In 1998 I wrote an article in La Jicarita News (later incorporated in my book, Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities) on a ballot initiative in the Sierra Club that included a measure to reverse its decision adopted in February of 1996 to take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States. Instead, well known environmentalists like George Sessions, Gary Snyder, and Dave Foreman argued that the United States had reached its carrying capacity and therefore immigration should be restricted. The ballot initiative was largely funded by conservative foundations and the same anti-immigration groups in California that were supporting a state-wide anti-immigration initiative and the resulting national immigration act that was implemented and signed into law by President Clinton, both of which are described below.
As you can imagine, the issue quickly became not a question of “carrying capacity” but one of “control of which population and by whom.” Carl Pope, then executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote an editorial about the ballot, calling for the membership to remember the environmental mantra “think globally, act locally.” By endorsing restricted immigration he warned that they would “turn the environmental mantra on its head. Instead of ameliorating the enormous challenges facing the planet” their approach would focus on symptoms rather than cause, which is global consumption and industrialization. “Erecting fences,” he wrote, ” to keep people out of this country does nothing to fix the planet’s predicament—it’s the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” To its credit, the Club defeated the ballot measure by 60 percent of its voters. Unfortunately, those same anti-immigration groups and anti-immigration sentiments remain extant today as we face the fallout from the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy that separated more than 2,500 children from their parents seeking asylum at the U.S. border from violent conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
After a huge backlash from the American public the Trump administration rescinded the policy. A federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to reunite all separated migrant children and parents by today, Thursday, July 26th. But the administration says just over 1,000 parents have been reunited with their children so far—less than half of the families it must reunite. Earlier this month, President Trump pushed back against the court ruling mandating the reunification of families.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have a solution: Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution. Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.
On Wednesday, July 25, Democracy NOW! hosted Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, the Alliance of the Americas, a network of Latin American immigrant-led organizations committed to advancing a public policy agenda to improve life in their communities in the U.S. and their countries of origin. He is also an advocate for abolishing ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that has come under increasing criticism as attention has focused on its role in the deportation of those seeking asylum under the Trump administration. Chacón’s most recent essay for Medium is headlined “Why ‘Abolish ICE‘ Doesn’t Go Far Enough for Migrant Families.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There’s been a lot of calls recently for the abolition of ICE. But most Americans are not aware that ICE is a relatively new agency in government affairs. It came out of the 1996 act that you alluded to, the Immigration and Reform Act. I’m wondering if you could talk more about how that act, signed by President Clinton, set the stage for these mass deportations that occurred both under President Obama and now, especially, ramped up under President Trump. What was it about that law that made what’s happening now possible?
OSCAR CHACÓN: Well, let me begin by saying that the 1996 immigration act was actually the evolution of a movement that actually originated much earlier and that first came into national awareness in 1994 in the context of a gubernatorial race in California. You may recall that California voters actually adopted Proposition 187, which was a very rudimentary anti-immigrant ballot initiative in California, and it passed. Many people thought that the fact that the Supreme Court stopped most of Proposition 187 from ever going into effect was the end of the story, but, in reality, it was only the launching moment for what became federal policy in 1996.
At the heart of the 1996 immigration policy reform was a belief that painted all immigrants, but particularly Mexican and Latin American immigrants, as some sort of threat to the country. That particular threat was again enshrined, essentially, into this particular immigration law, that is driven by three critical principles: exclusion, restriction and punishment. And what they really wanted to do with this particular act was to stop people that many racist, white supremacist forces considered to be undesirable as residents of the U.S., but also wanted to kick out of the country as many people as possible also deemed as undesirable. So, what we have had in the books since 1996 has been a horrible piece of law that actually makes possible everything that we have seen from that point forward. The events of 9/11 in 2001 only bolstered even more this basic architecture of foreigners and immigrants as threats to the country.
And as you pointed out, ICE is a relatively new agency. The problem is not necessarily an enforcement agency, because when you have good laws in place, it is important to indeed enforce the laws. The problem we have, essentially, is that whether it is ICE or whether it is the Border Patrol, the bottom line is, the law that they are charged with enforcing is a horrible piece of legislation, that, frankly, unless we manage to gradually chip it away, destroy it, abolish it, we will continue to face the same horrifying images that we have seen at the border and that we see on a daily basis whenever ICE carries out raids against people who are hard-working, tax-paying contributors to the United States of America.
Let’s go back to Donald Trump’s solution: Tell people not to come to the United States. It’s too late to tell the United States to get out of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA aided in a military coup to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected government, and continued to train the Guatemalan military well into the 70s. In El Salvador, the US gave billions to the government to fight the socialist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and used Honduras as a base to hold military exercises. Under the Reagan administration, in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal, the administration illegally bought arms from Iran (there was an arms embargo) to fund the Contras to topple the Sandinista revolutionary government in Nicaragua that had overthrown that country’s dictatorship. More recently, in Honduran the U.S. supported the election in 2011 and again in 2017 of Juan Orlando Hernández, a conservative whose election has been widely contested and whose country continues to be riddled with corruption.
Trump is signalling to the American public that it’s OK to demonize Mexican and Latin American immigrants regardless of the fact that it’s largely our responsibility that they come here in the first place. Which makes it even more imperative that we continue the movement to “chip away, destroy, or abolish” the laws that paint immigrants as a threat when in reality they are the economic backbone of our country, the workers out in the fields, in the restaurants, in the slaughter houses, in the factories, in rich peoples houses, whose children are working their way up the educational ladders toward citizenship.
If you haven’t already, send money to the groups working to assist in the asylum requests and reunification order. The government has not met the deadline but that doesn’t mean that private and non-profit attorneys are not going to continue to work day and night to force the government to meet this court order: ACLU; RAICES; NM Immigrant Law Center; Santa Fe Dreamers.