Semler: Americans must take action over border atrocities

By July 24, 2019 No Comments


By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

At least seven children that we know of have died at the US/Mexico border in U.S. custody in the past year. 

Mariee Juárez was two when she died of a viral lung infection shortly after leaving ICE custody with her mother Yazmin. Doctors argue that gross overcrowding and medical neglect caused her completely unnecessary death. Anne Frank, who wrote that book that you probably read in 8th grade, didn’t die in a gas chamber. She died from typhus, which she caught from living in unsanitary conditions. 

We’re in the hot days of summer, and I’ve been waiting to write a guide on how to get a bikini body for months. Here’s step one: put a bikini on your fucking body. You did it! I had a lot to say about body shaming, internalized sexism, and the disordered relationship with food that is common under the guise of “clean eating.” But it is 2019 and we have concentration camps in our country. It feels wrong to me to give my ink to anything else. 

News of children being caged at our borders in subhuman conditions was rolling out during the Fourth of July festivities. Red, white, and blue attire. Beers, burgers, fireworks. We hear the news and we’re horrified, but for a lot of us without direct skin in the game (that we know of), it is easy to feel news fatigue and want to check out or step back. Right? 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions we asked ourselves as children when we read about Nazi Germany. How could people let that happen? Why didn’t anyone stop it? I wouldn’t have been one of those people, we all tell ourselves.  

The research is out there about how genocides happen. The road to dehumanization is long and begins with treating a group as “the other,” and using them as a scapegoat for our problems. Remember the story of the frog who dies in the hot water because the temperature is raised gradually? Anyone else feeling an affinity with that guy lately? This isn’t the first time atrocities have happened on our soil that was first enabled by stripping away people’s identities as people like us. During WWII we had internment camps for Japanese-Americans. We enslaved black folks and the damage from that time still reverberates today. We are on land we stole from Native Americans, and the list goes on. The disgusting treatment of immigrants that we’re seeing today is simply the most recent iteration.

We don’t need to look to the border to see the terror of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement); we have people rounded up in vans in Pittsburgh, and a detention center in Berks County.  WESA reported that the Residential Center in Berks is one of three ICE facilities in the country that exists for the purpose of long-term detainment of families seeking asylum or awaiting deportation. Immigrant advocacy organizations have been protesting the center for years. The center is federally operated but still requires a state license. Governor Wolf didn’t renew their lease in 2016, but a state judge ordered it to be renewed; it was, and there has been no state action since. 

Recently, the center lost a case in the US Court of Appeals Third Circuit. Nineteen years old at the time, “E.D.” was a Honduran asylum seeker who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Daniel Sharkey, a guard in charge of overseeing immigration detainees. Berks County and center staff were sued for knowing about this abuse and doing nothing. In their failed attempt at an appeal, they argued that they weren’t at fault because E.D. was an immigration detainee, therefore not technically a prisoner, therefore there was no requirement to do something about her abuse. They also said what happened to E.D. wasn’t rape because Sharkey didn’t beat her, he just (lol, just) coerced her with repeated threats of deportation of her and her toddler son. 

Thanks to the diligent work of organizations like Women’s Law Project, the Appeals Court shut that down, and said, “Excuse you, motherfucker, immigrant detainees have the same rights as non-immigrant detainees. The law makes no damn distinction, and honestly how dare you.” (I may have paraphrased some of that.)

What remains terrifying to me is that these people thought it was a sound argument to say  E.D.’s assault didn’t need to be reported because she was an immigrant. In court, enshrined in public records, they argued that knowing about the assaults didn’t make them culpable because of this woman’s immigration status. What about her status as a human being? In 2019 in Pennsylvania, folks are showing no shame when arguing that an immigrant is less of a person than a citizen and not deserving of protection from rape and assault. 

Despite this and countless protests all over the state, Governor Wolf still hasn’t issued an Emergency Removal Order (ERO), saying it wasn’t in his scope of power. However, Temple University’s Beasley School of Law’s Center for Social Justice released a legal memo thoroughly explaining why and how shutting down Berks Detention Center is well within the state’s purview. 

It would be so powerful for Pennsylvania to take a stand and say “not here.” We can make it happen. 

Back to the news fatigue: feeling overwhelmed is a natural, common reaction. Perhaps we can have a bit more grace and understanding for folks of the past, maybe they didn’t understand the moment they were in, or felt powerless to tip the scales. We are not powerless, and we all can do something in this moment. Here are steps each of us can take, thanks to info I received from All for All Project Director Betty Cruz and Casa San Jose:

  • Help locally: donate and volunteer for Casa San Jose, a Pittsburgh-based Latino Community Resource and Welcome Center
  • Help at the border: Donate to RAICES, The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Resources
  • Don’t share 2nd and 3rd-hand accounts of ICE activity; while well-intentioned, these reinforced fear and panic 
  • If you hear about ICE presence in Pittsburgh, call Casa San Jose’s Emergency Number- 412-736-716 to share as much information and detail as possible. 
  • Share “Know Your Rights” far and wide
  • Call Governor Wolf. Call your State Senator and State Representatives. Demand action to close the Berks Detention Center. 

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