How we can organize to welcome the caravan

November 15, 2018

With the first members of the Central American migrant caravan reaching the border at Tijuana, Danny Katch and Sarah Knopp look at some of the ways people in the U.S. are already showing solidarity — and how a revitalized movement could do even more.

DONALD TRUMP may have stopped talking as much about the migrant caravan now that the midterm elections are over, but the human beings he treated as pawns at his racist rallies haven’t disappeared.

In fact, the first thousand asylum seekers — including a group of LGBT migrants — have made their way to the border city of Tijuana.

In an inspiring scene, some members of the caravan went to the border wall and climbed to the top, chanting “Yes we could!”

Their pride is well-earned. On their journey from Central America, they’ve endured countless hardships and won solidarity from Mexican organizations and communities that challenged the Mexican government’s historic repression of Central American migrants.

Welcoming members of the migrant caravan as they reach the border at Tijuana
Welcoming members of the migrant caravan as they reach the border at Tijuana

Now the question is what reception they’ll receive at the U.S. border.

WE ALREADY know one of the answers. Trump is doing everything he can to raise the drawbridge of Fortress America, deploying thousands of active duty soldiers to the southern border and issuing an executive order that aims to bottleneck asylum seekers into a few points of entry without adding resources to process their claims.

And right-wing militias and vigilantes are going to the border as well, raising the risk of deadly violence against refugees and any other dark-skinned people in their path.

But what is the response of this country’s pro-immigrant majority?

Polls show that Americans reject Trump’s cruel policies of family separation and anti-immigrant rhetoric. But Democrats ran away from the issue of immigration during the midterm campaigns.

Liberals in the “Progressive Caucus” used their first press conference since the midterms to announce that they’ll de-prioritize the push to abolish ICE, instead focusing on “issues that [Democrats] ran on across all districts — around health care, around good-paying jobs, around dealing with the culture of corruption.

Clearly, it’s going to be up to activists to organize solidarity with asylum seekers in the coming days and weeks.

Fortunately, now that the midterms are over, some progressive nonprofit organizations are shifting their attention from the elections to supporting the caravan.

Alianza Americas, National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), the Fair Immigration Reform Movement Action (FIRM Action) and We Are All America are starting a campaign called #RefugeForFamilies to mobilize humanitarian and legal support at the border.

But after a decade in which the immigrant justice movement was both battered by escalating deportations and demobilized by waiting on Democrats to deliver immigration legislation that never came, there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done, both at the border and in our communities.

IN ORDER to ask for asylum, a person has to be on U.S. soil, so migrants crossing the border are following the letter of the law — both the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the UN Convention Against Torture. The Trump administration is blatantly ignoring the law by trying to stop asylum seekers on their way in or requiring them to enter at specified ports of entry.

In the face of this hostility, legal support is critical. Studies have shown that asylum seekers are five times more likely to win their case if they have a lawyer.

Lawyers and legal teams have been visiting the caravanistas in Mexico to give advice about what they can expect at the border, whether their claims for asylum are likely to succeed, and what dangers they might face, such as losing their children.

Other activists are providing services to migrants who end up in detention centers — both during and after their imprisonment. In New Mexico, for example, Santa Fe Dreamers and New Mexico Immigrant Law Center have been getting women released from the transgender pod at CoreCivic’s horrific detention facility at Cibola.

Upon their release, the women need rides, places to stay, food and more, while they are waiting to get plane tickets or bus tickets to go live with their families or sponsors. The Transgender Resource Center has teamed up with the Interfaith Justice Coalition to coordinate meeting this emergency that the government ignores.

As critical as all this work is, it isn’t enough, of course — especially when going up against a legal system that willfully ignores the realities behind the caravan.

The legal basis for asylum is persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or because of membership in a particular social group.

The concept of a “particular social group” is designed to be narrow, however, so as to keep the majority of people from qualifying for asylum. “Transgender women from Central America” qualifies as a “particular social group,” and on that basis, many people have been winning asylum — provided they have legal representation.

But “women from Guatemala” is not narrow enough to be considered a “particular social group”, and thus many people are being denied asylum — even though if you are a woman in Guatemala, the threat of horrific sexual violence being perpetrated against you is a credible fear.

SOCIALISTS NEED to think in the coming weeks, months and years about how we can help be a bridge between those who want to coordinate services and those who want to participate in protest and direct action.

While coordinating services for asylum seekers might seem “liberal,” it is a main pathway offered to people seeking to make a difference, and so there is already a large group of people networked around this orientation.

It’s also important to make sure that people coming out of unjust detention have active support. Those who have a living memory of solidarity with revolutionaries in Central America also remember well that direct material aid was an important part of organizing solidarity.

But with a few exceptions, protests and direct actions has been largely missing from these networks of people coordinating direct services.

Activists need to think about how to organize for actions against the militarization of the border, especially if tent city prisons are built at Air Force bases in Texas, as the Trump administration is promising.

One potential source of tension is that many lawyers get upset if solidarity activists talk about the economic reasons that people are coming north, because economic hardship is not grounds for asylum.

This is understandable, since the goal of lawyers is to get asylum for absolutely any individual that they can. Yet the reality is that the civil-war levels of violence that people are facing in Central America go hand-in-hand with the economic devastation in the region since the officially recognized civil wars of the 1980s (and in the case of Guatemala, from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Harsh neoliberal policies were violently imposed while the civil wars were still going, and international mining and hydroelectric interests continue to devastate the countryside, particularly where indigenous people live.

Violence is both the precondition and the result of this devastation of life opportunities. These factors together have made their countries unlivable.

When you talk to refugees or hear them interviewed, they often talk about economic devastation as well as violence. So activists in the U.S. need to make the case that impoverishment and intense repressive violence go hand in hand — and that everyone should be welcomed here.

But we also have to keep in mind that, for very practical reasons, this is not the orientation of lawyers — and, by extension, those people who are working with them to coordinate services. This is an issue the movement will need to figure out.

ONE HOPEFUL sign is that solidarity mobilizations to the border are being organized by different activist groups, including Cosecha and the New Sanctuary Coalition.

Then there’s the potential for organizing resistance among the soldiers that Trump has deployed to the border. The open letter to active-duty soldiers written by antiwar veterans Rory Fanning and Spencer Rapone has generated buzz among peace activists and groups like Veterans for Peace.

“Many soldiers know they’re on a bullshit mission,” Fanning told Socialist Worker. “They have to be taken away from their family on Thanksgiving. It’s quite ironic that during this holiday which is supposed to be about coming together and sharing — even though the real history is different — these soldiers are on a mission to do the opposite.”

While it’s too early to tell if these efforts will gain traction, the inspiring mobilization of veterans to support the Standing Rock encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline shows what’s possible.

Not just at the border but all across the country, there’s a need for protests, forums, organizing meetings and speak-outs to begin to assemble the forces that can intervene in a national conversation about the caravans that until now has been dominated by Trump’s fearmongering.

This summer’s nationwide Families Belong Together protests show that many ordinary people want to stand in solidarity with migrants. But at the moment, there are too few opportunities for them to do so beyond donating money to nonprofits.

Some of these groups are doing vital work, but not the kind that can turn the political tide, stop Trump’s attacks and let asylum seekers into this country to pursue their dreams. We have to make that the goal of a revitalized immigrant rights movement after its sights have been systematically lowered by each Democratic Party betrayal.

One step in the right direction took place on November 3 in New York City, where 200 people came out on short notice for a No to Hate: Refugee Caravan Solidarity Rally.

“We decided to have the rally before the midterm elections,” said rally organizer Lea Ramirez of the International Socialist Organization, “to be able to hold Democrats accountable for their silence on the caravan, along with their part in the U.S. imperialism and intervention in Central America particularly Honduras.

The theme of bipartisan complicity was echoed by many speakers at the rally, which was co-sponsored by over 25 organizations. Patricia Okoumou, who protested family separations by climbing the base of the Statue of Liberty on July 4, told the crowd: “We want Americans to understand this is beyond Republican and Democrat or Trump and his administration.”

We’re at the beginning of a long fight, and a lot of organizing knowledge — and organizers — have been lost over the past decade to deportation, detention, demoralization and sometimes co-optation.

But we can take inspiration from the collective bravery of the caravanistas and the outpouring of solidarity they’ve received from Mexican people, which has prevented the Mexican military and militarized police forces from repressing people in the way that their funders in the U.S. would prefer.

Now it’s our turn in the U.S. to answer the call for humanity and solidarity beyond borders.

Khury Petersen-Smith and Lea Ramirez contributed to this article.

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