The Salvadoran in me applauds Julián Castro’s unusually blunt statements during the Democratic presidential debate. The images of drowned Salvadoran refugees Óscar Ramírez and his daughter Valeria are “heartbreaking” and should, in fact, “piss us all off.”
The journalist in me who’s covered the humanitarian crisis facing Central Americans for many years agrees with Joe Biden, when the former Vice President said that immigrants have “increased the lifespan of Social Security because they have a job, they’re paying a Social Security tax. That’s what they’re doing. It has increased the lifespan. ”
Every bone, every brain and blood cell in my body wants to believe the impassioned pleas of all 20 candidates.
But, for many reasons, I don’t, 2,975 reasons I don’t—the number of anonymous Óscars and Valerias these candidates said nothing about during the debates. Conservative estimates from the Border Patrol estimate that 2,975 people died between 2009 and 2017.
During that entire eight year span of dehydrated, drowned and dead immigrant men, women and children left by the policies of fellow Democrat Barack Obama, not a word from any the current Democratic party candidates. Nada. Nobody got “pissed off.” Instead, many politicians adopt an approach captured by the great Nazi-era German writer, Bertolt Brecht: “As crimes pile up, they become invisible.”
On the first day of this week’s debate, Robert O’Rourke tweeted that “Trump is responsible for these deaths.” As a longtime student of U.S. immigration policy, I understand what O’Rourke’s justified tweet refers to: Trump’s accelerated border militarization policies—sending National Guard troops, adding more Border Patrol, beefing up border technology and fencing, pushing Mexico and other Latin American countries to beef up enforcement. These policies push migrants like Óscar and Valeria deeper and deeper into the most abysmally dangerous parts of the border region. Heartless, bipartisan policy wonks and politicians in need of euphemisms call these border policies “prevention through deterrence.”
Silence about the Democrats’ contributions to the death-by-deterrence that has killed thousands enables future politicians to continue these abominable policies.
Silencio equals death.
I lament that neither the journalists raising the questions during the debates nor any of the Democratic party candidates used their allotted time to talk about what thoughtful critics call the ‘weaponizing‘ of the Sonoran and other deserts.
Having visited these desert regions on numerous occasions, I find the total silence surrounding these policies profoundly disturbing. Having visited the Dantesque depths of morgues and medical examiner freezers in southwestern deserts, the silence sounds hellish. And having inhaled the rotting flesh of a hundred dead and decaying refugee children, adults and other migrant bodies, I can only call these policies calculated, cold-blooded, mass murder enabled by moral cowardice and partisan amnesia.
I’ve also visited mass grave sites in Brooks County, Texas, specifically Falfurrias. In 2013, justices of the peace and other local officials there took the bones and rotting bodies of migrant women and children who died on ranches located near border-crossing oil pipelines, put them in milk crates and buried them in mass graves.
I think of Falfurrias when I see Texas Democrats like Castro taking the almost four-hour drive from his hometown of San Antonio to deliver toys and teddy bears to refugee children imprisoned by Trump in McAllen. Never mind for the moment that many of the Texas prisons jailing refugee children and moms were either built or expanded by Obama.
What I wonder about is why he didn’t stop to bring attention to the nameless children and parents pushed to horrific death before being buried in those anonymous graves. I also think of border-bred Congress member O’Rourke going to Florida to say “We love you” to imprisoned children while virtually showing no attention or love for child migrants killed in and around the border by U.S. policy before 2017.
The fact that another debate danced and talked español around the question of murderous border enforcement policy makes me shake in fear. My years of experience know what happens to migrant children and parents when Democratic party politicians went silent on this issue of “deterrence.”
It’s for this reason that I greatly appreciate Kamala Harris taking the historic step of breaking the Democrat’s code of silence protecting Obama, saying, during last night’s debate, “I disagreed with my president,” because “the policy was to allow deportation of people that by ICE’s own definition were non-criminals.”
I heard that and leapt for joy because I recognize the significance of the statement. For those of us who, for years, have fought Democratic party operatives just to get the truth about Obama’s deportation record into the public discussion, Harris’ break represents a major victory. So does the fact that some media have started to recognize that Obama’s immigration record is, in the words of Slate magazine, “atrocious.” Unfortunately for Harris, the other candidates and, especially immigrants, this pyrrhic victory comes too little too late, for, as any serious immigration advocate knows, the Obama catastrophe on immigration runs far deeper than just 3 million deportations. Far deeper.
And it bears zero resemblance to the fantastical fictions repeated by Obama’s former Vice President, Joe Biden, who said, “President Obama, I think, did a heck of a job, [on immigration] and “To compare him to what this guy [President Donald Trump] is doing is absolutely, I find, close to immoral.”
Call me immoral.
Biden would be hilarious were these lies and denials so absolutely devastating to refugee innocents. Thankfully, the question —”Was Obama like Trump on immigration or is Trump continuing and expanding Obama policies and practices?”— is being raised. Many are starting to understand that, contrary to the hackneyed, procrustean reporting that tries to force a great difference between Obama and Trump immigration policies, more people are starting to adopt the view of an Obama-Trump immigration continuum of practice and policy.
As early as 2010, groups like the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights sounded urgent alarms about Obama’s border militarization policies: “Along with a record number of migrant deaths at the border, the U.S. under the Obama Administration is achieving a record number of deportations this fiscal year.” Few to no media or politicians heeded these alarms.
Viewed from the through the lens of the Obama-Trump continuum, Biden’s statements look absurd and hollow, especially when compared with reports produced at the end of the Obama era of border enforcement by groups like Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths. In 2016, these groups reported on what clearly constituted one of the humanitarian crises of our time: “The known disappearance of thousands of people in the remote wilderness of the U.S.–Mexico border zone marks one of the great historical crimes of our day.”
This reports and others like it make me remember how I listened in utter disbelief to then-Mayor Castro in 2013, when No More Deaths, Derechos Humanos and others were sounding alarms about Obama border militarization policies. By that time, Obama border militarization had already pushed almost 1,500 migrants to dehydrate, die and drown in the most dangerous parts of the border region. Years earlier, I met Castro at the Esperanza Center in his hometown of San Antonio. I liked him. But I could not believe that, instead of making the impassioned please about migrants whose deaths were every bit as horrific —and preventable— as those of Salvadoran refugees Óscar ans Valeria, Castro said this during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 2013:
“In Texas, we know firsthand this Administration has put more boots on the ground along the border than at any other time in its history, which has led to unprecedented success in removing dangerous individuals with criminal records.”
I listen to Castro and the other candidates and wonder why none of them was “pissed off” before the migrant deaths of the Obama years. Sadly, I think it has a lot to do with what I call “pissed-off-as-performance.”
Trump’s blatant racism and his weaponized inhumanity make it easy to both understand and blame him for the murderous border enforcement policies.
Trump and his lowlife antics make it easy for the Democrats to take the moral high ground, denouncing the fact that Trump’s neglect killed seven children who dehydrated and died in “detention” (I prefer to call them “prisons”). Tragically, Trump also makes it easy for the Democratic party candidates —and sympathetic media— to ignore that fact that 74 refugee and immigrant adults died due to dehydration and what Human Rights Watch called “preventable” causes during the Obama years.
I also note how the Democratic party candidates joined many editors and journalists and even fact-checking organizations in disguising the fact that Obama had the PRACTICE of separating refugee children (5,100 in 2011 alone) behind the fact that he did not have a POLICY like Trump did.
As a journalist, I’m familiar with the machinations of politicians and journalists and editors who support them. I’ve documented how these media operatives have behaved like Fox News, hiding uncomfortable facts by completely erasing Central American scholars and other Central American community leaders and experts to protect the public from the inconvenient truth of U.S. border enforcement policy: that Barack Obama and the Democrats have pushed refugees and migrants to death by the thousands, just as Republicans have. Until now, Democratic politicians have gladly followed the media in silencing this truth.
But, as Harris’ distancing herself from the Obama immigration indicates, the dam has broken.
For these and other reasons, and for the sake of refugee children, we must not allow the Democratic candidates to hide their quiet obliteration of migrant life behind either the loud and monstrous image of Trump, the manipulation of compromised and dishonest journalists or the dangerous and callous talk of “whataboutism” their party loyalists enable continued mass murder with.
Let the true campaign for migrant life begin. And may the best candidate win.
Roberto Lovato is a writer and journalist based at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. He recently wrote “Politics pushes Central American voices out of child separation coverage” for the Columbia Journalism Review. He tweets from @robvato.