing the border, that that border is going to be the moment of opportunity.

So, in that sense, I would say that Beto and Veronica, they represented those values. And the fact that Beto ran with liberal platform in Texas and he was just 3 points away from Cruz, it represents that something is happening on the ground, that Texas is not as conservative as they thought. And I don’t think that this was really a defeat. I mean, really, I mean, this was a victory in many ways.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about the—again, seeing the—your relation to El Paso and, obviously, Juárez, a much bigger city across the border.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Juárez, yeah, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If one day Mexico shut down the border? Because the amount of—people have no idea the amount of traffic, commerce, that goes back and forth across these bridges every day, the lines of trucks that go back and forth to produce—to ship goods from Mexico into the United States. And if you could talk about the impact, the economic impact, of the border on the United States?

FERNANDO GARCIA: And the social impact and the family impact. You know, Trump has proposed that, right? He has said that he’s going to shut down the border. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I mean, we had like thousands and thousands of people in cars and trucks. I mean, these ports of entry at the border, they are vital for the American economy. Texas is one of the largest partners with Mexico in terms of economic trade and economic development. So, they are not going to do that. I mean, I believe, I hope, that they are not going to do that, because America has a lot to lose about doing that.

So, I believe that, again, that this is a false rhetoric, that things that Trump is trying to actually present is not happening. However, what I believe is that we are having a moment of discussion about what the United States is going to be in 50 years. I mean, we’re going to be militarized society where we incarcerate children and immigrants and whoever is diverse, or we’re going to accept that America, it is a different society now, that it’s not as white as it was before, and that we embrace diversity. And that is the future of America. So I think there is an ideological battle happening today.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about what’s happening at the White House right now. As we speak, it looks like Kirstjen Nielsen is about to be thrown out as head of Department of Homeland Security. Actually, word had it, at the time of the Trump—President Trump making sure the children were ripped away from their parents, that she was against that, but then she certainly threw her weight behind it. And John Kelly, the chief of staff, she was his protégée—General John Kelly, who was the head of Department of Homeland Security and, before that, the head of SOUTHCOM, Southern Command, you know, in charge of that whole border area. Talk about their effect. Does it matter? Is it only Trump’s position that matters, or are they shaping policy, as well? And what does it mean that they’re being forced out.

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, you know, it only shows how dysfunctional the Trump administration is. And also it shows how—Trump is trying to reshape his Cabinet, obviously, with this reshuffling. But I don’t think he’s doing it for good. I mean, I don’t think he’s shaping it to say, “Now we’re going to be less anti-immigrant and that we’re going to change the rhetoric.” Probably they are doing it for the worst, unfortunately.

And when you heard Trump speaking after the elections, it seems that he doesn’t regret anything, that he’s doubling down on all of these falsehoods, false arguments. He’s doubling down on the caravan issue. He continues to say that we’re going to militarize the border even more, I mean, promising 15,000 more soldiers. I think that reshuffle, it might not be for good. We don’t where this is going to end, but I think—I don’t believe, and we don’t trust the administration at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you’re head and you founded the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. As you just said, you’ve never seen so much happening there on the border. How does it affect your work?

FERNANDO GARCIA: Well, we have more work. I mean, what I said is that we have been working—in the last two years, we’ve working actually 24 hours a day, because we’ve been one thing after the other. I mean, we had the DREAMers issue. Then we had the family separation. Now the construction of the border wall. Then the deportation issues, the violation of human rights by Border Patrol, the deployment of the military. So I think it is not how hard one thing is; it’s that many things are happening at the same time. So, it has taken a toll on us.

I mean, obviously, our community is responding. I’m very proud of our organization, but also I’m very proud of our community at the border. I mean, we have organized vigils, marches, advocacy meetings. We’re building a coalition. I think there’s a lot of work that we have done. If there’s any silver lining on this, it’s that we’re getting more prepared and more organized, and we’re resisting. I mean, I think the last two years were essentially building the resistance against these racist, anti-immigrant strategies of the president.

AMY GOODMAN: With thousands of U.S. soldiers going to the border, being sent there by Trump, are you also concerned that there will be increased militias on the border?

FERNANDO GARCIA: It is already happening, because part of the message, part of the rhetoric of the president, I believe, is a call to arms. I mean, there is this nationalistic, xenophobic, white supremacist base that actually is responding to that. We had now the news, and know this already, that there are militia groups, like the Minutemen, coming to Texas, to New Mexico and to Arizona. So I think we’re going to see more civilian, and civilian armed, mostly white people, coming to the border to help secure the border.

I think that is very dangerous, in many ways, because the president is promoting violence against minorities. I mean, we had the case already of the Jewish temple. And I’m very concerned of what is going to be the interaction of these militias with migrants trying to cross the border. I mean, we can see another very dramatic incident unfolding at the border. So I think these are very dangerous times.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in fact, the Jewish synagogue that was attacked a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, the man who did this, who, you know, tweeted—though it wasn’t on tweet; it was on something called Gab—right before, attacking HIAS, the Jewish organization that works on refugee resettlement and had held refugee Shabbats all over the country, including in that building. He cited that specifically as the source of his anger, calling immigrants—quoting Trump, calling them “invaders.”

FERNANDO GARCIA: I mean, he’s promoting hate. He’s promoting—


FERNANDO GARCIA: Trump. Trump is promoting hate, and, as I say, he’s promoting violence against minorities, against immigrants, demonizing them. So, he needs to be accountable. Trump needs to be accountable of this act of violence, because Jewish community has been very supportive of refugees and asylums, and I think they were expressing that, and they have this incident. And I think, clearly—I mean, clearly, this is the result of Trump rhetoric. I mean, let’s remind ourselves that words matter. And what he’s saying and what he’s promoting, against immigrants, against minorities, is having a consequence, in this case a violent consequence.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve called what Trump is saying a call to arms?

FERNANDO GARCIA: It is a call to arms. I mean, there is people listening. I mean, and people is getting to the border in masses right now. We had reports that close to Las Cruces, New Mexico, in Arizona and in the Texas valley, there have been militia types of groups that have been deployed, because they want to defend the country of the invader, defend the country from criminals.

You know, again, we’re talking about children, about mothers, about young people fleeing violence, and they are looking for protection in the United States. And on this side, we’re seeing this rhetoric against them, and with potential—in this case, could potentially scenarios—of dramatic scenarios of people to be shot at, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Fernando Garcia, founding director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy group based in El Paso, Texas, being honored by the group Witness at their gala tonight. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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