During his presidential campaign, President Donald Trump infamously announced his promise to build what he called "a great wall" along the United States-Mexico border. His pledge roused supporters and ignited the racist firestorm that eventually lead to his victory. Two years later, he is still scrambling to raise the $250 billion needed to fund the proposed 2,000-mile southern fence. But his administration continues to intensify an unforgiving operation that prosecutes and detains immigrants—including infants—who arrive at the border, many of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries.
The Trump administration’s tactics are unequivocally cruel. But placed within the context of U.S. history, these policies aren’t all that new. Trumps’ anti-immigrant strategy builds on many of the laws and global interventions the federal government constructed over the course of decades. From the violent interventions in Central America to the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) post-9/11, Trump’s predecessors arguably designed the machine that he uses against immigrants today.
In her new book, "We Built The Wall," author Eileen Truax deconstructs how the United States’ economic and political interests have stirred the violent conditions immigrants flee from and the bureaucracies that shut them out. By interviewing activists and asylum seekers, Truax brings readers up close to the consequences of anti-immigrant policies and neocolonialism.
Truax spoke with Colorlines about the impact these ideological and physical borders have on asylum-seekers, and the communities that prevail despite violence and separation.
What made you want to tell these stories?
The idea of this book started in 2015 when I visited the region of El Paso-Juarez and I started learning about the cases of Mexicans fleeing violence and looking for asylum in the U.S. Many families in that area of the border had lived through almost three years of the Mexican army, the local police and drug cartels fighting for plazas [regions]. People started getting threatened, kidnapped, killed. The situation was especially hard for those who were defending human and civil rights. I met a few of these people who were in very bad situations, whose families were attacked or who were attacked themselves.
I started following their legal cases. I realized that no matter how how much evidence if you’ve been threatened or your life is at risk, with the way the U.S. applies the rules of asylum, they will not give you an opportunity to stay here if you’re coming from certain countries. This means that we are using the asylum and refugee policies in a political and economic way. We are using that criteria instead of human rights and social justice. I started looking at the process for asylum in terms of political interests, economic reasons and in terms of the way the United States deals with the idea of “the other” to play politics every time you have an election or an economic crisis. All of these stories represent one part of this system that’s not working the way it’s supposed to.
When people apply for asylum you say that their “geography is destiny.” How have U.S. politics in other countries influenced its immigration policies here?
Much of the situation going on in countries like El Salvador or Guatemala were directly and indirectly created by the United States. When the United States took part in the process of civil war in Central America; when they supported certain regimes against the democratic ones; when they provided arms and other resources to certain regimes because those were the ones that the U.S. considered their allies. In certain ways, that shaped the future and the destiny of many people there. They had no other option but to leave because they were persecuted or they were victims of violence.
Today, if a person comes to the U.S. and they ask for asylum and show evidence that they have credible fear of being killed by the police or by a member of the military, if that person is coming from El Salvador, they have [a lesser chance] that their case is going to be accepted. If they are coming from Venezuela, they have [a greater chance] that they will be accepted. And that’s because the U.S. government views Venezuela as a non-democratic country whose regime [the U.S.] has to fight against. But the U.S. has economic ties and trade agreements in El Salvador. They are political allies. So giving asylum to a person from El Salvador could make a statement or acknowledgement that El Salvador is not a democratic country. It tells you that the way we’re applying these policies goes first through the filter of politics and diplomatic relations that are convenient for the U.S. government.
Are the restrictive policies we are seeing now under the Trump administration comparable to the ones that were implemented after 9/11?
Yes, 9/11 was a perfect alibi to link security with immigration. The United States has always had this negative view of "the other," who are our enemies that want to do evil to us. And that "other" has been applied to different groups for a long time. Once it was Japanese people; once, Jews; Mexicans, for a long time; Central Americans, with gangs; Now, Muslims. The U.S. is always using this "other" as a threat to legitimize their efforts for new strategies to enforce the law in order to protect the country. September 11 did that in terms of immigration. They changed the law, created ICE and started to apply very harsh measures for travelers. The process to get a permit to enter the U.S. became harder for certain countries. The thing is that time has proven that most of the terrorist attacks were by people who did not live in the U.S. but by people who were here legally.
The truth is that the [Trump] administration was aiming to make the Muslim community the "other" of this administration. Now, he’s targetted people coming to the border, especially families, because we have midterm elections coming up and he has nothing to offer his supporters. From all the things he has promised, he’s done nothing. He has no money for the wall or more agents. He couldn’t roll back Obamacare. He couldn’t deport Dreamers. So in order to go into a midterm election that functions like a referendum, he has to do something big to show he is still the person at hand.
In some parts in the book, when I explained this, I mentioned how much they spend every year with lobbying. In the case of the last campaign, how much these companies donated to the Republican candidates and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This is the kind of political arrangement that Congress has to do with companies and the people they represent. During Barack Obama’s administration, toward the end, it was announced that the contract for these two companies were going to be rescinded because we were detaining less people in the country. And as soon Donald Trump was the Republican candidate, he started saying directly to the companies that they were going to stay in business and would keep working for the government. Then their numbers in Wall Street went up. Now, you can see that Donald Trump is making a high number of detentions. He is not deporting more people than Obama, but he’s making more arrests and in many cases the people who are arrested end up in one of these detention centers managed by these corporations. It’s pretty easy, just follow the money. That explains why we are working this way. What concerns me is that many people in the U.S. don’t know that they are using our tax dollars to detain innocent people and the companies are making lots of money.
You interviewed many activists and grassroots organizers and discussed how these sites of widespread violence also have a resilient culture and identity. What was your experience speaking to organizers on both sides of the border?
It gave me hope. You know, politicians are in Washington sitting in their very comfortable chairs making legislation that works for their political and party interests. But not many of them have done the work to go to the border, walk on that side, talk to real people and understand how the region works. The people who live in Laredo, Texas, have more in common with the people in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, than with the people in Washington. And it’s the same with the people in Nuevo Laredo, who have more in common with the people in Laredo than the people in Mexico City. Those are brother towns, sister cities, and they understand themselves as that.
Whenever there’s an impetus to put a wall to increase security, [activists in the region] always protest because they’re asking not to be separated from people who are their brothers—sometimes, literally. Sometimes one part of the family lives on one side, sometimes on the other. They defend the right to hold and keep friendly relations with people from the other side because they are communities no matter what a line, or a river, or a legislation says. As long as people keep raising their voice and teaching others how things work in this community, we’re going to have a chance to stop this nonsense and start understanding that borders are points of meeting instead of points of closing doors.