Category Archives: U.S. Protest Movements

Congolese-American Defends Immigrants’ Right to Asylum

Patricia Okoumou protests U.S. treatment of families seeking asylum by climbing to base of Statue of Liberty last July 4. Photo by Abagond at wordpress.com

In a dramatic defense of the right of migrants to seek asylum when fleeing persecution and threats to their life, a Congolese-American U.S. citizen climbed the Statue of Liberty on 2018. U.S. Independence Day 2018. This year Patricia Okoumo continued her protest of the official U.S. response to migrants at the southern border by scaling the Austin, TX Southwest Key immigrant detention facility last month. Southwest Key is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) to detain and/or keep tabs on migrants who have fled their violence-plagued homelands.

In interviews following her climb to the base of the Liberty statue, Okoumou highlighted the plight of hundreds of migrant families separated by ICE detention. Despite prior pledges to reunite the families, ICE reported there were still up to 3000 children who remained in children-only detention when the climb at the Statue took place. In one interview the 44 year old protestor stated, “I felt peaceful, that I was with those children in spirit. I could feel their isolation and their cries being answered only by four walls.” Buffeted by high winds for three hours before her arrest and descent from the Statue, Okoumou said, “I was thinking of Lady Liberty above me, you are so huge, you have always been a symbol of welcome to people arriving in America and right now, for me under this sandal, she is a shelter.”

Surrounded by fellow Rise and Resist members, Patricia Okoumou spoke to the press at her December hearing. Photo by Jeenah Moon (Reuters)

For a decade now, both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to discourage Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. from their countries’ rampant violence. Although El Salvador and Honduras both rank among the five most violent countries in the world today, the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of asylum applicants admitted to this country. For the fiscal year 2018, there was a cap set of 45,000 asylees, but only 22,491 people were eventually accepted. Further discouraging migrants who might willfully submit to the U.S. immigration process, as of July 2018 the average wait time for an immigration hearing was 721 days. While funding of ICE apprehension and detention of migrants increased substantially during the Obama years and has continued to rise under Trump, allocations for hiring more immigration judges has not kept up.

Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed by the U.S. and more than 140 other countries, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. A study by the UN High Commission for Refugees found that 80 per cent of the women from Central America and Mexico applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” In practice, the U.S. denied 89 per cent of the asylum applications in 2016. Among those deported to their countries of origin, there are well documented cases of asylum seekers being attacked and killed on their return.

Rise and Resist activists called for abolition of ICE at the December court hearing. Photo by NYDailyNews

The right to seek refuge from potential persecution and violence in one’s home country is a well established principle of internationally recognized human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights upheld the right which dates back at least to the time of Ancient Greece. More recently, the U.S. joined 145 other countries in ratifying the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967.

Following her arrest in Texas, the New York City court ordered Patricia Okoumou to wear an ankle bracelet to enable monitoring of her movements until her sentencing on March 19. Meanwhile, the group Rise and Resist, to which she belongs, calls for the abolition of ICE by the U.S. “We stand on the right side of history,” Okoumou said after she was found guilty by the judge in New York. “I am not … discouraged” she continued. “Today our laws sometimes lack morality and this is a perfect example of that.” In summing up the motives for her dramatic protests she declared while choking up, “I wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages”.

“Beyond Vietnam 1967 to Congo 2016”

Dr. Mukwege’s Nobel Peace Prize represents an advance of the Congolese people – and all humanity. Could it be that his award will do more to bring about the political change desparately needed in in Congo than all the millions of dollars and the lives expended in peacekeeping in the still war torn nation?

Lokoleyacongo

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege has pioneered surgical treatment of gang rape victims in eastern Congo.  He is the son of pastors in the Pentecostal Church. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege has pioneered surgical treatment of gang rape victims in eastern Congo. He is the son of pastors in the Pentecostal Church.

On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the U.S. waging war on Vietnam. His “Beyond Vietnam” sermon will undoubtedly stand as a landmark speech in the history of the United States. Among the words of powerful prophecy we read,

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about…

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We Are All Daniel

Last month Daniel Cruz, a fourteen year resident of the U.S. from Ciudad Reynosa, Mexico, was stopped while driving with a broken tail light in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kansas. Daniel paid the $300 fine for the violation and fixed the tail light. Ten days later he was met by agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) in the parking lot of his apartment complex. Unable to produce documents of legal residence in the U.S., the uniformed officers immediately took him to a county jail one hundred miles away to await a hearing. His car was impounded.

Never previously arrested or detained, Daniel has worked in a variety of jobs in the U.S., most recently in construction. The money he sends weekly to his wife and two teen age children supports them and has enabled the building of a new house. Daniel’s retired school teacher father lives close by and also helps the family.

Within a week Daniel’s construction crew’s boss paid the $3000 bail for his release from detention. Kate and I drove the two hours to meet him at the jail and take him home. We felt amply repaid by the broad smile on Daniel’s face as we wished him well while friends in the Olathe apartment complex shouted their greetings.

Hard working immigrants of solid character like Daniel feel threatened across the U.S. as the Trump era’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detain and deport non-criminals. Despite candidate Trump’s campaign promise to go after “rapists and criminals”, ICE is deporting non criminals at a far greater rate than the Obama administration. Shortly after the Trump inauguration, 200 foreign nationals were detained by ICE whose press release noted more than half were classified as “criminals”. However, Kansas-based journalist Oliver Morrison reported in February 2017 that a Wichita woman had been arrested two weeks earlier for driving without insurance. By the end of 2017, ICE had detained over 37,000 “non-criminal” immigrants, more than twice as many as in the previous year.

Contradicting its own statistics, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO) continues to claim that the focus is on deportation of criminals. A March 20, 2018 press release from its Chicago office was headlined,
“ICE arrests 20 in Kansas City during 4-day operation targeting criminal aliens and immigration fugitives”
The ERO Chicago commented on the arrests, “As part of this operation, we continue focus on the arrest of individuals who are criminal aliens and public safety threats.”

Collaboration of law enforcement officers with ICE agents helps blur the line between “criminal” and “non criminal” resident aliens. The U.S. Congress’ thirty years of failing to legislate reform of immigration policies also sets the stage for the Trump administration and anti- immigrant “nativists” characterization of all undocumented immigrants as “criminals”. With a few notable exceptions, among whom former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County (Phoenix) stands out, most high ranking law officers recognize collaboration with ICE discourages immigrant communities from reporting crimes or cooperating with authorities in fighting crime.

yoder protest from show me progress

Over 500 protested at his office Rep. Kevin Yoder’s flip flops on immigration issues, including the ICE separation of children from parents

There is also widespread recognition among law enforcement leaders that helping ICE detain immigrants risks encouraging “racial profiling” and the “targeting” of persons of color, non-citizens and citizens alike. The detention of non-criminals like Daniel adds to the fear among immigrants created by Trump’s election. In early 2017 the Olathe Latino Coalition was formed in response to the fear among the growing Olathe Latino community, now 10 per cent of the city’s population. Chair of the Olathe Coalition, Jim Terrones, told the Kansas City Star shortly after the Trump inauguration, “the fear is real”. Some Latinos in Olathe now fear going out even to church or the bank Terrones noted. Local leader Irene Caudillo, also a member of the Latino Coalition, told the Star reporter, “Our community shouldn’t look at the police and sheriff as ICE enforcers but as providing the safety and protection of everyone in the community”.

With continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House and increasing ICE detention of undocumented residents, more and more U.S. citizens wonder when they will become targeted for reprisals by this administration. Opposition to Trump and to the U.S. Republican Party’s obsession with holding on to power has led to a growing realization that much more is at stake than who wins in the November mid-term elections. There is growing realization that those now setting the agenda in Washington are a threat to U.S. democracy and all persons who resist their rule. There is growing realization that the day might come when we are all Daniel, targets of lies and repression coming from the executive branch and the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. There is growing realization that the country now faces a crisis akin to the Civil War era that inspired James Russell Lowell’s lines in the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation”,

“Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

We Rise Up

Outside a McDonald’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, protesters rally in support of a $15 an hour minimum wage. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“It is not too late to restore our position in the world and recapture our sense of who we are as a nation. Widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.”
– Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and Chair of the 2009 U.N. Commission of Reform of the International Monetary and Financial System

It was my last time to read with second grader Jalen at his School at 24th and Prospect in Kansas City. It was my last opportunity to praise an eight year old whose energy and hunger to learn had inspired in me great expectations. The week before, during his spring break, Jalen had visited his five month old brother’s grave. This week, tears streamed down his cheek as he assured me his brother was in heaven. Before I could leave him with some words of encouragement, some troubling questions came to mind.

How often does he find a rat in his bedroom as he searches before sleeping every night? Why has he been so tired recently? Would there be someone to read with him this summer? Would eviction or domestic strife force a move away from the neighborhood before school resumes? Would this second grader reading at a much higher level get the financial help he likely will need to continue his education beyond high school?

If the trend continues of cutting taxes on the wealthy while underfunding our public education system, Jalen may well be one of thousands of American children left behind. More questions come forward. Why has our political discourse now seemingly abandoned progress in bringing about the American ideal of equal opportunity for all children? Why are we as a society more concerned about the effects of tax cuts on our crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges than we are about the effects on the lives of American children and their parents.

Photo from NY Times by Joshua Lott for the review of M. Desmond’s book ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’

The fact is we haven’t heard much about the poor in recent years. In our latest presidential campaign the major party candidates focused our concern on the shrinking incomes of “the middle class”. How often did you hear a candidate mention the twenty per cent of the population (and some say nearly twenty five per cent of the children) living below the poverty line? Programs in education, health care, housing, and job training providing more opportunity for the poor have been reduced or eliminated in the drive to cut taxes, shrink government, and privatize services.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, reports on the living conditions of the poor in the U.S. during an era of unprecedented wealth and economic growth resulted in new political and policy priorities. The book by Michael Harrington The Other America: Poverty in the United States was widely read in the Kennedy Administration and helped to lay the ground work for the legislation focused on creating “the good society” through a “war on poverty”.

Today we are all suffering the effects of what Rev. William Barber and others have called the shift from a “war on poverty” to “a war on the poor” since the days of Reagan Administration policies. The focus on our individual self interest and a bogus definition of freedom as represented by a deregulated economy in which every person is out for themselves now prevails over the view that my freedom is bound up with your freedom and your liberation is tied to my own.

In choosing to participate in this spring’s revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign I am not just demonstrating concern for those left behind by the rampant individualism, racism, militarism and economic exploitation of these times. I am marching also with those crying out for sane gun control measures, humane prison conditions and judicial sentencing reform , immigration policy reform, and curtailment of the misguided war on drugs. Rev. Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of Union Seminary, the lead organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign wrote recently, “There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.”

In the disastrous grip of big money’s influence on our American political and economic life, we must make our concerns and values known in between elections. When the top one per cent of the population receives 52 % of the country’s growth in income, and use their bloated wealth to rig the political process, the only way we save democratic rule by the people and make our system more fair is public protest.

Fifty years ago in leading the organizing of the first Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King called for a revolution in the nation’s values pointing out that “a civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy”. He would certainly agree with those religious leaders today whose recent joint statement lamented the nation’s “political crisis” and declared “if our gospel is not ‘good news for the poor’ it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Before leaving Jalen this past week, I told him I had high hopes for his future. I also told him the twin of the baby who died is lucky to have him for his big brother. Jalen will do his best to help care for that baby brother who survived. But he will need my help and yours too.
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For Further Reading:
Article on the “moral agenda” of the Poor People’s Campaign by Rev. Barber and Rev. Theoharis:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/15/poor-peoples-campaign-systemic-poverty-a-sin

U.S. religious leaders’, including Fr. Richard Rohr’s, statement “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” go to: reclaimingjesus.org

Excellent article by Dr. Joseph Stiglitz “Inequality is not Inevitable” in the NY Times:
https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/27/inequality-is-not-inevitable/

Organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign in Missouri are planning demonstrations every Monday from May 14 through June 11 both in Kansas City and at the State Capitol in Jefferson City. For info of what the Poor People’s Campaign is planning in other areas of the U.S. go to:

https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/

A Different Kind of Mexican Border Wall

The largest immigrant detention facility in Latin America built in Tapachula, Chiapas with U.S. funding under the Southern Border Plan (Photo by Laura Weiss)

In my conversation with a Trump supporter recently, he tried to defend construction of the wall on the Mexican border by claiming that Mexico was in the process of building a wall of its own at the border with Guatemala. While there is absolutely no evidence to support the man’s claim, like much of the “fake news” generated to prop up the Trump presidency, it reflects what many in his “base” would like to believe and see come true.

In fact, as the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) continues to report, the U.S. IS arming and training immigration authorities and security personnel in discouraging and stemming the flow of Central American migrants through Mexico. Nicholas Greven in the Winter 2017 issue of NACLA’s Report tells us, “Increased security and militarization has exacerbated dangers for Central American asylum-seekers traveling through Mexico- and it’s about to get worse” under the Trump administration.

As former head of the U.S. Southern Command (for Central and South America) Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly has long advocated greater militarization of border security and the drug war in Mexico. In his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing prior to becoming head of U.S. Homeland Security, Kelly denounced “fears related to militarizing the counter-illicit trafficking effort” despite the widely acknowledged figure of more than 160,000 people killed in the U.S. financed Mexican “drug war” since 2006.

As for border security, from the U.S. government’s perspective, the child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border during the summer of 2014 increased the urgency of stopping Central America migrants before they could reach the United States. While no wall is in the works, funding and implementation of the Southern Border Plan by Congress in 2014 has made passage of migrants through the Mexican states bordering Guatemala much more difficult and dangerous. NACLA writer Greven interviewed migrants in shelters near the border who “had been assaulted, extorted, robbed, or all three, as they have been forced to embark on less-traveled, more dangerous migration trails in regions often controlled by organized crime”.

The director of one of the migrant shelters near the Guatemalan border told Greven that “the first enforcement operations deployed under the rubric of the SBP were a series of raids on ‘the Beast,’ the famous cargo train that was the principal mode of transportation for migrants crossing Mexico until 2014”. Another source reported that “starting in 2014 the speed of the train was increased, and metal bars added to of it in order to make it more difficult and dangerous to climb aboard while in transit”. Other results of the U.S. push to reduce the crossing of migrants at the southern Mexican border are increased deportation and a steady increase in Central Americans applying for refugee asylum in Mexico.

By 2016 immigration officers in Mexico had deported twice as many migrants as just three years before. Since the SBP brought about tighter enforcement of the Mexican immigration laws, by 2016 three times as many Central Americans had applied to remain in Mexico. In 2017 the UN Refugee Commission estimated Mexico would receive up to 20,000 asylum applications.

“Trump lights the fires of resistance of the people” reads a mural at La 72 Migrant Shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco (Photo by Nicholas Greven)

Alongside the predictable U.S. emphasis on more gadgetry, weapons and training for Mexican immigration authorities, it is important to take account of what the U.S. policy makers have opted not to do. In sum, they have not defended democratic rule and basic human rights in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, especially in Honduras recently.

Shelters in Mexico and deportation statistics of U.S. immigration officials confirm that the vast majority of Central Americans fleeing their country are from Honduras. The U.S. supported the Honduran military’s ouster of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The Obama administration later backed another term for a President who violated the country’s constitution by running in the 2014 election and then turned a blind eye to widespread reports of fraud in that candidate’s election which has resulted in the current turmoil and political instability. To gauge the wisdom and outcomes of U.S. policy in Central America it suffices to consider how many migrants to the U.S. you know or have heard about who hail from Costa Rica.
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N.B.: The above draws on the research of NACLA writers John Lindsay-Poland and Laura Weiss for “Re-arming the Drug War in Mexico and Central America” in the Summer 2017 issue and Nicholas Greven “The Southern Border Plan on the Ground in the Trump Era” in the Winter 2017 issue.

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