Often, for those of us fighting for migrant rights, the actions and campaigns we coordinate when loved ones are held in detention centers or imminent deportation dates are looming overhead have a sense of urgency. And it becomes a fight against the clock, in which we compromise the slow time of reclaiming stories that dig deep and far back into history.
As the migrant justice movement gets away from the divisive notion of “who deserves to stay,” we must also tackle the question of why people are migrating in the first place. The stories we tell must expose the neoliberal policies and practices that made our parents, grandparents and cousins leave their countries in the first place. We must debunk the U.S.-centered fairy tale that this country is the perfect model of democracy and the place where all dreams come true, and that those are reasons why so many millions of people have risked their lives to live here.
It’s a fairy tale that is commonly held among migrants moving to other imperial countries as well, such as when my family left Algeria for France. Harsha Walia (an organizer with No One is Illegal in Canada) defines this common global phenomenon as border imperialism. As she explains, seeing it through the lens of imperialism, “It take us away from an analysis that blames and punishes migrants, or one that forces migrants to assimilate and establish their individual worth. Instead, it orients the gaze squarely on the processes of displacement and migration within the global political economy of capitalism and colonialism.”
Today is a defining and pivotal moment – both for the government’s immigration policy and the migrant justice movement itself. Within a few weeks, Obama will have overseen more deportations in his last six years than any previous administration, for which he has earned himself the nickname “Deporter in Chief.” Despite the administration’s early promise to “use prosecutorial discretion to avoid deporting people with clean records and strong family ties to the United States,” close to two million families have been torn apart under his watch. The president recently voiced his “deep concern about the pain” that families have to shoulder when their homes are destroyed. He has asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson to consider more “humane practices.” Yet, I wonder what part of this traumatic and violent process holds any shred of humanity. The deportation quota is set at 400,000 a year, and the private-prison industry has a powerful vested interest in keeping detention centers filled. DHS has even conceded “detention bed mandates” to the for-profit industry, ensuring a certain number of migrants will be detained in order to maximize profits.
In response, the migrant justice movement has mobilized an unprecedented wave of protest, one filled with courage and radical reimagining. People have been coming out of the shadows, declaring, “Undocumented! Unafraid!” A spectrum of tactics have surfaced: lobbying Congress for a more comprehensive reform bill; petitioning news publications to drop terms like “illegal” immigrant; taking bold action to stop buses full of detainees in their tracks; converging at borders to cross back into the United States; and fighting back within the detention centers themselves, as they have most recently with the hunger strike at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
The framing of the movement has also shifted. More and more, groups are pushing beyond the dichotomy of “good” and “bad” immigrant — a framework that was imposed upon us and which artificially separates the “criminals” who crossed over with nothing more than the clothes on their backs from those of us who could afford the right kind of papers. Now, some are pushing to go even further and ground the migrant struggle, both explicitly and publicly, in an analysis of neoliberalism. It’s not an easy step to take. Even though the movement is escalating, it still feels like there’s a line we’re afraid to cross, an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critique that we somehow are not allowed to make for fear of the consequences.
Community defender Simón Sedillo describes neoliberalism as “a military political economic system which prioritizes the roles of financial institutions and transnational corporations over the basic rights of communities. [It] subverts national sovereignty in order to ensure the flow of capital from the global south to the global north by taking natural resources, land and labor by force for profit.”
Under this system, Sedillo explains, “Farm workers, immigrants, students, workers, people of color, poor people, indigenous communities, women, and in particular indigenous women, are systematically devalued and considered disposable. If any of these sectors of society organize and resist, they are considered threats and become military targets. In other words, neoliberalism is the way in which banks, politicians and corporations conspire to subjugate the people as a whole. This is done with pretty words and faces, but it is still the same ugly way in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Better understanding neoliberalism in the context of migration has helped one group that I work with, the Salt Lake Dream Team, during our ongoing campaign to stop the deportation of Ana Cañenguez and her four sons. After more than a year of court and legal proceedings, the Cañenguez family is applying for prosecutorial discretion and a stay of deportation in a last ditch effort to overturn a court’s decision for them to self-deport. They moved to Salt Lake City from El Salvador to escape poverty, domestic violence and gang threats.
Today, nearly one quarter of El Salvador’s population lives and works in the United States. The economy, which once relied on its coffee exports, now depends on the remittances of its workers abroad who send money back to their family. This exchange is expedited by the fact that since 2001, their official currency is the dollar. In other words, every deportation of a Salvadorean worker in the United States has a direct negative impact on the economy of this small Central American nation.
To understand this situation, it’s helpful to start with El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which was to become the most costly U.S. intervention in Latin America.
The United States spent $1 million a day funding death squads and a far-right military government in efforts to ward off the spread of communism and “another Nicaragua.” As a result, the country was traumatized by massive human rights violations and the death of 75,000 people. But perhaps what really tipped the scales was the formation of U.S.-funded private development organizations like FUSADES, which furthered neoliberal programs inside the country. The United States has also meddled in elections and set preconditions for U.S. aid that incentivizes — one might say bribes — politicians to open up the country to foreign multinationals. The recent enactment of the public-private partnership law, for example, grants “the government the right to sell off natural resources, infrastructure and services to foreign multinationals.”
As with any place, the history of El Salvador is a complex one, rich in people and perspectives. Its sociopolitical system is intertwined with layers of inequality and resistance, of oppression and liberation. The question of U.S. involvement is not a simple one either, and this short history only skims the surface. But the question remains: What does it look like to take responsibility for these decades of conditions and back-door deals — and the social havoc these policies have created?
Standing with the Canenguez family goes beyond fighting for their choices or debunking such myths like that of migrants stealing jobs in an already fragile economy. It’s about telling the whole story, that of migration and leaving one’s home seeking asylum in a country that makes promises while shamelessly destroying other people’s backyards. It’s about demanding answers and accountability. To do this, we need to make the time to reflect, educate ourselves and connect the dots. It means movie screenings, study groups, book clubs, community dinners or two-hour tea-drinking sessions to gather the wisdom from our elders. It means taking the time to look at how neoliberalism has affected a family’s own life and making that reality a more focal part in the story we’ve been telling.
It also means overcoming the fear of crossing an uncrossable line — moving from a narrative in which families are pleading to stay to one in which they are demanding that right based on the United States’ decades of destructive international policies. In other words, telling the missing parts of the migrant story goes beyond creating a more comprehensive and accurate narrative. It also bears the weight of responsibility and action.
As Ana Cañenguez said, “We need to lose fear of speaking out … It would be beautiful if the 11 million lost fear. Everything would look different. The more people that lose fear, the more power we have. In unity there is power.”
Hénia Belalia, a French-Algerian native, is a climate justice and migrant rights defender, a facilitator, a theatre director and a day-dreamer of collective liberation. Her work is defined by a constantly evolving practice of decolonization, healing ancestral traumas, and solidarity to front lines of struggle, with a framework rooted in intersecting and overlapping systemic oppressions. She is currently on the National Coordinating Committee of Deep Roots United Front. (Twitter: @HeniaBelalia)