These images accompanied my talk at the Worlds of Wikimedia conference at the University of Sydney, Australia, on June 13, 2019.
Earlier this month, I spent ten days in La Paz working on Ultimate Consequences: A database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict during the democratic era. This project is a compilation of detailed information about the human cost of political struggle in the country I have been research and writing about for over a decade. It includes people killed when movements challenged the state and the state responded with violence—the initial spark for my research—but also a variety of deaths associated with coca erradication and resistance to it, deaths caused and endured by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, prolonged inter-ethnic conflict (mainly the “war of the ayllus” between the Laymi and Qaqachaka communities), political assassinations (both due to partisan politics and patriarchal rejection of women coming to forma leadership), and the times when self-sacrificial protest (hunger strikes and prolonged marches under adverse conditions) claimed the lives of protesters and their children.
As of today, we have 512 deaths recorded, 477 of them with names. It has been a grim, if captivating tour through recent Bolivian history. While I’ve had the collaborative support of two research assistants over the course of the project, I think I’ve read every story of death, and the process has been at turns sobering, enraging, frustrating, and deeply informative.
Right now, I am focused on getting two things done with this database: ensuring that our dataset is as complete as we can make it, and making several of the many variables that we are recording—starting with location and the role of the state—as completely specified as possible so that we can share complete summary data, maps, and other statistical visualizations with the public. In La Paz, this meant taking my camera on a lot of trips to the Archive of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, which has decades of Bolivian newspapers bound into massive volumes, and coordinating with colleagues in a Bolivian NGO on a graphic visualization front-end for the database.
Can we retell history and write an encyclopedia
as if all people are equally valuable?
On January 13, I invited to Wikimedia NYC’s celebration of the 18th birthday of Wikipedia to address this question, which I answer strongly in the affirmative. I talk about how long-running changes in the academy have created a font of high quality, well-sourced knowledge about marginalized people: women, indigenous people, Afro-descendant communities, sexual minorities, disabled people, working-class and poor people, and on and on. The challenge now—at least for Wikipedia—is to share this knowledge with the widest possible public in free form. But to do so, we will have draw new maps of geography, history, and our own collective writing process that put those who have been left out back on the map.
Here’s the talk in video form thanks to the Internet Society of New York:
Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]
Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…
On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.
Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.
Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.
In the wake of Donal Trump’s executive order (text) that promised to replace family separation with joint detention of undocumented migrant families, the US government’s actions have been fractured. Over two thousand children remain separated from their parents. As I noted on the day it was issued, the Executive Order codifies the “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all arriving adults as criminals for crossing the border.
However, unexpectedly, Customs and Border Protection (part of the Department of Homeland Security) has retreated from zero tolerance and stopped prosecuting arriving families through criminal courts, for now. CBP’s new approach was announced informally on June 21 and formally on June 25. In both announcements, the agency said its reasons are logistical, though the mass public pressure and media embarrassment associated with separating families are obvious major factors. CBP’s head reaffirmed yesterday that he would like to imprison families if he only had the room:
Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said his agency and the Justice Department should agree on a policy “where adults who bring their kids across the border — who violate our laws and risk their lives at the border — can be prosecuted without an extended separation from their children.”
Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space for the surge of families crossing the border, many families will be quickly released, with a promise to return for a court hearing. Mr. McAleenan said that the agency would continue to refer single adults for prosecution for illegally crossing the border, and that border agents would also separate children from adults if the child is in danger or if the adult has a criminal record.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claims that the Department of Justice is holding fast to its zero-tolerance policy, under which it instructed prosecutors on April 6, 2018 (memo|2017 memo authorizing aggressive prosecution), to prosecute all adults referred to them for the crime of unlawful entry. Dogged by protests in Reno, Nevada, Sessions insisted that
The president has made this clear. We are going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally. We are going to do everything in our power, however, to avoid separating families. All federal agencies are working hard to accomplish this goal.
Squaring this circle requires more jails for families. On Monday, June 25, Defense Secretary Mattis announced that Fort Bliss (near El Paso, Texas) and Goodfellow Air Force Base have been selected as the first detention facilities on military bases.
Migrant families who were taken into custody will be housed at Fort Bliss, an Army base outside El Paso, according to Bowman. Unaccompanied migrant children will be housed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, near San Angelo in central Texas.
As the Department of Defense constructs family detention facilities, they will be solving CBP’s “logistical problem.” Accepting the agencies at their word, we should expect families housed at Fort Bliss to be put through zero-tolerance prosecutions.
Yesterday afternoon, June 20, President Trump publicly retreated from the family separation policy (Wikipedia article) that has torn at least 2,342 children from their families. A close reading of the Executive Order he signed, however, reveals that instead of retreating, Trump codified Jeff Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy and proposed an expanding system of indefinite family detention. Further reporting revealed that the Administration is not yet prepared to re-unite divide families. Practical and legal constraints may render the promises of the Executive Order worthless, or (and this is the only speculative part of this post) prompt renewed family separations within days or weeks.
A close read of the Executive Order
This is a slightly amplified version of a post that went viral on Facebook yesterday. While I am not an immigration lawyer, I am a trained policy analyst (M.P.P., University of Chicago, 1998) familiar with Executive Orders and recent immigration policy. My read here is a direct analysis of what the White House proposed, rather than an assessment of what it can legally or practically implement.
I’ve just read the Trump Executive Order. It’s not a solution, and it makes some things worse.
Here’s what the Executive Order actually does (numbered by section) …
1. Codifies Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” directive until new immigration legislation is passed. Prior to the Trump/Sessions crackdown, the US government only criminally prosecuted about 21% of unlawful entrants, concentrating on return offenders and smugglers and exempting families with children. “This Administration will initiate proceedings to enforce this and other criminal provisions of the INA until and unless Congress directs otherwise.”
2. Limits the definition of family to parent-child pairs. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. are excluded. “Alien family” means…
3a. Puts families under Homeland Security custody during criminal, immigration cases. Previously, children
and detained families had to be held in facilities contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services. [Correction 6/27: Detained families are held by DHS in three facilities: the privately operated Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center in Texas, and the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. These facilities must be state-licensed as child-care facilities under rulings pursuant to the Reno v. Flores litigation.] The Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary), shall, to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, maintain custody of alien families
3b.Authorizes immigration authorities to separate parents from children if joint detention “would pose a risk to the child’s welfare.” This phrase seems intended to separate abusers from their kids, but no procedure is elaborated.
3c. Authorizes the military to build new prisons for migrant families. The wording actually gives the Homeland Security Secretary, currently Kirstjen Nielsen, to choose any military facility she wishes. The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary [of Homeland Security], upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law.
3d. Allows all Federal departments to offer their buildings as prisons. Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes.
3e. Authorizes the DOJ to try to wriggle out of the Flores Agreement. This phrasing is the most foreboding since it would seek legal authorization for DHS (not Health and Human Services) to detain families throughout their often-lengthy criminal, deportation, and asylum proceedings. The Attorney General shall promptly file a request with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to modify the Settlement Agreement in Flores v. Sessions… to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.
4. Orders parents to be prosecuted first in immigration courts, presumably to deport them fastest. This phrase, intended to expedite prosecution and removal, puts families to the head of a line that also includes people being deported for dangerous criminal offenses, the exact opposite of the policy pursued by the Obama administration.
Early signs the crisis isn’t over
- Wednesday afternoon, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokeman for the Administration for Children and Families told the press, “There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases.” And also “For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual.”
- Seemingly embarrassed by these admissions, the Department of Health and Human Services walked them back later on Wednesday, saying instead: “It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter. … Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of UACs, and the administration is working towards that for those UACs currently in HHS custody.”
- Once guidance comes, there is the problem of a system not built to keep families connected at all. Politico reports that “The biggest problem, as far as I can tell, is where the kids’ records don’t have information on the parents,” said one Homeland Security Department official. “I don’t know how they’re going to go about fixing that.”
- Should families be reunited, they might not have a place to go. The Executive Order instructs the Department of Homeland Security (ICE and CBP) to incarcerate families together. At the moment, ICE has very limited detention space for families. As the Washington Post reports, “ICE operates two large family detention centers in Texas and a smaller facility in Pennsylvania, with a combined capacity for about 3,000 beds. As of June 9, the three facilities had nearly 2,600 of those beds occupied.” Reuniting families immediately would require some five thousand separated family members into 400 beds.
Looming obstacles mean family separation will likely resume, and soon
Again, this is the only speculative part of this post.
- Reports indicate that ICE has been separating 65 children per day. As noted above, ICE family detention capacity is low (perhaps as few as 400 empty beds), even if already separated families remain separate. Incarcerating families will require putting around 130 people into these facilities every day, or rapidly building more. Either the government will rapidly stop detaining families together, or they will start putting them into makeshift facilities recently built for immigrant children, like the tent camp in Tornillo.
- Legal constraints, primarily the Flores Settlement, limit DHS custody of children to 72 hours and HHS custody to 20 days. If enforced, these would require either separating or releasing families at the end of these windows.
- There will be lawsuits over the new family detention policy, and some of it seems manifestly against existing law or legal orders. Politico reports: “The president doesn’t get any brownie points for moving from a policy of locking up families and kids separately to locking them up together,” said Karen Tumlin of the National Immigrant Law Center. “I will not hesitate to use every legal tool available to challenge these policies in court….May a thousand litigation flowers bloom.”
On the other hand…
We did get some genuinely good news today (Thursday) with this announcement from Customs and Border Patrol, reported by the Washington Post:
The U.S. Border Patrol will no longer refer migrant parents who cross into the United States illegally with children to federal courthouses to face criminal charges, a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told The Washington Post on Thursday.
A Justice Department spokesperson denied changes to the zero tolerance policy and said prosecutions would continue.
Because ICE lacks the detention capacity to increase the number of families it holds in detention, the official acknowledged that many migrant parents and children will likely be released from custody while they await court hearings.
Top CBP officials did not know what the executive order would ask them to do until its release Wednesday, the official said. The decision to cease prosecutions of parents with children was made by the Department of Homeland Security for logistical purposes because the official said it would not be “feasible” to bring children to federal courtrooms while their parents go before a judge.
This is a logistical decision; there really is nowhere to put families with children. So, it may be reversed. But it is the first sign that CBP might not implement the mass detention of families, for now.
I’m not just a voice in the wilderness saying these things. You can read reporting and commentary here…