Editor: Rocky Neptune accompanied local San Diegans as they caravaned to Phoenix to join thousands in protest of Arizona’s new immigration and ethnic studies laws. Here, he recites his observations of that trip and summarizes local developments, including the death of Anastasio Rojas.
by Rocky Neptune
San Diego Man Brutally Beaten to Death by Border Agents
In front of hundreds of terrified border crossers several U.S. Border Patrol Officers killed Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, 42, a lifetime resident of San Diego, with a wife and five children. Apparently, trying to flee earlier abuse by agents after his arrest some hours earlier Hernandez Rojas, was attempting to run into Mexico, to awaiting Mexican custom officials, when federal agents tasered him and beat him to death Friday evening, May 28.
At a press conference June 2, his cousin Veronica Hernandez spoke for the family, saying, tearfully, “we want justice.” With flashes of anger and sadness, Christian Ramirez, National Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee, told reporters “let me be clear, the immigrant rights movement can not tolerate this sort of abuse to happen.”
Visibly shaken, Andrea Guerro, of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, pledged that the ACLU would press for a though and transparent investigation into the brutal slaying. She said that this incident, while tragic, is not an isolated incident, “we receive regular reports of abuse by border agents and there have been numerous instances along the border of excessive force.” She also noted that “rarely do we know what the investigation of these investigations are,” citing inadequate and fair complaint and review procedures.
“We are concerned about the watchers watching the watchers,” she told the Wednesday’s afternoon press conference, “who will do the investigation, will they do it fairly, will they do it in a manner that actually brings about justice?” She called border policy increasingly “mean, hard and cruel.”
“While we lament the loss, we worry about other people, even as we speak; if this kind of incident can happen in full day, in front of hundreds of people, what is happening behind closed doors” she asked.
Hernandez Rojas lived most of his life in Encanto, fathered 5 U.S. born children and was a hard working construction worker. He was seized on the streets last Tuesday when he couldn’t show border agents proper identification and was deported early on Friday and was attempting to cross the hills near Otay Mesa Friday afternoon to be re-united with his family when he was apprehended. Ramirez told reporters it was odd that a detainee was picked up and dumped at the border in such a short time and the border patrol has not offered an explanation. The San Diego Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the beating and death.
On June 13th the family of Hernandez filed a lawsuit against the Border Patrol. Meanwhile, the San Diego Renters Union has offered a $1,000 reward for any eyewitness to come forward to help prosecute the border agents responsible.
Rameriz told reporters that the AFSC is working with their human rights counterparts on the other side of the border to encourage any witnesses to come forth. He also called on Congress “to say that this brutal border policy is wrong and those who continue to violate civil rights must be brought to justice.” He demanded immediate “oversight and accountability of border agents.”
Veronica Hernandez, fighting back tears, spoke warmly of her cousin and said that the government must insure that human beings are protected in their search for security. “And as human beings we should protect one another, not beat one another to death.” She asked “members of her community” to “stand strong against the fear and hate” that was facing them.
The War on Immigrants Escalates
Phoenix, Arizona. May 29.
Driving through the hot, bright, lunar landscape; I look right, up the shallow gully, then left, toward the mountain of broken boulders. “Where are they?” I ask myself out loud. If I could just find their bleached bones, three young people might find closure and I could distance myself a little more from complicity in my government’s tragic War on Immigrants.
Traveling through the upper reaches of the Sonora Desert these days makes me sad. Once a youthful delight for me, week-ends and summers of three-wheeler races and long, mustang horse rides though the sand, its dunes and washes; now represents the nightmares, the horror, and the grief of Carlos and his two little sisters.
Working the streets, near the Zocalo Plaza, in Mexico City as a hustler to support his siblings and put himself through University; he had told me how his parents, leaving them with a neighbor, had went north, por otra lado, desperate for work to support their starving family. Last seen near San Luis de Colorado, they never made their cousin’s house in Fresno and three years later, they hadn’t returned or sent word – lost in the blistering desert south of Yuma. The little girls, living in an abandoned building, still un-repaired from the last earthquake, each night, just before bed, would pray to their mother and father, making up stories about what they looked like, creating visual images in broken voices, crying themselves to sleep.
Today, I would join 30,000 people in Arizona’s largest demonstration ever, mostly families, from grandmothers to infants, marched to the Capitol building in downtown Phoenix to protest Arizona’s latest attack on brown skin folks. Rich, white, Arizona Republican politicians would take the federal government’s already obscene War on Migrants, with nearly 10,000 dead since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994, and build an ethnic jihad, a kind of cultural genocide (culturocide?), against Latinos, particularly Mexicans, in passing laws that make Arizona a sort of large, newly minted Warsaw ghetto, where a group of people, based on their skin color rather than their religion, would have to show papers for their right to exist.
The infamous law, known as SB1070, forces law enforcement to target Latinos for proper documentation as to legal status and actually criminalizes officers who do not harass or detain law abiding citizens who have no proof of citizenship.
Several years ago, my friend and I (he Portuguese, me Italian) were on the 15 Freeway when two border agents in a jeep began following us and then put their flashing lights on for me to pull over. I drove on for several miles, getting madder by the minute, my friend panicking, screaming (he had never been arrested) finally got me to drive on to the shoulder. I got out shouting that I was not near any border crossing and that San Diego was a sanctuary city and they could not pull me over based on our skin color. He stopped so abruptly, he almost tripped, flashed crimson and told me rather sheepishly that he had wanted to tell me I had a low tire. Yeh, right.
Racial profiling by the border patrol has been going on for years. In San Diego, agents troll the trolley stations, swap meets and even schools as people pick up their children for possible catches. Arizona’s profiling law simply legalizes an illegal practice. While the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder has called the law unconstitutional; his Arizona counterpart, state Attorney General Terry Goodard, has also criticized the new law. Along with the mayors and police chiefs of Arizona’s two largest cities, Phoenix and Tucson, he says crime prevention and crime solving will become nearly impossible in the barrios. He was removed from any involvement in a defense of an expected Federal civil rights suit by the Republican governor, Jan Brewer. Five personal lawsuits have already been filed against the law.
Goodard, who is running for governor in the next election, was standing on a street corner alone, looking energetic, during the march to the state capital building, holding a hand-written sign that said “I oppose this law.”
As farm workers lugged their signs and water bottles from the Metro Station, huge buses bringing Union members and their families from all over the southwest, including a large contingent from Los Angeles, began descending on Steele Indian School Park for the five mile march to the state capitol building early Saturday morning. Over a hundred of us from San Diego, including members of the Zapatista Collectivo and the South Bay Unitarian Church, caravaned to the march Friday evening, leaving Chicano Park around 6 p.m. to sleep in a donated warehouse or our cars to support the boycott of Arizona.
At least 10,000 young people, from kindergarteners to high school students, accompanied their parents to protest another clearly racist law, HB2281, which made it unlawful to teach ethnic studies. Even though the United Nations Humans Rights Commission formally opposed the bill on the basis that any ethnic group has the inherent right to learn their own history, Governor
Brewer signed it into law saying that ethnic solidarity undermines society and leads to diversity rather than “American culture and language.”
Marching in bright colors, led by indigenous dancers and musicians, the march took two hours to reach the capital building. Thumping drums, rumbling gourds, Mexican trumpets, clanging cymbals, Andean flutes, tambourines and other instruments gave voice to the visual splendor of the march. Catholic Priests walked alongside LGBT activists, Quakers, in silent outrage and Apostolics, shouting to the heavens, groups of long-haired students and balding union members, various civil rights organization members and local church goers carried banners, and, everywhere bright colored flags – lots of stars and strips, a few Mexican flags, state flags, school colors, even the Marine Corps flag.
Marchers carried slick posters that proclaimed “Undocumented and Unafraid” and “Stop the Hate.” Both young and old sprouted t-shirts which were lettered “Legalize Arizona” or “Arizona: The Show Me Your Papers State.” While many other marchers carried hand-made signs, varying from the angry and gross “Chinga la Migra” to “Standing in the State of Love with Immigrant Families.” Hundreds of young students wore bandannas that asked questions like “How Brown is Brown?” and “What Does Illegal Look Like?”
Katharine Ferguson, 10 years old, opened the rally speeches, saying she was there to support her 12-year-old Latina friend, who related her experiences in 2009 when her parents were arrested and held 3 months in jail until they could prove their legal status. Blasting the climate of fear that Arizona’s immigration enforcement law has created, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the crowd “Immigrants are not the cause of America’s problems” and that the new law “is not the answer.”
Old timers in Phoenix mentioned how apposite this march was, beginning at a park built on the land of the former Phoenix Indian School, opened in 1891. Generations of indigenous children, 900 boarding students a year at its peak in 1935, were systematically stripped of their culture, language and heritage as they were “Americanized.” Today, it is another culture under attack; legal weapons aimed at either marginalization or homogenization.
Unlike the City of San Diego, where the Mayor is a former Police Chief and has given almost dictatorial powers to the present Police Chief, resulting in over-intimidation, with hundreds of police office, armored vehicles, helicopters, for even the smallest demonstration; the Mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon, who tried to get the city council to file a lawsuit against the new law and is considering a personal injunction against it, kept his officers out of sight. There were fewer than 35 officers and even fewer police cars to block off streets and direct traffic. It looked like what democracy could look like, without the police state mentality of San Diego’s law enforcement establishment.
10 cities across the nation held rallies on Saturday, May 29 against Arizona’s new targeting law. In San Francisco, about 500 people gathered Saturday night outside AT&T Park, where the Giants were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks. Leaders of the rally said it was organized to help push for a boycott against Arizona. Thousands gathered in Seattle, 500 in Austin, Texas while nearly 1,000 people rallied at the Orange Dome in Winter Haven, Florida to begin the Day for Prayer and Walk against the Arizona legislation. Other cities had demonstrations. In Mexico City 300 people surrounded the U.S. Embassy and listened as Elvira Arellano, who was deported in 2007 without her U.S. citizen son, called on President Obama “to sign an executive order stopping deportations until the U.S. Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform.”
The Militarization of the Border Feeds the Madness
“What kind of perverted nation for the appearance of security would give up their ethical center, their very social soul,” Dusty Delon almost shouted to a local news reporter, at the Phoenix march, after he had just learned that the military carnage, its violence against immigrants continues. “To chase down a person, taser and beat them to death….. a human being who was attempting to flee back into their own country, as border agents did last night in San Diego shows the depths of depravity to which we have sunk as a nation.”
“I live in Ensenada with my Mexican lover because I am ashamed to be an American,” he said. “We may have the might, from brutal border guards in San Ysidro to the assault rifles of the National Guard to our nuclear arsenal, to militarize the border region and criminalize immigrants, but we don’t have the right – particularly as a nation of immigrants.”
Meanwhile, a young white woman, who didn’t want her name used, living near Jacumba, southeast of San Diego, told journalists that she feared each time her brown skinned children go outside. She related that National Guard troops one time had surrounded her children playing in a tree with assault rifles and she consistently has to provide documentation the children are hers whenever they drive anywhere.
While many human rights activists have decried the militarization of the border region, Amnesty International, early last year, issued a report condemning “cruel and excessive force” by border agents. They cited numerous evidence and reports in which victims were “subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including beatings, sexual assault, denial of medical attention, and denial of food, water and warmth for long periods.” The human rights group also voiced concern over a lack of legal representation when brought to court, especially immigrant children who are given no rights to a lawyer. Also noted was the decreasing funding for the office of the Inspector General, which conducts investigations of complaints.
As someone who crosses the border at least ten times a week (even though I live and work in San Diego part of the week, my lover of 8 years is a Mexican national without a passport and we share a home in Baja), I have personally seen the growing militancy of Custom officials and border agents. There is increasing a wild west, Mister Dillon (and increasing Ms Dillon)type bravado, an arrogant toughness and invasiveness, that reminds me of the old Los Angeles Police Department, under Ed Davis, when they persecuted Gays in the “60’s and 70’s or the police officers of Chicago’s Mayor Daley in 1968.
Earlier this year officers began shooting wildly at three vans even though the occupants made no threats against the agents and could not maneuver through the swollen traffic at the inspection facility. They simply failed to stop. Without any regard for the hundreds of innocent travelers and their children who were in nearby vehicles, they staged a one-sided OK Corral shoot-out in keeping with a police state mentality. Obama’s recent decision to send 1,200 additional National Guard troops to the border and add $500 to the already bloated border enforcement beast will only feed the increasing violence and arrogance all along the watchtower.
Immigration and Naturalization Service Sets Apprehension Quotas
During the last few months, in crossing the border, I have identified myself as a journalist and asked the lowly gal or guy in the inspection booth what was the reason that sometimes as many as 12 border cops checking documentation were spread across the lanes going into Mexico. I reminded them that it costs $23,148 to apprehend, detain, process and deport each undocumented person; so why in the world would agents be assigned to bust people going back, which would cost the government nothing.
Very few could give me a decent answer. Most expressed doubt and uncertainly about why; however, one cleaver young agent told me it was to keep track of how many times “illegals” cross into the U.S. When I reminded him it costs almost twenty-five thousand per arrest and if we get the same guy four times, that’s a hundred thousand dollars just to keep track of his movements. My comment that “maybe, we might be better of giving him the first $25,000 on the condition he stay at home” drew a frown and a “move on.”
Only two Customs Officials acknowledged the truth to me, both were Hispanic and obviously didn’t like the direction protection of the “fatherland” was being taken by Homeland Security militants. They told me that senior INS officials have set quotas for each region and because San Diego is so well fortified people must be grabbed anyway possible to meet the monthly quotas. Buses were often targeted going into Mexico because you net a good catch. When I pointed out how much money it costs to process each undocumented person, they just laughed. One young border agent likened it to prison guards, “Do you really think they worry about how much money it costs to get the inmate there,” he said, “these busts, whether it’s an 80 year-old going home or a young student, they are our bread and butter.”
Even the northern border has been affected by the increasing militancy and arrogance of border personnel. One young Canadian couple crossing into the U.S. to go shopping were terrorized by one agent and then brutally arrested when they objected to the intrusive and abusive grilling. [The whole incredible encounter can be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i5sDOdoFqg].
Meanwhile, Homeland Security is pushing for an additional $355 million to be used along the northern border to protect us from the four or five Canadians immigrants that might be fool enough to try our dog-eat-dog economy. In one rural community, Franklin, Vermont they are seizing a farmer’s land and building a $5 million crossing terminal on a two-lane road that only has one or two crossings an hour and only 14,000 crossings per year – mostly locals on their way to church or play bingo.
At the San Ysidro checkpoint, one young Custom’s agent told me one day – at the back of my car, he wasn’t quite sure whether the booths and/or computers were bugged – that INS had “become the new power kid on the block, like the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover’s day.” He said that moving all border agencies into Homeland Security doomed real immigration reform because no U.S. President running for re-election, or any politician, for that matter, could be perceived as being weak on national security. “Obama’s is as trapped as I am, in making a difference in border policy,” he said.
Mentioning that his grandparents still lived in a small village in Sonora, he said he favored tearing down the wall between Mexico and the U.S. “If Europe can do it, create the European Union; then why can’t we create the American Union?” And then, answering his own question, he noted “Latino culture, from Guadalajara to Buenos Aires, is alive, vibrant, exciting, it would overwhelm the dominant Anglo blandness and those in power know it.”
He agreed that it is time to end our War on Immigrants. I didn’t have time to tell him about a study by UCLA professor Raul Hinejosa-Ojeda which documented that if current undocumented persons in the U.S. were granted legalization it would result in at least $1.5 trillion in added U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years. As we parted, putting his hand on my shoulder, “we will win,” he said, winking.
Here, there, everywhere, there are whispers, faint voices of doubt, as people realize borders are obsolete in the 21st Century. From the loud shouts of 30,000 protesters in Phoenix to the soft spoken Franciscan Sister who works long hours at the hospital for the poor in Colonia Alta Vista in Tijuana, people are beginning to realize we each must take a courageous leap of human solidarity. That the United States, the richest nation on Earth, doesn’t have an economic crisis – it’s a crisis of character. Does our nationalism, its xenophobia, its fear of the outsider, its militarization, increasingly hardened hearts – watching out for me and mine only – doom our children, and their children, to a police state; a world of walled cities, fenced neighborhoods, machine guns on balconies and laser weapons over the garden?
Arizona politicians have pandered to the worst in the human psyche – fear and greed. As people of conscience, we must somehow find the courage to live with the unknowns of change, to embrace the uncertainties of sharing and sacrifice, to regain our spiritual wholeness as living, giving creatures endowed with compassion and love, even toward the outsider – to understand that God recognizes no one as being “illegal.”
Rocky Neptun lives and works bi-nationally. He is the Director of the San Diego Renters Union and the Director of the Casa de los Olvidados, a refuge for street kids with HIV-Aids in Tijuana, Mexico.