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“Breaking Point”: Cities Struggle with Rise in Asylum Seekers; U.S. Foreign Policy Linked to Increase

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A sharp increase in the number of people attempting to cross into the United States is straining resources in border communities, as thousands of asylum seekers arrive at the southern U.S. border each day seeking safety from violence, conflict, extreme poverty and the impacts of the climate crisis. Congressmember Jesús “Chuy” García of Illinois says decades of U.S. military interventions, sanctions and the war on drugs “are all important factors” in what is driving the migration, particularly from South and Central America. “We need a system that responds both compassionately and responds to the root causes of why people come to this country,” he says. We also speak with Fernando García, founder and executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, who says the lack of leadership from the federal government is causing hardship along the border for both asylum seekers and local communities struggling to welcome the newcomers. “Nothing has been done — not by this administration, obviously, and much less from the previous administration. So we are seeing the same situations over and over,” he says.

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StoryOct 19, 2022Venezuelans Seeking Asylum Are Now Turned Away at U.S. Border as Biden Expands Trump-Era Title 42
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with an update on the sharp increase in the number of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks as thousands seek protection from violence, conflict, extreme poverty and the impacts of the climate crisis. This week, Mexico’s government announced it would accept the Biden administration’s demand to start deporting migrants from northern Mexican border cities back to their home countries. The move came after shelters in the Texas border city of El Paso said they’re over capacity, as thousands of asylum seekers continue to arrive. This is El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser.

MAYOR OSCAR LEESER: The city of El Paso only has so many resources, and we have come to, what we look at, a breaking point right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, immigration rights advocates have denounced the Biden administration for deploying more military personnel to the southern border and for not prioritizing humanitarian relief or addressing the massive backlogs greatly delaying the processing of asylum and immigration cases. A recent report by Syracuse University found a backlog of some 2.6 million cases in U.S. immigration courts.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it’s granting work permits and temporary protection from deportation to nearly half a million Venezuelans. Migrants from Venezuela who were already in the U.S. as of July 31st can apply for temporary protected status. The relief will last a year and a half.

These are some of the voices of Venezuelan migrants who’ve recently arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border.

MAKEL ALEXANDER: [translated] We want to cross into the United States for a better future. The journey has been very difficult. We have been mistreated. We have been hungry. We have suffered. The children are tired. But we are going with the glory of God. We will cross the border so that we can do well, because our country is struggling.

AMY GOODMAN: Harsh U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela have largely contributed to worsening living conditions in the country, forcing tens of thousands of Venezuelans to flee.

PABLO SUBERO: [translated] We took on this risk and this journey to escape the crisis in Venezuela. We prefer to die on our journey to the United States than to die of hunger in Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, thousands of migrants continue to arrive in cities like New York — about 100,000 people have arrived — and Chicago on buses from the Texas-Mexico border.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In El Paso, Fernando García is the founder and executive director of the El Paso, Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights. And in Washington, D.C., Democratic Congressmember Chuy García of Illinois joins us, longtime immigration advocate who himself migrated from Mexico, the first Mexican immigrant from the Midwest elected to Congress. He has visited a center in Chicago where some migrants have been received, and in May sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calling for expedited and additional funding to help the new arrivals. Last month, he spoke out after a 3-year-old migrant child died while she was being bused from Texas to Chicago.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Congressmember García, let’s begin — rather, Congressmember, yes, García, let’s begin with you. If you can start off by talking, overall, about what’s happening right now? I mean, I think across the political spectrum, it’s clear the migration, the immigration policy in the United States is broken. What you feel needs to be done?

REP. JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Well, the historic interventions, the military interventions, the sanctions that we’ve imposed on different countries in Central America, in the Caribbean, in South America, and, of course, the failed war on drugs are all important factors that are displacing people, creating misery and responsible for much of the violence, corruption and impunity in Central America, increasingly in places like South America, like Venezuela. That is at the root of what is driving people to desperation. And they’re coming to the U.S. seeking asylum and refuge, fleeing terrible consequences, risking their lives to get here.

And we continue to have an immigration system that, of course, is broken. We haven’t had immigration reform, a bill passed in 36 years. And obviously, we need to change our immigration system. And we need a system that responds both compassionately and that responds to the root causes of why people come to this country. Unless we do that, we’re going to continue to react this way. At the same time, it’s clear that we need to act multilaterally, in cooperation with countries that are the sending countries, where we have a long legacy of, again, intervention and sanctions. And these are the things that are driving people to this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman García, I wanted to ask you about the different narratives that we’re hearing about the migration crisis. Chicago clearly has received more than 14,000 migrants in the past year, but what we don’t hear about is that Chicago has also received, as of June 30th, more than 29,000 Ukrainians — twice as many as the number of migrants from the border who have come here, and yet we do not see any Ukrainians in police stations. We don’t see any cries that the Ukrainian refugees are overrunning the Chicago area. Instead, they’re being quietly integrated into the general society, getting work permits immediately, being able to access government assistance. What about this different narrative that’s created of those coming from the southern border versus those coming from Europe?

REP. JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Well, it’s an excellent point that you make, Juan. We welcome folks from Ukraine. We welcome folks from Afghanistan, from other places in Europe and other parts of the world. But it seems that because of our actions across many decades in this hemisphere, whether it’s Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Central America, and all of the interventions that we were behind, even though we know very well why people are being displaced and are coming to the border, we refuse to have a system that treats asylum seekers more equitably, that welcomes them and that helps to integrate them. Look at how much hell-raising we had to do to get the administration, the Biden administration, to respond last week by designating Venezuelans eligible for temporary protective status. This wasn’t the case with the Ukrainian wave of migrants that Chicago and other cities welcomed to this country. So, obviously, there is a difference in how we treat people, and it’s a part of the tragedy of a broken immigration system that doesn’t establish norms and practices that are equitable for everyone seeking asylum and refuge in our country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how do you feel that the newly elected mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, is handling the crisis? Because, clearly, there are many — in some communities, there’s resistance — local communities — to the establishment of shelters or temporary housing in particular neighborhoods of the city.

REP. JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: I think the mayor of Chicago, Mayor Johnson, is living up to Chicago’s commitment to continue to be a welcoming city and to welcome everyone who comes there. The resources that are necessary to successfully provide food and shelter for people have created a strain on the city’s finances, in part because the federal government isn’t providing sufficient funding for those purposes. The state of Illinois has also stepped up, along with the city, and is helping to care for these migrants. Obviously, the federal government needs to put up more, and the city needs to look at all of the options to make the integration of and the welcoming of all these immigrants as humane as possible. We continue to look for those types of resources and solutions. And my hope is that we will do the right thing by treating people.

But, obviously, the surge and the busing by Republican governors of people to welcoming cities like Chicago and New York is causing a strain, and it is pitting people against each other. While Chicago seeks to become a more equitable city, the increase of migrants at this time is causing fissures with other communities and even a debate within the immigrant community about what we’ve done in the past and what we’re doing now. That’s part of the reason we call for work permits for Venezuelans and recent arrivals, but, as well, for those that have been here for 10, 20, even 30 years and remain hopeful for the ability to work and, obviously, for a pathway to legalization and to citizenship in the future. What’s causing this is our broken immigration system and Congress’s failure to address immigration reform.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Congressmember Chuy García of Chicago in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., where, well, it’s possible government will shut down in a few days. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But we’re going to turn to another Mr. García right now, Fernando García, longtime executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, with us from El Paso, where your mayor, Oscar Leeser, has said that El Paso is at a breaking point. Explain the situation there, also the pressure the Biden administration has brought on Mexico to deport people to their home countries, and what El Paso looks like right now.

FERNANDO GARCÍA: Yes, of course. Amy, Juan and Senator, good morning.

Listen, we are very frustrated here at the border, not only the organizations that we work with, but also our communities, because what seems to be happening is that there’s been the recycling of crisis after crisis of the same institutional responses. And when I say that, it’s because since last year, two years ago, we were demanding major changes to the infrastructure at the border, to invest more in welcoming centers, to invest more in welcoming infrastructure to provide enough services — shelters, healthcare, education, water, food — for migrant families that were coming across, and nothing has been done, not by this administration, obviously, and much less from the previous administration.

So, we have seen the same situations over and over. In December, the same situation: There was an increased number of people coming, and then the response was either tough enforcement, deportation or a death sentence of some of them that end up being sleeping in the cold weather in El Paso in the streets. The same situation happened in May also, where we had no capacity. The community organizations and religious organizations that actually provide some of this sheltering, obviously, they don’t have the capacity, the resources and the money. There are, again, no major federal funding coming to build more infrastructure. And that is exactly the same situation. In Juárez, we have, obviously, thousands of people in refugee camps. But in El Paso, in downtown’s plaza, what is called the Plaza de los Lagartos, we had dozens, if not hundreds, of people that have been processed already. They’ve been processed, and they’ve been released in downtown. And they don’t have the means and ways to get to their destination up north, because they don’t stay in El Paso necessarily. But they don’t have, again, essential services. They don’t have water. They don’t have food. They don’t have any shelter.

But this is the thing. I mean, the thing is, this is not new. We have seen it many times already. And we did denouncing it even here in your newscast. We’ve been telling one after the other that we need to reform a system that had been failed, and nothing has happened. But the opposite had happened instead, which is the expansion of harsh enforcement, policing against migrants. And now, as you mentioned, Mexico agreed with the United States to start deporting people from Juárez directly, from those camps, refugee camps. People are going to be subject to harsh deportation and detention. So, the expansion of the U.S. enforcement-only strategy is now permeating into Mexico, which is not new. Mexico is embracing also a very harsh stand against immigrants coming through Mexico.

So, the situation for immigrants, overall, is getting more difficult. We have a major failure of the administration to provide some remedies short term, but also long term. And I think it seems that there is no way to resolve it, because nobody has the willingness to actually do something, as there is not only political — political actions that are politically motivated.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Fernando, I wanted to ask you, because all along the border, especially in Texas and all those counties along the border, the majority of the population is of Latinos. And as the border gets militarized, more and more Latinos get hired into the detention industry that’s occurring there. What is the impact of the failure of the federal government to handle the crisis in terms of how Latinos along the border are reacting to the immigration crisis?

FERNANDO GARCÍA: Well, I think you have different reactions, and depending on where you are at the border. But I think most of the border communities — El Paso, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville — most of them are welcoming communities. What that means is that they come up and open their wallets, they open their homes, their churches, to actually provide some kind of safety, in a safe environment for migrant families. I think there is nothing you can say about those communities, because they are the ones providing enough resources, the limited resources, but enough to actually get support for these families.

But this is important, what you mentioned, because the lack of a fundamental, sensible strategy in Texas has actually allowed — and let me say, this is very important — allowed the state of Texas and Governor Greg Abbott in Texas to launch his own racist enforcement strategies at the border. So he has used this human rights, humanitarian crisis and launched a political game, which essentially is using immigrants as part of the political platform. And he launched the Operation Lone Star, which is — this operation is deploying Texas National Guards and state troopers at the border, building border walls, river buoys, all of these things, to make the statement that the border is wide open, which it’s not. But it’s causing a lot of harm in our communities. So, we don’t have not only in Texas the militarization of the federal government, that we have traditionally had, but also now the new emerging actor of the Texas state also militarizing the border. So I think migrants and border residents are being impacted by those strategies.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas, that’s extended a state of emergency declaration as thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in recent days. This is the Democratic mayor of Eagle Pass, Rolando Salinas.

MAYOR ROLANDO SALINAS: What’s disappointing is that you have all these thousands of people just walking in without any consequence whatsoever. So the word is getting out. It’s kind of a “come one, come all” type of approach, and you have all these people coming. There is no consequence. And I just want to say that I think that this is unacceptable. It’s a shame that we don’t have immigration reform and a solution to prevent situations like this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to reiterate that this mayor of Eagle Pass, Congressmember García, is a Democrat, as he attacks the Biden administration, and has continued to, for the lack of response in the area. So, you have the racist policies of the Texas Governor Abbott, where you have this actual razor saws embedded in the buoys and people dying wrapped in razor wire along the river’s edge, that is just horrifying, but at the same time, Congressmember García in Chicago, you have this overall broken policy. What do you think President Biden needs to do right now? What can be done where you are? It’s noisy now in the Capitol Rotunda. It may not be in a few days, when the government shuts down. But what are you saying to Republican and Democratic colleagues about this?

REP. JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: Well, members of Congress have called on the White House to do the right thing and help get more assistance to affected areas. And this is what we were asking for in the letter to the White House to Secretary Mayorkas. The border cities that are the frontline receivers of a lot of this migration, people in desperation seeking asylum, need more resources. Cities that are receiving and have a welcoming policy, like Chicago and New York, need additional resources, as well. Work permits would go a long ways toward alleviating some of the fiscal strain that these cities, at both in the interior, Chicago, New York, as well as border cities, are experiencing right now. Additional resources, funding from FEMA for food and shelter, would go a significant ways to helping alleviate the crunch that these cities and areas are experiencing. This is what I’m talking about that’s been — caused frictions in communities, like border cities — Eagle Pass, El Paso — Chicago and New York, as well. While these cities are striving for greater equity, they’re having to take money out of their budgets to receive and welcome and provide humanitarian assistance and integration to these migrants. So, additional funding would help.

But at the same time, enacting immigration reform is a part of that process, because the broken immigration system is being manipulated by cartels, by gangs, by other mafias throughout all of the countries where migrants are traversing. And people are being manipulated and misled into thinking that if they simply get to the border, that things are going to be great: They’re going to be able to get assistance and jobs and integrated into the society. This is the type of disinformation and misinformation that’s being manipulated by forces that are behind a lot of the human tragedy and trafficking that’s taking place, given the current set of events and our inability in Congress to enact immigration reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman, you mentioned the cartels and their role in this. But we’ve had at least a couple of the Republican candidates for president, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, who have actually voiced support for sending troops or firing missiles into Mexico, supposedly to battle these cartels. DeSantis has gone as far as to say he’d consider using drone strikes. Your response to this kind of language and how this affects the debate?

REP. JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: This is a further Republican devolution of talking points. You know, just a few years ago, it was only Donald Trump that was saying these outrageous things. Now it’s most of the front-runners or those seeking to become front-runners in the Republican primary that are saying these terrible, irresponsible things.

That’s why I introduced an amendment in the appropriations process that would, one, reiterate Congress’s War Powers Act and to ensure that we adhere to what the Constitution and those powers that only Congress has are adhered to. And, two, I wanted to, through that amendment, return us to take a long look at our history of intervention and sanctions and the failed war on drugs — many of the factors that are contributing to migrants coming to this country in desperation. In other words, things that we’ve done for many decades in Central America and in South America are now coming home as part of our failed foreign policy toward those countries. That’s why I introduced that amendment, because I wanted there to be a real conversation about what is responsible and what is sustainable into the future.

It is ridiculous to think that we would be considering seriously launching missiles into Mexico, violating their sovereignty, and, of course, ruining a relationship that is special and that should be rooted in collaboration and mutual understanding and, of course, respect with Mexico. These are the types of MAGA Republicans that are also behind wanting to shut down the government, to hold the nation hostage, to enact crazy, radical proposals like returning to building the wall, ending — doubling down on the amount of detention and cruel enforcement at the border that could result in the separation of families, which was a part of the Trump policy, and, of course, continuing to dismantle the asylum system and defunding the ability to provide legal counsel to those seeking political asylum in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember García, Congressmember García, you make this key point about U.S. foreign policy. While you have that Eagle Pass mayor saying people are coming here without consequence, I mean, my gosh, the grueling route that they take, over many months, the number of people injured and who die. When they talk about putting it on the migrants around without consequence, as opposed to the United States and the issue of the United States foreign policy and recognizing how it’s driving people here, your final thoughts on this immigration discussion, as we move into National Hispanic Heritage Month?

REP. JESÚS ”CHUY” GARCÍA: So, desperation is something that is driving people to come to our southern border. And let’s not forget our responsibility in things that we did decades ago, a few years ago, that is producing this. The latest has been the sanctions against Venezuela, which has shattered the economy, forced people to flee to Colombia and some of the other nearby countries, and, ultimately, they’ve decided to risk their lives, to risk everything, crossing the Darién Gap and, again, being subjected to all of the trials and tribulations of cartels and mafias and corrupt government officials as they traverse in their dangerous journey through all the countries in Central America and Mexico.

This will not cease until we begin to work multilaterally with the sending countries, until we decide to change our past interventionist policies, as well as the sanctions that we have inflicted on many countries. This is at the root of things. We need to work with countries in Central America and in South America. There are progressive governments there that are willing to do this. Until we treat immigration at the root, at where the conditions are displacing people and forcing people to flee, we’re going to continue to experience these things.

These are similar to developments going on in Europe, as well, where people are fleeing. When you add climate change and the degradation of conditions in these countries, they will only force more people to be displaced as they seek refuge, asylum and greater security. So, until we take a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the root causes, we’re going to experience these types of crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember García, we want to ask you to stay with us there in the Capitol Rotunda for a minute. I want to say goodbye to Fernando García, head of the Border Network for Human Rights, speaking to us from El Paso.

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Hispanic Heritage Month: Rep. Chuy García Remembers Pioneering Activists Rudy Lozano & Bert Corona

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