U.S. Border Agents Teargas Women, Children Seeking Asylum

Interview with Suyapa Portillo, assistant professor of Chicano/a-Latino/a transnational studies at Pitzer College, conducted by Scott Harris

As a caravan of thousands of Central American refugees fleeing violence and repression in their homelands walked through Mexico toward the U.S. border to seek asylum, President Trump used his bully pulpit in the closing days of the U.S. midterm election campaign to label these immigrants, comprised mostly of women and children, as invaders posing a dire threat to the nation. To underscore his false narrative, Trump ordered thousands of American troops deployed to the U.S. Mexico border.
Some 5,000 refugees from the caravan recently arrived at the border between San Ysidro, California and Tijuana, Mexico. After U.S. border officials greatly limited the number of asylum applicants allowed to make their legally authorized claims each day, several hundred frustrated men, women and children awaiting entry organized a peaceful protest on Sunday, Nov. 25. Later, some broke away from the protest and pushed up against a border fence or attempted to climb it. In response, U.S. agents fired tear gas into the crowd, and the gas drifted, affecting families with children, including many who were far from the clash at the border fence.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Suyapa Portillo, assistant professor of Chicano/a-Latino/a transnational studies at Pitzer College, who takes a critical look at the Trump administration response to the thousands of Central American refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. and the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform.
SUYAPA PORTILLO: This situation opens up a whole lot of different things. On the one hand, there’s questions of sovereignty. There’s U.S. military at the border. There’s riot police. There’s border patrol firing into Mexican territory, right? Are they allowed to do this or not? And then why is the Mexican government sort of sitting back and allowing this to happen? Those are really key questions about sort of Trump’s narrative here. If people don’t do what he says, he’s going to cut their aid. So it’s like Mexican government doesn’t do what he says or the Central Americans don’t do what he says, he’s going to cut their aid, which is something that is not up to him, but rather, up to Congress. Right? But the narrative is so problematic that you see sort of, you know, like Enrique Peña Nieto or has had all month to engage with this caravan or to do something about it.

But because he’s on his way out and on Dec. 1st, the new president of Mexico will be sworn in and that’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and that’s going to be the key issue for his presidency, right? So the old president is leaving it up to him and not doing anything about this. So he had about a month to engage with this caravan, but has left it to this right now and is really putting people in danger because when you’re confronting a military national guard and border patrol agents who are sort of pretty happy about gassing women and children, you know you are putting people in danger.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Portillo, do you believe that the White House has created a pressure situation there? Keeping these immigrants who are seeking merely an application for asylum, keeping them there in Mexico en masse as a way to ratchet up the tension and possibly provoke people to act out in ways that would affirm Donald Trump’s own assessment of these immigrants as somehow a dire threat to the nation.

SUYAPA PORTILLO: You know, I’ve kinda come to the analysis that we’re looking at Trump optics, right? Like this is all about the appearance of generating chaos at the border, that’s why I think some of the images are really critical because you see that these are women and children who are being gassed. These are young people who are being gassed, right? So in some ways it’s about optics for the Trump administration. The pressure situation has been something that has been generated over time.

For example, looking back at the Obama administration support of the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009. The Trump administration’s support of Juan Orlando Hernández’s fraudulent election in November 2017. So, you know, those are kind of the pressure points that are really forcing people to leave to get away from some of the political violence and the gang violence as well as the violence generated by poor government, right, who can’t handle this precedent, doesn’t have a handle on what’s going on in the country.

So I think that the pressure situation is generated by the United States, whether it’s with a democratic presidency or this Republican presidency over time. And I think that Trump has been dying to mess with the border to build a wall. I think it’s all about showing his base. It’s all about being a strong men as if this were a poker game. But unfortunately, this is not a poker game. This is, these are people’s lives. These are children’s lives who’ll be forever traumatized by the Trump administration separation policies or by some of the violence that they’ve witnessed at the border.

There’s a new Democratic Party majority coming into the House of Representatives. There’s been a very long stalemate between the House and Senate Democrats and Republicans in moving forward with comprehensive immigration reform legislation. And it seems now more than ever, you have a rising consciousness in this country that reform of our immigration policy is urgent. Do you have any hope that the Democrats in the House who will be taking over that chamber in January can do anything to move the cause of immigration reform forward?

You know, I think under the Trump administration, I don’t think anything’s going to happen. In fact, we’re actually going back on accomplishments, such as DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status, all those programs that have been canceled that have been really relief programs for people here in the United States. So, if we can even sustain what already exists – but I also want to remind your listeners that during eight years, the Obama administration and during Hillary Clinton as head of the State Department, more people were deported. Three million people were deported from the United States. That’s the largest number of deportations in the history of the U.S.

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