On the Issues with Michele Goodwin

8. Has The U.S. Forgotten Its Immigrant Roots? (with Kevin Johnson, Domingo Garcia and Mary Giovagnoli)


September 3, 2020

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In this Episode:

From a frozen asylum system, huge camps on the Mexico border and family separation policies, to the worsening lack of healthcare and the aftereffects of COVID-19, Latinx communities are at a disadvantage both inside and outside U.S. borders. In this episode, we focus on events over the last few years greatly impacting Latinx communities: socially, economically and politically—as Trump administration immigration policies have resulted in child separation,huge camps on the Southern border, stalled immigration, and much more.

Meanwhile, those held in detention centers face an added layer of challenges—ranging from lost children, to an increased risk of COVID infections. Are detainees seeking self-deportation to avoid contracting COVID?

And what about sexual abuse? Despite numerous lawsuits and thousands of complaints filed against detention facilities staff, this staggering pattern of sexual abuse seems to continue in immigration detention centers.

Have something to share? Drop us a line at ontheissues@msmagazine.com.

Background Reading:

Take Action:

  • Sign emails to your representatives demanding they release detained families, defend immigrant children at the border, and support fair representation for children already in the U.S..
  • Offer pro bono legal services to represent adults and children in U.S. immigration courts through organizations like Kids In Need of Defense (KIND).
  • Sign petitions urging the Department of Homeland Security to end their practice of family separation in immigrant detention facilities.
  • Raise awareness on the inhumane treatment of migrants by amplifying the stories of survivors and reporters on social media.
  • Call and write to your representatives about preserving legal temporary protected status (TPS) for asylum seekers fleeing dangerous circumstances in their home countries. The countries included in TPS have been substantially reduced since Trump took office.
  • Make sure you’re registered to vote at WhenWeAllVote.org.


00:00:06 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to On The Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel, and tell it like it is. On this show we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advances of promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our time. On our show history matters, we examine the past as we pivot to the future.

On today’s show we focus on the question, has the United States forgotten its immigrant roots? Events in the past few years have greatly impacted Latinx communities socially, economically, and politically from a frozen asylum system and huge camps on the Mexico border and family separation policies, to the worsening lack of healthcare and the after-effects of COVID-19, Latinx communities are at a disadvantage both inside and outside our borders.

Meanwhile, those held in detention centers face an added layer of challenges ranging from lost children, quite literally, to an increased risk of COVID infections. This raises the question, are detainees now seeking self deportation to avoid contracting COVID? 

What about sexual abuse? Despite numerous lawsuits and thousands of complains filed against detention facility staff, the staggering pattern of sexual abuse seems to continue in immigration detention centers. Outside the detention centers members of Latinx communities struggle economically and socially as major representatives of workforce in essential services such as meat packing, agriculture, and healthcare. These workers face the uncertainty of losing their jobs, they’re at an increased risk of contracting COVID, and what if they do contract COVID, how will they recover with increasing lack of healthcare. And then there’s DACA.

There’s so much for us to impact on these issues, and so helping us to sort out these questions and how we should think about these issues and more, our very special guests.

Kevin Johnson. He is the Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law, and Professor of Chicano/Chicana Studies at the University of California Davis School of Law. He is also the author of How Did you Get to be Mexican, and Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink its Borders and Immigration Policy.

Also joining us is Domingo Garcia. He is an attorney and the National President of the League of United Latin American Citizens, also known as LULAC. 

And finally joining me is Mary Giovagnoli. She is the Senior Counsel for Legal Strategy for Kids In Need of Defense, otherwise known as KIND, and the former Executive Director of Refugee Council USA. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Immigration Policy in the Department of Homeland Security from January of 2016 to January 2018.

So let’s start with a more general question and open it up to our guests. How have Latinx communities been impacted economically, politically, and socially during the past few years? I open this up to any of my guests.

00:03:37 Kevin Johnson: 

I’d be happy to talk a little bit about that because I think what the Trump administration has engaged in over the last few years is what I would call a new Latinx repatriation, an effort to remove as many Latinx non-citizens from the country as possible. Other groups are affected as well including Haitians, Muslims, and people from the developing world, people of color from the developing world, but we’re seeing a series of very concerted efforts to reduce the immigrant population and in particular reduce the Latinx population. 

You can look at what has happened to the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program under the Trump administration. In about 90 percent of the recipients of DACA were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. You look at the efforts by the administration to rescind what is known as Temporary Protected Status, a form of relief that’s been extended to Haitians as well as Salvadorans and that relief was attempted to be taken away from several hundred thousand people from El Salvador and Haiti. 

Los Angeles protestors stand in defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017. (Molly Adams / Flickr)

You can look at workplace raids, you can look at immigrant detention, you can look at removals, and you look at all those areas you see that disparate impacts on Latinx immigrants, and in some ways I think this takes us back in history to some previous episodes where the US government and state and local authorities tried to rid the country of unwanted Mexicans. You can think of Operation Wetback what it was known as, in 1954, a mass deportation campaign. You can look back at the Mexican Repatriation during the Great Depression where hundreds of thousands, probably more than a million Mexican immigrants and US citizens were removed from the United States. 

So I think that the impacts on the Latinx community over the last few years has been devastating in terms of immigration, also devastating in terms of COVID, you look at COVID numbers, devastating in terms of the economy, devastating in terms of the impacts health, economic, and otherwise on essential workers, of people who work in the fields, and we have communities now that are just terrified by what can happen through the US government’s efforts. 

So I think it’s been what I would call to use a sports analogy, a full court press on a Latinx community. 

00:06:11 Michele Goodwin:  

So why is this? I mean, we’ve heard absolutely racist statements coming out of this White House. I mean, they’re undeniable, calling Mexican people rapist and murderers and drug dealers who would overwhelm suburban communities. Why the targeting of Latinx communities?

00:06:30 Domingo Garcia:

This is Domingo Garcia and as National President of LULAC, we’ve been dealing with a history in this country of police brutality is nothing new. The Texas Rangers were lynching and killing Mexican-Americans in the early 1900s until today and we’re seeing voter suppression trying to purge Latinos from the roles to keep us from voting. They are scared of our political power and they’re using immigration as a wedge and fear issue, and it’s just really shocking that a President of the United States would use Latinos as political piñatas and immigrants, taking children from mothers and fathers in order to teach them a lesson.

Again, this is not the America that we think about when we see the Statue of Liberty or when we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and we say with liberty and justice for all. This is a warped America that’s being led by the far right wing in this country.

00:07:24 Michele Goodwin: 

And in fact on that very note as you were talking about family separation, children in cages, lost children under the El Paso program of 2017, any person including parents traveling with children who cross the United States border without permission according to this administration would be detained and prosecuted, and upon detention we saw that children were taken away from parents and separated leaving parents unable to track their children at a later time because there was no system in place to facilitate reunions.

So Domingo, I have this question for you. As an attorney and a civil rights leader, what can be done to stop this horrific practice of family separation?  Where do we even begin to start, and let me just frame that for our listeners by saying in June 2018 The Washington Post reported that a 39-year-old Honduran father separated from his wife and child at the border killed himself in a Texas jail. That same month CNN reported that Federal authorities allegedly snatched an undocumented immigrant’s daughter from her hands while she was breast feeding the child in a detention center, and we know that thousands of children have been separated from their parents at the border and are lost or being held in cages even now. So where do we start and what do we do about this?

00:08:54 Domingo Garcia:

Well, you know, I was in McAllen, Texas, a year ago at a protest at one of these children’s jails. Now just think about that whole concept. A jail for children, 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-year-olds whose crime is that their parents wanted a better life for them, whose crime is they turned themselves in and asked for asylum and asked for help from what is supposed to be one of the most generous immigrant-friendly countries in the world. And instead they were torn away, and I remember being in front of a prison bus that was leaving that site and seeing little hands on prison bars in this bus, maybe a 3- or 5-year-old. I took a picture with National that kids were being turned around in prison busses.

A protest against child detention outside a Border Patrol facility in Clint Texas, June 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

And then that last week it came out that the White House voted, they had a vote to take children away from their parents and it passed. Where are the good Americans? Where are the adults in the room at the White House? Why do they believe that being mean and cruel and evil is something that is the American way, and we’ve have to fight them. We fought them in the courts challenging the whole separation of family, trying to close down these baby jails and kids’ prisons. We’ve had protests and demonstrations, but it’s going to take the entire American public to realize this is not one…this is going to be a shameful episode, kind of like the Japanese incarceration during World War II of Japanese-Americans, it’s just shameful what they’re doing and it’s shameful the purpose of why it’s being done strictly for political gain by this White House.

00:10:31 Mary Giovagnoli:

Michele, before we leave this topic I wanted to add a couple of things. I think that it’s really, really important to understand that this notion of family separation really existed even before the zero tolerance policy, so in fact the Trump administration had been sort of piloting this idea that one way to deter people from coming would be if they were warned ahead of time that they would be separated from their children, and so there were roughly 15 hundred kids separated from parents before that separation, the zero tolerance policy was announced, and then it escalated like crazy in the two months when it was really in place. But it was advocacy, it was you know, litigation, it was a number of as Domingo said, really people leaning into protesting this that got the administration to step away from it. 

The problem is it still hasn’t stopped and as you noted, the administration is continuing to use tactics of family separation as a way to keep the pressure on families to not try to enter the US, and in fact it’s even gotten to the point where now under the COVID rules…there are a lot of times when parents are given the choice of whether or not to let their children be released into Office of Refugee Resettlement custody and separated from them, or for everyone to go back home. So they’re actually putting the choice on the parents now in a way that is incredibly cruel and also you know, contrary to due process and to the protections that the children enjoy in our system. 

But it’s part of this much bigger tactic to use whatever tools the administration sees that it has to pressure people to make the decision not to come to the US when in fact we know…many times people are coming here because they have no choice. They’re fleeing persecution, they’re fleeing incredible violence, they’re fleeing economic devastation, climate change more and more. There are a number of things that are pushing people to continue to come to the US and the Trump administration has never acknowledged that aspect of it, that this isn’t a you know, a punishment situation.

00:12:54 Michele Goodwin:

So Mary, I actually want to pick up on another aspect of this which is that not only have there been kids separated from their parents at the borders and these cruelties that you’ve just described, that Domingo has described, and the historical ones that Dean Johnson has described as well, but there are people that are now being prosecuted for leaving water at the border and doing humanitarian aid. Can you pick up on that and share anything about that?

00:13:21 Mary Giovagnoli:

I think that again, it’s part of a trend to try to restrict access to the U.S. and so in some ways you know, most of that is targeted at migrants but it also is targeted at people who are trying to help migrants, and it’s not just leaving water but there have even been circumstances where you know, prosecutors and judges have been pressured or threatened because of actions they’ve taken to try to mitigate some of the damage that ICE has done, and I think it hasn’t gotten as much traction or as much attention because it’s a little bit quieter. But it’s sort of part of a process to sort of scare people into not helping, to scare people into feeling like the folks who are coming to this country are untouchable in a way.

00:14:16 Michele Goodwin:

It’s amazing. I want to pivot and talk about the sexual abuse in immigration detention centers. So there have been allegations that guards in immigrant detention centers such as the center in El Paso have sexually assaulted and harassed many of the folks who have been detained. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE, annually detains on average 50 thousand people in detention centers and between 2010 and 2016 we had nearly 15 thousand complaints alleging sexual and physical abuse filed against ICE. But we’ve also seen that in recent years and something that’s been absolutely horrific has been to see this against children, and so I wonder if any of you can speak to these matters of these claims of sexual abuse that’s being experienced by people who are in detention, included children?

00:15:19 Domingo Garcia:

We’ve seen centers, a lot of these are by the way for-profit detention centers that the government is paying for, sometimes about 800 dollars a day to keep children in cages that are sexually abused. We’ve got reports…

00:15:31 Michele Goodwin:

Domingo, stop there. Did you say 800 dollars a day to keep these children locked in cages?

00:15:39 Domingo Garcia:

Correct. That’s what the government is paying these private contractors. 

00:15:44 Michele Goodwin:  


00:15:46 Domingo Garcia:

You could stay at the Ritz Carlton for that, but that’s what they’re doing, and they’re giving them bologna sandwiches and canned soup as lunch and dinner. And then they’re being subject to sexual abuse. We saw a center in Phoenix where one of the guards sexually abused three boys, one of them who ended up HIV positive. We’ve seen women also sexually abused by guards at multiple facilities. These have been well documented. ProPublica actually did a very extensive report on this, and yet the complaints and the charge…no charges are ever filed by the local district attorney or by the US prosecutors, they’re handled internally by some type of internal affairs or it gets lost, and unfortunately ICE has the largest number of officers that have been charged with crimes of any law enforcement agency in the country and that’s basically because they’re unregulated and they’re preying on immigrants that don’t have many recourses to go forward and file their complaints or file a lawsuit. 

A CoreCivic private detention center in Houston, Texas (Patrick Feller / Flickr).

00:16:44 Mary Giovagnoli:

I think we have to make some distinctions, though, especially with respect to children. Most unaccompanied minors who really are either separated from their parents or come to the country on their own are within the custody of Office of Refugee Resettlement and they tend to be in sort of more traditional shelters, and there’s certainly been some abuse allegations leveled at folks in the ORR system but I think that you know, sometimes even though it’s powerful and it’s dreadful when we talk about children in cages, we don’t quite get at the complexity of the systems that are involved for you know, taking care of kids within the system.

So it’s certainly not perfect and I’m not condoning any of the awful things that have been alleged or reported, but there are systems in place that are designed to protect kids. It doesn’t always work obviously but…

00:17:44 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, clearly not, Mary, because between 2014 and 2018 the Federal government received 45 hundred, 4 thousand 500 complaints of sexual harassment of children and the allegations ranged from detention facility staff fondling and kissing minors to watching them shower, and even raping them.

00:18:04 Mary Giovagnoli:

Yeah. No, look, I don’t work on that particular area so I don’t have a great deal of knowledge on it, I’m more just trying to sort of say that we have to look at sort of…there are all these different parts of the system in place that you have to look at and so we just need to understand that there are a lot of different…

00:18:28 Michele Goodwin:

And so help us understand that, Mary. So for listeners who may not have a full grasp of how these different systems operate, could you give us a little bit more background?

00:18:42 Mary Giovagnoli:

Sure. So at the time that DHS was created the responsibility for…

00:18:48 Michele Goodwin:

DHS, for our listeners who don’t know DHS.

00:18:51 Mary Giovagnoli:

Department of Homeland Security. Back in 2003 the responsibility for the care and custody of unaccompanied children was delegated to the Health and Human Services agency, or department, specifically the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and so they have set up a series of shelters and other mechanisms for taking care of kids who come into the country unaccompanied with the goal always of releasing them to sponsors. The idea is that you always should be using the least restrictive method possible for housing kids, and getting them to a family member or some other sponsor is the critical thing.

And so that system has been put under a lot of pressure and compromised in a number of ways by the various policies, particularly of the Trump administration in the last few years that have created situations where kids are being detained for much longer periods of time at CBP holding facilities or temporarily in ICE custody for reasons ranging from the family separation issues to just poor communication between the agencies about moving kids to where they should be, and also efforts especially now under COVID to simply expel kids. So now sometimes kids are being housed in hotels rather than in you know, appropriate child-specific facilities.

00:20:28 Michele Goodwin:

And you mentioned CBP, what does CBP stand for?

00:20:32 Mary Giovagnoli:

Sorry, Customs and Border Protection.

00:20:34 Michele Goodwin:

Okay, so that’s really helpful. So Dean Johnson, I want to bring you back into this conversation. So why is it do you think that there’s been this unique targeting of children, this kind of unique separation. What’s been behind that?

00:20:51 Kevin Johnson::

Well, I think the bigger picture is detentions have increased dramatically since 1996 immigration reforms made detention mandatory in many circumstances and gave the government more discretion in detaining people. I think child detention has been subject to what’s known as the Flores Settlement which limits the amount of time that the children can be held in detention, and the Trump administration has sought to abrogate or eliminate, to end the Flores Settlement, been to court many times trying to do that, and has tried to indefinitely detain children or their families, and one of the problems is more children are in detention. You have detention facilities, some of them are, as Domingo mentioned, private contractors with very little oversight and there’s not a good system in place to ensure the safety of any of the detainees, including the children in detention.

And it’s also immigrant women who are subject to violence and abuse, and there are very few legal avenues that can be pursued to stop this. The Supreme Court just decided a border shooting case that said that border officers couldn’t be sued for killing a…

00:22:11 Michele Goodwin:

It was shocking. That was an absolutely shocking case.

00:22:14 Kevin Johnson:

Yeah, and I think the fact that it’s very difficult to punish this kind of activity encourages this kind of activity and when you have a system in place with very few oversights, that private contractors, they’re worried about money as opposed to rights, this is a system that’s ripe for this kind of exploitation and it’s sad and tragic. And the Trump administration has thought you know, that separating families was a good way of deterring more migrants from coming and the idea is that if the word gets out that we’ll separate families, fewer families will come. 

Donald Trump speaking on immigration policy in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

And so it’s been a conscious effort of the administration, recently with The Washington Post article that talked about a debate in the White House about family separation, and even after the policy was dismantled President Trump apparently said that he wanted to bring it back, separate families, fewer families will come. They’re all asylum abusers anyway, and in his mind he uses terms like illegal aliens, asylum abusers. Part of the problem is the view is that these migrants aren’t even human and they don’t deserve human protections, and who cares about them anyway?

00:23:34 Michele Goodwin:

Well, on that note I actually would like to pivot right back to Mary because we’ve heard time and time again stories of children that have left their home countries and that they were doing so to run away from gang sexual and physical violence and to find a more peaceful life in the United States, and yet they’ve only ended up in US immigration detention centers and exposed to sexual violence, physical violence, just as we’ve talked about. So it’s hard to imagine what these children are going through emotionally, mentally, physically, and helplessly. So Mary, please share with us some of the initiatives that Kids In Need of Defense, KIND, has helped, how it’s helped these children. 

00:24:22 Mary Giovagnoli:

One of the most important things that I think KIND has pioneered in the last few years is to ensure that in our offices, and we provide both direct representation of unaccompanied children as well as matching unaccompanied children with pro bono counsel to try to ensure that as many kids as possible receive legal assistance, so just to back up and explain what we do.

And you know, children aren’t guaranteed counsel, and no one’s guaranteed counsel in the immigration system per se, and so KIND you know, fills that gap for many, many kids. But it’s clear that in working with children that you have to also provide a number of social service supports to make sure that they really are getting the attention they need for you know, a range of things that are happening because they’ve left their homes, they’ve left their families in many cases, they are you know, confronted by a system that’s confusing to everyone really and if you don’t speak the language and if you are you know, very young, none of it’s going to make sense.

So some of it is just having caring attorneys and other professionals there to help guide the child through the process, some of it is ensuring that there are programs in place that actually help kids with other aspects of adjustment, and so in all of our offices we have social service coordinators to try to address you know, some of the most immediate needs. 

But then KIND also does a lot of work in-country, particularly in Central America and recognizes that for instance, there are times when children, it’s in their best interest to return home sometimes and so we actually have programs that deal with repatriation as well to again, ensure that if they have to go back they go back to a situation where there’s some support and some programming available to them. 

So you know, we’re really guided by the motto that you have to do what’s in the best interests of the child and that is of course, a very individualized assessment but it really is sort of trying to look at primarily what their legal needs are, but then recognizing that that’s just the tip of the iceberg, frankly.

00:26:50 Michele Goodwin:

And best interests of the child has always been complicated, even when we don’t have immigration or refugee status added onto that. Just as you were describing that, images came to mind of children in diapers and little kids in immigration courts with attorneys crying, kids who can’t even sit appropriately in the chair because they’re just way too small, in order to see the judge and it’s really frightening. It’s really horrific. Thank you so much for sharing that.

You know, 2020 has brought yet another serious issue and that’s been COVID. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and Domingo, I’ve seen your active work in this space as you’ve been trying to help reporters and others understand just how this pandemic has impacted Latinx communities in the United States. There are reports that these detention centers use toxic COVID disinfectants that expose the detainees to serious health risks; some guards reportedly spray these toxic chemicals everywhere over 50 times a day causing detainees to experience bloody noses, burning eyes, headaches and even bone pain—and yet at the same time we also know that at meat-packing industries there have been hot spots for COVID.

And so some have wondered: What’s the greater evil, staying in overcrowded detention facilities in danger of contracting COVID-19 and possibly experiencing serious health complications and even death, or voluntarily vacating these facilities and self-deporting? I mean, these seem like really two evils. So Domingo, can you tell us a little bit more about these issues, COVID and immigration?

00:28:49 Domingo Garcia:

Well, these are really tough issues to deal with. I mean, these are families—if you think about it, most of them are Central American, they made a journey from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, many times through very horrific circumstances through Mexico to get to the border and then to try to cross and ask for asylum because they’re fleeing usually gang violence, terrorism, things like that, and yet they’re put into crowded detention centers where COVID-19 has become a big issue and many times they are being denied basic health care, medical care, and it makes it tough for them. Do they go back? The United States has adopted a policy where we now have basically refugee camps on the Mexican side of the U.S. border with people being—numbers literally being written on their arms so they can get in line to come and talk to somebody and usually be rejected, and those that do come across being incarcerated in dangerous conditions.

So it is a tragic humanitarian crisis and it’s been made, it’s all manmade. It could just be done away with if we just had a new administration. Not to say Obama’s administration was all great, but they never went to the extremes that we are seeing now under the Trump administration. 

00:30:05 Michele Goodwin:

You know, there are aspects of this, Domingo, that the American public know about but some of this I don’t think that people know about. Writing on people’s arms and these huge camps on the border? Why is it that this isn’t making mainstream news sufficiently enough to counter when this administration says look, we’re just trying to keep people safe from the Mexican gangs and we’re just trying to keep people safe from Mexican men who want to come to the United States and rape women, which sadly is the message that has come from this administration.

00:30:42 Domingo Garcia:

It’s the lack of attention because it’s happening on the border, many times in relatively small towns like McAllen, Texas. You don’t see a camp with 5 thousand women and children camped out. You don’t see the immigration agents there literally writing numbers on them and saying, come back when we get to 1,344, and they need to show the numbers and they know that they’ve been in line. Reminds you of something you would have thought about, it’s not a tattoo like in a German concentration camp but again, these people are reduced to numbers and an assembly line. They’re not being treated as human beings, they’re not being treated as fellow Christians and that’s again, something that we need to bring to the attention and hopefully shows like this and the media would put more attention to the plight of these refugees.

00:31:30 Michele Goodwin:

An additional question I want to add on, and I’ll add Dean Johnson to this, too. Sometimes within the media and broader conversations there are conflations about the status of individuals who are seeking to come into the United States, so conflations between people who are seeking asylum and individuals who are coming to the United States because they want a better education or they want a better job. Can you help tease out some of the distinctions here because they’ve been all put together, and Mary, you can join in on this, too, but Kevin, why don’t I start with you?

00:32:10 Kevin Johnson:

Sure. I mean, there are some asylum seekers, people who were fleeing persecution in actually Mexico, but also more commonly in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where violence is rampant in society and much of the violence is gang violence—but there are also women and children who are fleeing domestic violence, and for a time the Obama administration was much more generous in treating the asylum claims of people fleeing gender violence, domestic violence, and also gang violence.

There also are some people who are coming to this country to work, who want to work and want to be part of this country’s labor force and that labor migration has been ongoing for generations, particularly from Mexico and particular parts of Mexico. Some argue that the flow of workers is increased after the North American Free Trade Agreement made it more difficult for farmers in the countryside to eke out a living. 

But there are people seeking asylum and there are asylum claims that are granted so it’s not all abuse as the president would say, and then there are people seeking to rejoin family in the United States and to work in the United States, and some would say that legal immigration rules are just not sufficient to deal with the demand of people who want to come to this country, that you can be waiting for visas for 20 years, in line and being separated from family members.

And so there are distinct flows of people coming for different reasons. Sometimes it’s hard to separate them out. The administration has treated them all as you know, illegals who violate the law but I think it’s much more nuanced than that. 

00:34:13 Domingo Garcia:

And as a practical matter, reality is the wall that the president touts doesn’t stop anybody from coming across. Immigration from Mexico is pretty much zero. The immigrants who do come from Central America, they turn themselves in at the bridges so no wall is going to stop them, and then legal immigration as he just mentioned has basically almost ended under President Trump. That’s legal immigration. 

Try to come into this country now under any type of a visa or work program has all but been eliminated because of Stephen Miller and the Republican policies through executive sessions. So there is no legal way almost to get into the United States and the few options like apply for refugee status has also been almost turned into a negative. It’s just horrific what’s happened under this administration.

00:35:02 Michele Goodwin:

Mary, you were going to add…

00:35:03 Mary Giovagnoli:

Yeah. No, I was going to add that you know, both Domingo and Kevin’s points are spot on. You know, this is so difficult to address because you know, when we focus in on one aspect of the system, so in this case what’s happening at the border, there’s so much to talk about and it’s such an enormous set of issues, but it’s actually an interconnected set of issues. So because we have an immigration system that, as Kevin said, doesn’t reflect where we’re at today, both in terms of our you know, need for legal immigration and the kinds of humanitarian issues that we’re facing, we actually get into a situation where I think it becomes really difficult for people to talk about the immigration system kind of holistically and then that allows the Trump administration to come in and really exploit all kinds of both executive authorities and gaps in the law to turn it into a system that is really all about denying access for anyone really and limiting protections.

And so the important thing to remember I think as we try to look forward to what the system could be is that we have to sort of reimagine our immigration system as one that really is inviting and that recognizes the importance of the immigrant contribution and immigrant creativity and vitality in this country, and that if we do that in the right way we would both increase the overall sort of number of legal immigrants, we’d decrease the need for people to feel that they had to cross the border illegally or without authorization, and we’d actually create a bigger space to be able to deal with the many humanitarian concerns that people raise at the border and at ports of entry and even  when they’ve come into the country in some other way and are seeking asylum.

So it really sometimes does seem like an insurmountable problem but a lot of it has to do with sort of changing the narrative and rethinking the way we approach the issue of immigration. The Trump administration has chosen an approach that is incredibly punitive and one would hope that in a new administration we could begin to reverse that trend.

00:37:37 Michele Goodwin: 

So Mary, I want to pick up on something that you said and I want to go back to something that Kevin mentioned which is that you said that we need immigration. What did you mean by that, because there are those who are saying we don’t need immigration; there are people who are across the country for whom they see this as the key issue. They believe that they have lost their jobs because of people crossing the border, they believe that they are far less safe because of people crossing the southern border. They think of immigration with a brown face, not with a white face, and we know that there are many immigrants in the United States who come in not at the southern border. So explain a little bit more really quickly about this notion of needing immigration.

00:38:29 Mary Giovagnoli:

Well, I think the U.S. has always had a love/hate relationship with immigration, you know? On the one hand we welcome immigrants because they bring energy, they bring vitality, they bring new ideas to the mix. And yet at the same time any time a new culture comes into the United States from wherever there’s a certain group of people who fear that change and so you’ve always got this tension.

But if you look at the facts and figures and the economic analysis, there is no question that America’s economic growth and long-term health depends on an expanding base of workers and consumers, a youthful population as opposed to an aging population. The actual growth of our country, and growth is fueled quite a bit by immigration. There’s also a number of studies that demonstrate that the number of patents, the number of new businesses, the number of sort of entrepreneurial enterprises that go on are often fueled by immigrants. Many sort of Rust Belt cities and other places that have been really hit hard by you know, the economic trends of the last 20 years have been revitalized by the growth of newcomers.

And so it really is the case that if we welcome immigration it can lift the boat up for everybody, including those people who you know, are most likely to see on a one-to-one basis the potential for their job to be at risk because of immigration, and there are a few people for whom they maybe in direct competition with immigrants but if we have a more vibrant economy and we have more opportunities for everyone, there’ll be more to go around I guess.

And I’ve always said to people you know, when I’m kind of hit directly with that question, you know, I can’t deny that in your particular case you may feel that you lost a job to someone or you may feel that something is different for you, but the only way we’re going to all go forward and improve the situation for everyone is to work through that together and figure out how we can all succeed rather than just trying to block people out or you know, block kind of the impact of change.

00:41:04 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, thank you for that, Mary. Dean Johnson, I want to pick up on something that you said, then we’re going to talk about meat packing, Domingo, and that is you mentioned NAFTA and farmers south of the border. Can you unpack that just a little bit more about the destabilization in that part of the region based on US policy?

00:41:26 Kevin Johnson:

Well, NAFTA, the 1994 trade agreement, it benefited Mexico, benefited the United States economically but the benefits weren’t necessarily equal to different sectors of the economy, and small farmers and workers in small industries were basically priced out of the market by big companies and big city economic operations. And what NAFTA did in the eyes of many is to depress the economies in the countryside, increase wealth inequalities, and spur migration to the United States. 

So some would say that it’s the United States’ fault as well as Mexican elite’s fault for the increase in migration to the United States, and similarly some would say that U.S. foreign policy in Central America backing dictators for long periods of time that waged war on their citizens led to institutions that were weak, now can’t control violence, aren’t necessarily wedded to the rule of law, and have been places of violence that many people have fled.

So those folks would say that part of what we’re seeing today is what we’ve reaped, is that because of our policies people are fleeing their home countries and are looking for refuge and they’re coming to the United States. So I think that you know, that’s part of the narrative that’s missing.

00:43:08 Michele Goodwin: 

Thank you so much for that, and I want to pick up on that with you, Domingo, because as folks are coming, crossing that border, coming into the United States, what we know is that overwhelmingly the Latinx workforce is in essential services, from meat packing to agriculture and healthcare, and some would say that they really are supporting, holding up the United States in jobs that some people otherwise just don’t want and it’s Latinx folks that are doing that high-risk work, sometimes that incredibly dangerous work. People think about meat packing, they don’t really understand how dangerous that work is, and now we know that during pandemic there has been a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 and at the same time a lack of health insurance, resources, and so much more. 

So can you tell us a bit more about that, put a human picture, face on what essential care services mean in these times, a Latinx face.

00:44:16 Domingo Garcia:

Well, you know, I’ve been to Greeley, Colorado, to a meat packing plant there where eight workers died, several hundred got sick, and then after we highlighted exposed, what was happening at that plant, and then plants all across the United States, Tyson, which produces the most chicken, and another company called Smithfield that does hogs, pork chops—President Trump signed the Work Reduction Act that said these are essential workers, they got to go to work even if they’re risking their lives, even if they’re going to get sick because they got to keep the meat coming to America’s tables, but without providing protection, providing sick leave, and as a result literally thousands and thousands of workers have gotten sick, many have been hospitalized, and unfortunately several hundred have died.

And all of this would have been preventable but they’re taking advantage of these essential workers that are being treated as disposable workers, and we met with the CEOs of these companies, tried to deal with them directly because frankly OSHA, which is a government watchdog for workers, is AWOL, they’re nowhere to be found, and the government is basically doing nothing to reinforce any worker protections for these essential workers and also very endangered workers. 

00:45:35 Michele Goodwin: 

And what’s interesting is they were already in danger before COVID because meat packing is incredibly dangerous work that you know, people use knives and saws and just what’s necessary in terms of that work poses significant health risks, and as you’ve said, you know, we’re looking at people being treated as fungible basically, essential but not necessarily valued. 

I want to turn our conversation to the Supreme Court and DACA. The DHS, the regions of the United States of California, a case that was out of this Supreme Court term, Dean Johnson in your article “DACA in Three Acts: Genesis, Impacts, Future,” you summarized that:

“The Supreme Court in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts held that the Trump administration’s rescission of DACA was arbitrary and capricious and violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the APA. The majority among other things found that in making the decision to dismantle DACA the Trump administration had not considered the interests of the recipients who had relied on the relief to buy houses, attend schools, and make other major life decisions. The majority made it clear that the President could lawfully end DACA but would need to comply with the law, namely the APA which I just mentioned which governs the decisions of Federal administrative agencies, and Chief Justice Roberts opinion did not decide whether DACA was lawful which of course, was the reason offered by the Trump administration for its rescission.”

A protest in support of DACA at the White House, 2017 (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Dean Johnson, what is the future of DACA given all of this? And let’s be clear that in a separate opinion Justice Kavanaugh would have found that the administrative law principle should allow the administration’s decision to rescind DACA to stand. So Dean Johnson, what is the future of DACA?

00:47:43 Kevin Johnson:

That’s a very good question and the future of DACA, it’s uncertain and I think that the future of DACA will depend on the election in November. I believe that the Trump administration, if President Trump wins the election we’ll go back to the drawing board and try to eliminate DACA. He said that on many occasions, hasn’t done it quite yet and I think if you know, the Biden/Harris ticket wins I think, and part of the Democratic platform is to maintain DACA.

The Supreme Court repeatedly said that it wasn’t deciding whether DACA was a good idea or bad idea, legal or illegal, but I think that DACA and the fate of the close to 800 thousand DACA recipients really rests on the election and we’ll have to wait and see how that turns out. I do think that to this point the Trump administration has made it clear that they’re not even going to comply with the Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court said that the effort to rescind DACA was unlawful as you mentioned, but still the Trump administration is not taking new DACA applications, has basically released a press statement saying that the Supreme Court decision was illegal and flawed in many respects and said that Justice Thomas’s dissent was much more in line.

An incredible position for an agency to take, even in these times. So I think that the future of DACA like the future of the Dream Act, another possible immigration reform manager, and Comprehensive Immigration Reform really going to rest in large part on what happens in November.

00:49:39 Michele Goodwin: 

Mary, so what do the dreamers do now? Do they stop dreaming?

00:49:48 Mary Giovagnoli:

Well, I think the dreamers are such an incredible example of the agency and the power of youth and of undocumented individuals.  I mean, their whole story has been one of kind of fighting back against the odds to really win remarkable things. The dreamers I know aren’t stopping. Those who do have DACA right now are going to be forced to apply for it in one-year increments under the latest set of Trump rules, but you know, I think that they continue to be an inspiration to everybody to keep fighting back and to keep pushing and if anything you know, I think there is an energy within that community to encourage everyone who can to vote for change and to continue to work for you know, changes legislatively.

And in some ways that actually is the real answer. I think they’re going to keep fighting until not only they but their families are protected and ultimately that protection is going to have to encompass legislation.

00:50:54 Michele Goodwin: 

So lastly what I want to do is I want to turn to the system itself and how we re-envision the system, so in an opinion letter to The Washington Post, an op-ed, Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus pled for help. She called for an end to the Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP. In her letter she said, these families are living in donated tents at the mercy of extreme weather. Here she said the temperatures can rise above a hundred degrees and when it rains the downpours knock down their only refuge and leave them in mud pits. She said imagine living in such uncertainly where even such basic needs as running water and a place to shower are nonexistent, where you have to depend on outside organizations for food which you have to cook over a campfire, like prisons and nursing homes that have been breeding grounds for the virus, COVID that is in the United States. The camps are just simply crowded with people who for now are not going anywhere.

So Domingo, I want to start with you, then I’ll turn to Kevin and then you, Mary, perhaps. What do we do about the future of this system and the system that just seems frozen?

00:52:20 Domingo Garcia:

It needs to be totally overhauled. We need to go from having a Homeland Security dealing with refugees and immigrants, to a true immigration and refugee service. We don’t need SWAT individuals and armored vehicles and the militarization of the border. The militarization of this whole program has created this sort of military industrial complex coming to refugees and immigrants.

That’s never the intent, that wasn’t happening when you saw those boats land at Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty, and we got to go back to that—and I think hopefully if we get a new administration we will have a bipartisan bill that will totally reform the immigration system and that will bring America back to where it was as a welcoming country for refugees and immigrants in the future, and really stand up and live up to our code as what the Statue of Liberty stands for and that we are a nation of immigrants. And except for African Americans, Native Americans, everybody else came here, chose to be here, or some of us were waiting for you all when you got here, like my great grandfather who was here in Texas back in the 1700s. So that’s part of what we need to do. 

Border patrol reinforces the border wall with wire in 2018. (Mani Albrecht / Flickr)

00:53:32 Michele Goodwin: 

Dean Johnson, you authored Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink its Borders and Immigration Laws, so how should America rethink its borders and immigration laws?

00:53:43 Kevin Johnson:

I think we have to think about how our immigration laws should focus on letting people in as opposed to keeping people out. We have an immigration lobby, the Immigration Nationality Act of 1952 that was forged in the Cold War. It was designed to keep as many people out as possible, especially people of color, alleged Communists, and other people such as the disabled and others. I think we have to re-envision our laws, figure out how to calibrate our economic and other needs with our immigration laws because they currently do not permit very many low and medium-skilled workers to come to this country and low and medium-skilled workers are in high demand in this country and the Chamber of Commerce would endorse something like that, so would The Wall Street Journal. 

I think we have to turn the immigration laws on their head. I agree with Domingo, we have to rethink how the agencies are assigned responsibility. I think we have to demolish our immigration courts and eliminate them because they’re really just political tools used by the administration to keep people out, and it’s basically traffic courts deciding death penalty cases and it’s an embarrassment, and nobody believes in the legitimacy of the immigration court system. I think we have to look very carefully at our removal roles. President Obama wasn’t great on removals if you ask me. He said that our criminal removal laws were focused on gang bangers, to use his term, when in fact close to 90 percent of the people removed from the country every year under his administration were low-level criminal offenders including many traffic violators. 

So I think we have to start from ground zero, and we also have to start having a reasonable dialogue about what we need. There are some hard questions to address. It’s not clear that we should have completely open borders or completely closed borders. It’s not clear what our economic needs are—but unfortunately right now the issue is such a polarizing one that we haven’t been able to have a meaningful and thoughtful dialogue in quite some time.

00:56:07 Michele Goodwin: 

Oh, thank you so much for that, and Mary, I want to add this piece about asylum seeking because in a very recent article that you wrote you argued that a new anti-asylum rule makes it virtually impossible for many women, children, and people fleeing gang and domestic violent circumstances to obtain asylum in the United States, so how do we think about that or fix that particular problem?

00:56:34 Mary Giovagnoli:

Oh, ho, ho. 

00:56:37 Michele Goodwin: 

It’s a big question, I know. Let’s do the short version of it.

00:56:42 Mary Giovagnoli:

I will try. You know, I think that one of the things that has happened in the last four years, but it’s been growing trend, not only in this country but around the world, is to fear those who are in most need of our help, and so the Trump administration started with the refugee programs, slashing it dramatically from 110 thousand admission goal to 18 thousand for this year, and as of the end of June had only admitted 8 thousand of those 18 thousand people. Clearly over the course of the last three years has done everything in its power to reduce access for asylum, and it’s all about building on this notion that America isn’t big enough, isn’t generous enough, isn’t able to provide help to people who are in need.

And so I think that you know, we look around and we see all number of instances where Americans in fact are incredibly generous. Whenever there’s a humanitarian crisis people turn out to help their neighbors, and so some of this is about reorienting again this notion of narrative and turning things on its head, but reorienting and helping people remember what an incredibly lucky, blessed, generous country we are and that there is room enough for the refugees and the asylum seekers and the other people who are coming here who are seeking our help, and if we give them room to get a new start in life, they’ll turn around and repay that a hundredfold. 

And so you start with that attitude I think and hopefully a new administration would embrace that kind of approach at the border and elsewhere in talking about our humanitarian commitments, but then you also really have to pull back on all of the laws and executive orders…or not laws, but regulations and executive orders that the Trump administration has put in place to deny access, and so I think it is both that attitude shift and you know, changing the mechanisms that we have.

But we also have to acknowledge, and this is sort of the heavier lift, that the world is rapidly changing, particularly with climate change. We are a world on the move and there are a number of people whose way of life is going to be threatened either because of political or other kinds of persecution, or because of just the fact that their environment is making it impossible for them to live any more.

So we also have to be really committed to thinking about how the question of immigration is going to play into the next not only decade but the next hundred years and if we don’t do that and if we don’t think big picture from the beginning we’re just going to keep being in this cycle of opening up for a little bit then being afraid, opening up and being afraid, and I think this is the moment to really start asking those bigger questions and layer that into a framework for immigration that really does what I think are the key things that bind the immigration issue to the humanitarian issues, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the environment, which is we want an America where we are able to restore economic security, protect every community, and treat everyone with dignity and if we use that kind of framework we can build I think a better legislative system, not only for immigration but for all the other social ills that we have that we know we want to solve. 

01:00:34 Michele Goodwin: 

Thank you, Mary. So very quickly something that we do each episode of our show is we think about silver linings and I want to start off with you, Mary, and then I’ll go to Domingo and then Kevin, and that is, do we see a silver lining coming out of this at all? This has been a dreadful time for so much that we’ve already discussed, is there a silver lining?

01:00:58 Mary Giovagnoli:

I think the silver lining is that far more Americans realize that this sort of hidden thing that’s called immigration law and asylum and refugee issues and what’s happening at the border that there is this whole sort of dual system that exists and that we have to do a great deal to fight back to make it better. The polls, the outpouring of support in the early days of the Muslim ban and the refugee ban show that people are energized I think to say we are a welcoming place, we are a country that cares, and if we can just give people the tools they need to be able to continue that support, I think we’ll see a real resurgence in that kind of joy about welcoming others to this country.

01:01:47 Michele Goodwin: 

Thank you for that, Mary. Domingo, do we have a silver lining?

01:01:50 Domingo Garcia:

I think the silver lining is that we have an awareness nationally of what’s happening to Latinos and immigrants in this country and it’s an awakening, especially among young. I had the pleasure of being a state representative and passing the first in-state tuition bill of the Texas Dream Act back in 2001 which was bipartisan. You know, Rick Perry, the Republican Governor, signed it. It was not controversial. 

But now that immigration has become a weaponized political issue I think it cuts both ways and I think you’re going to see Latinos vote in large numbers and they’re going to be electing people that represent our interests and work with allies to make sure that we have a humane, decent immigration policy. So that’s sort of the silver lining that I see right now. 

01:02:36 Michele Goodwin: 

Thank you, and what about you, Dean Johnson? Silver lining?

01:02:39 Kevin Johnson:

I would build on those. I think that President Trump, like him or not, has made people pay attention to immigration in a way that it hasn’t really been seen in more than a generation. When President Obama was in office many horrible things were happening but many Americans didn’t seem to pay much attention to what was going on, so I think that one good thing about the Trump administration is that people are paying attention to immigration. 

I also think that the dreamer movement, the social activism is one of the bright spots of the political activism of the 21st century so far. It’s quite amazing. It used to the case that undocumented people as President Bush said, lived in the shadows, and these are undocumented people who are standing at the forefront of political activism and they’re not going away. Their activism is not going away, their organization is impressive, and so I could see in the long run you know, some very significant political changes and we’ve seen them in this state.

In 1994 California passed Proposition 187, one of the early anti-immigrant immigration initiatives and now California, because of political changes in the state and activism and naturalization of Latinx immigrants, now California’s a sanctuary state. We’ve come full circle. It’s been 25 years but I think political action can bring forth positive change.

01:04:15 Michele Goodwin: 

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On The Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guests, Dean Kevin Johnson, Domingo Garcia, and Mary Giovagnoli for joining us and being a part of this critical and insightful conversation. And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is with special guests tackling issues related to an extremely relevant issue, back to school. We will be joined by representative Katherine Clark, Fatima Goss Graves, and Randy Weingarten. It will be an episode like this one that you will not want to miss.

For more information on what we discussed today, head to msmagazine.com. If you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple podcasts. Look for us at msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates. Rate and subscribe to On The Issues with Michele Goodwin in Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google podcasts, and Stitcher. Let us know what you think about our show.

This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. “On The Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Maddy Pontz, Roxy Szal and Mara Virabov. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.