Immigrants rights and labour groups have condemned the Obama administration’s imminent plans for the mass deportation of undocumented Central American families who have arrived in the US over the past two years.
Richard L Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) noted that unions had, from the beginning, urged that these families be given refugee status and be allowed to remain in the country.
“Instead, the shameful response of our government has been to erode due process protections by expediting legal proceedings and to lock families in remote detention facilities with little access to counsel,” he said in a statement.
“Now, in an inexcusable escalation and without any transparency, the Department of Homeland Security has begun conducting armed home raids in order to deport vulnerable women and children back to some of the most dangerous countries in the world.”
By the detention program’s first weekend in December 2015, 121 people had been held for deportation. Defending the action, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson claimed: “This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
Trumka’s criticism of an administration that unions helped to elect in 2008 – and again in 2012 – not only voices disappointment in this particular action. It reflects a broader disagreement with the administration’s policy on both immigration and trade, and a growing acknowledgement in labour that migration to the US is linked to the displacement of people in their countries of origin.
That displacement, in turn, is in large part a product of US economic, political and military policies.
The deportation decision comes at a moment when the administration is mounting its final push to get the US Congress to ratify the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This treaty is the latest in a long string of free trade agreements pushed through by both political parties, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement, ratified in 1993 under Democratic President Bill Clinton, and the US/Canada Free Trade Agreement, ratified under Republican President George Bush a few years earlier.
President Barack Obama, in his 2016 State of the Union address, claimed the TPP, which includes 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, would “open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia,” and that it “cuts 18,000 taxes on products made in America, and supports more good jobs ... You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement."
US unions, however, are opposing the TPP more strongly than any trade agreement negotiated over the last two decades. In part, this is because campaigners argue that the agreements displace communities abroad, and once people arrive in the US as migrants, they are then treated like criminals or exploited as a source of low-wage labour with reduced rights.
That argument was made at length in a report by a delegation of union leaders, headed by AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre, which went to Honduras seeking the sources of the wave of migrants that began crossing the US border with Mexico two years ago.
The report, Trade, Violence and Migration: The Broken Promises to Honduran Workers, was unusually critical of US foreign and immigration policies. It noted the many military interventions in Honduras and Central America to prop up wealthy elites and their US corporate partners.
After the most recent coup against elected President Manuel Zelaya, “numerous trade unionists and community activists who participated in resistance were killed, beaten, threatened and jailed,” it declared.
The report made the case that poverty in Honduras was deepened by the impact of the Central American Free Trade Agreement: “Today, Honduras is the most unequal country in Latin America,” it noted. Poverty rose from 60 to 64.5 per cent from 2006 to 2013.
More than 18,000 unaccompanied Honduran children arrived in the United States in 2014 alone, while the number of Hondurans outside the country reached 523,000.
“Today, migration is seen by many families as a means to escape violence or seek employment opportunity or reunite with family, while the government has embraced the remittances from migrants as a major economic resource,” said the report.
Ultimately, it concluded, the US government must move away from policies that “criminalize migrant children and their families, while pursuing trade deals that simultaneously displace subsistence farmers and lower wages and standards across other sectors, and eliminate good jobs, intensifying the economic conditions that drive migration.”
“Deplorable” detention centres
Instead of moving in this direction, however, the Obama Administration went forward with the construction of two detention centres in Texas, designed to hold 1500 women and children from Central America, at the same time it was negotiating the TPP.
In July 2015 Judge Dollie Gee, US District Court Judge for the Central District of California, condemned the treatment of the detainees as “deplorable.” She ruled that detention violated a previous decision, the 1997 Flores Settlement, which held that authorities should avoid detaining migrant children and release them whenever possible. She ordered the women and children held in the centres freed.
Defending their decision to continue detaining them, however, administration lawyers claimed imprisonment prevented “another surge in illegal migration across our south-west border by Central American families,” and accused mothers of bringing children with them “as a means to avoid detention and gain access to the interior of the United States.” Judge Gee rejected the argument as “fear-mongering.”
Her sympathy with the migrants has roots in her own family – her mother worked as an immigrant seamstress in the sweatshops of Los Angeles. Later Gee was a lawyer and coordinator for the Teamsters Union during labour organising drives. She is the first Chinese-American to serve as a Federal Court judge.
US government promises that detention and deportation would stop migration have proved hollow, as last autumn, the number of families from Central America arriving at the US/Mexico border began rising again.
The US Border Patrol announced it had captured 12,500 “family units” in October and November, a big rise from the 4,600 families caught during the same months of the previous year. The number of minors traveling without their parents also rose, from 5,100 in October and November of 2014 to 10,600 in the same months of 2015.
Deporting these families, however, was too much even for the Democratic Presidential candidates fighting for nomination: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley all condemned the deportations. "What the hell have we come to as a country that you talk about rounding up women and children fleeing death gangs at Christmas time?" fumed Maryland Governor O’Malley.