Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dreams of "Trabajo Digno" on International Migrants Day

By Amanda Jordan

She holds her dreams close. Close like the brown earth that creeps under her fingernails, close like the morning dew soaking through her shirt.

She begins the season in Texas, in Arizona, or in California. She harvests grapefruit, lettuce, or oranges. In the spring: cantaloupes or onions in Texas. In the summer, corn detasseling and seed sorting in Indiana or Iowa. Fall: apples in New York, Washington, Vermont…

Every few months she attends a new middle school, junior high, or high school. She makes friends she will soon leave. She starts assignments she won’t be able to turn in. She drops out.
She holds her family close. Close like the caravan of cars and trucks they form driving north, close like snow sticking to their tires, close like leaning in to speak Spanish together so They won’t hear.

She is part of any migrant farmworker family in the United States. Following the ebb and flow of growing, planting, and harvesting seasons for fruits, vegetables, and flowers, families often travel together on different routes throughout the country. People working in the fields carry out some of the most dangerous tasks under a myriad of unpredictable conditions. Exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, like the recently approved Methyl Iodide in California, snake and spider bites, dangerous machinery, oppressive heat, and freezing rain mar their work.

In addition, migrant workers struggle within an industry that for years has barely raised wages in accordance with the cost of living. Breaks and holidays, protective equipment and sanitary toilets, things most working people take for granted, are often mere luxuries on farms where they work.

Most people migrating for the harvest are Mexican or Mexican-American, but African Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and in rare cases, white Americans, also toil together in farmwork. Concerns over legal status and laws against unionization, complicates worker solidarity and struggle, as some people laboring in these crops hesitate to organize for fear of deportation. State and federal health and safety regulations are in place, but the hierarchy of workers, crew leaders, owners, and then wealthy corporations setting the prices for the crops creates a stagnant system in which there is little incentive for the regulations to be followed. It is a system in which the tomato, the poinsettia, and the cantaloupe are all more important than the health and well-being of the family who harvests them.

For she who follows the tomato crop from seed to packing, Florida to the Delmarva Peninsula, yet dreams of a good house and trabajo digno for her parents, today is Migrants Day. For he who was threatened with losing his job because he refused to enter a field being laced with pesticides, today is Migrants Day. For the kids who miss months of school every year, or simply do not finish, in a country that mandates primary education, today is Migrants Day. For the workers who toil on land they do not own, pick thousands of vegetables they will not eat, and sleep places that will never be “home,” today is Migrants Day.

She holds the horizon close, the only consistency in her travels. She wakes up early, the ceiling of her workplace is the black sky punctured with stars.

Amanda Jordan provides training and advocacy on the health and safety of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Open and Shut: a Case of Hypocrisy and the Honduran Coup

By Brooke Denmark, Witness for Peace International Team

Leaked State Department cables recently shed light on what was going on behind the scenes when Washington pretended to deliberate over whether or not what happened on June 28, 2009 was in fact an illegal military coup. The classified report filed by the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa was called “Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup.”

“There is no doubt” that the events of June 28 “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” the cable reads.

Today the State Department continues to ignore evidence of the crisis in Honduras. In October, State Department Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Philip Crowley stated that Lobo’s government still had work to do with regards to human rights but that while“there have been incidents where activists have been killed, intimidated, [and] jailed…we expect the Lobo government to investigate these fully and prosecute those who are responsible.” He went on to say that the State Department does not believe that progress on human rights should be a precondition to Honduras’ reintegration into the OAS.

Last Friday, the Committee for the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH) issued an urgent appeal for support to the international community.

The call comes on the heels of another of state violence: Kevin Alberto Carías Silva, 19 years old, was found dead just hours after being detained by the police for questioning on November 11, 2010. He had been executed with shots to the head, his hands tied behind his back and his body covered with signs of torture. While the State Department seems confident that this atrocious murder will be fully investigated, the Honduran people are less so.

The Wikileaks release brought attention to the two faces of U.S. policy towards Honduras. But while Washington keeps reviewing Lobo’s attention to human rights with rose-colored glasses, people like Kevin Alberto Carías Silva are being killed. The U.S. needs to cut funding to the Honduran police and military in order to stop such politically motivated violence.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Colombians and U.S. Ex-Pats Gather in Solidarity to Demand the Closure of Georgia’s SOA/WHINSEC

By Andrea Bachmann, Witness for Peace Intern

This past weekend, as thousands of protesters came together in Georgia to call for the closure of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA)/WHINSEC, Colombians, too, were taking action at home. On Friday, Colombian and U.S. activists kicked things off with a march at the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. U.S. citizens delivered a letter urging Ambassador McKinley to advocate for the SOA/WHINSEC’s closure and to investigate all human rights violations carried out by the school’s Colombian graduates.

Carrying crosses to represent the thousands of Colombians murdered by order of these graduates, marchers solemnly recited each victim’s name as they walked. One of the loudest voices in the crowd was that of Mauricio Castillo, whose brother, Jaime Castillo, was murdered just two years ago in the extrajudicial killings scandal masterminded in large part by SOA/WHINSEC graduates. “We are here to remember,” said Mauricio, “and to demand justice and reparation for these crimes.”
Demonstrators in Bogota carry a banner listing Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates
and their human rights violations. Crosses display the names of their victims.

At their final destination, the Colombian Ministry of Defense, demonstrators presented a second letter asking President Santos to stop sending students to the SOA/WHINSEC on account of the grave atrocities committed by its graduates in Colombia.

The action continued Saturday with a vigil remembering those killed in massacres under the direction of prominent SOA/WHINSEC graduates. After a brief conversation with partners in Georgia, participants reflected on the deaths and suffering that so many communities in Colombia have experienced, and prayed for protection against further violence.

The weekend’s events exposed the clear connection between Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates and the country’s abhorrent human rights record. Since 2002, Colombian armed forces reportedly committed more than 3,000 extrajudicial executions, involving more than 500 military units assisted and/or trained by the United States since 2000. Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates have been linked to a multitude of notable atrocities, including the 1997 massacre in Mapiripán, the 2005 massacre in the Peace Community San Jose de Apartadó, and widespread assassinations and displacement in Urabá. Furthermore, SOA/WHINSEC graduates have consistently been implicated in acts of unspeakable violence across Latin America, from civilian massacres, disappearances, and assassinations in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s to the 2009 coup of the democratically elected president of Honduras.

For Latin Americans and citizens of the United States alike, the School of the Americas remains a tragic symbol of suffering, widespread human rights violations and failed U.S. foreign policy. This weekend’s actions in Georgia, Colombia, and across the hemisphere, demonstrate growth and perseverance in a movement for a more dignified approach to our relationship with Latin America.

Click here to watch a video of the protest in Bogota.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Colombian Minorities Develop Policy Proposals for the New Santos Administration

By Andrea Bachmann

Last weekend more than 17,000 people gathered at Bogota’s National University for the inaugural meeting of the Congreso de los Pueblos - the “Peoples’ Congress.” Known as the Minga in previous years, the event was originally established in 2008 to unite indigenous groups from different regions in a shared struggle for their cultural and traditional rights.

This year, organizers decided to expand, renaming the event to reflect a more diverse attendance. Indigenous groups joined Afro-Colombians and other ethnic groups, labor unions, students, and various social organizations from across the country to express their solidarity, discuss the mutual challenges they face, and develop proposals for the new Santos administration.

On Friday October 8th, participants arrived by the busload and marched to the university, transforming it from campus to small community. Cooking fires roared, drums and flutes sounded, soccer matches ensued, and even a few small stores emerged along rows of tents and buses.

Indigenous guards lead the Peoples' Congress in the event's final march through Bogota on Oct. 12

Over the following three days, Congress attendees took part in round table discussions organized by problematic topic, by occupational sector, and by region of origin. All were given the opportunity to offer input on issues such as land and labor rights, institutional violence, education, economic development, and human rights. The conclusions reached at these meetings were then compiled into a proclamation, "Word of the Peoples' Congress: The Country's Proposal for a Life of Dignity."

On its fifth and final day, the Peoples' Congress culminated in a march from the National University to the Plaza Bolivar, a central plaza in downtown Bogota, where organizers formally presented the proclamation and musicians led the crowd in a final celebration of unity. The movement - now three years in the making - showed unprecedented growth that is only expected to continue in years to come.

Andrea Bachmann is a Witness for Peace intern based in Colombia.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Students and Musicians Support Colombian Sugar Cane Workers

by Andrea Bachmann

In Bogotá this past Sunday, October 3rd, student organizers joined several music groups and social organizations to host a concert in support of Valle de Cauca sugar cane workers who are facing judicial proceedings for the 2008 strike against unjust working conditions.

During the strike on June 14, 2008, over 18,000 sugar cane cutters and their families organized to demand fair wages and better working hours. For exercising their constitutional right to protest, six leaders of the strike are being tried for crimes against the state, including conspiracy and sabotage. They now await the verdict of their trial.

Strike leaders address supporters at “Cortazo.” Two signs in front of the stage read, “We are in solidarity with the June 14th Sugar Cane Cutters’ Movement” and “Protest is not a crime.”

At Sunday’s "Cortazo" concert, a host of supporters gathered to demonstrate solidarity with the sugar cane workers and the strike, known as the June 14th Movement. The six prosecuted – four sugar cane cutters and two advisers to a senator’s office – were present to hear various musicians denounce the judicial action against them and to express to the crowd both their gratitude and their firm commitment to this fight for justice.

The six leaders facing prosecution, from left to right: Alberto Bejarano, José Oney Valencia, Oscar Bedoya, Omar Sedano, Raul Chacon, Juan Pablo Ochoa.

Andrea Bachmann is an intern with Witness for Peace.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Support Teachers in Honduras

On Thursday, August 5, members of Honduran teacher’s organizations from across the country began filtering into Tegucigalpa to participate in a nation-wide teachers' strike. The teachers left their classrooms in order to pressure Porfirio Lobo’s government to replace an estimated 4 billion lempira (approximately $210 million) that had disappeared from Inpremah (the National Institute for the Payment of Honduran Teachers) and to protest against a proposed law that would privatize the final years of high school in Honduras.

Teachers' strikes are not something new in Honduras. As lawyer Nectalí Rodezno noted, teachers' strikes are a nearly annual occurrence because Inpremah funds (which are intended to provide teachers with a pension after retirement) have been historically mismanaged. What is unprecedented, however, is the brutality being used by Honduran police forces to break up the teacher’s marches.

On Friday, August 20, teachers took to the streets for the fifteenth straight day of marches. As they left their makeshift headquarters at the Universidad Pedagógica, they were surrounded by police in riot gear who began to fire tear gas canisters, beat marchers with clubs, and make arrests. The human rights organization COFADEH reported 18 arrests on August 20, including that of march organizer Luís Sosa. Mr. Sosa was later hospitalized as a result of injuries inflicted by an officer’s club.

In the wake of the repression, teachers have gathered at the campus of the Universidad Pedagógica. There are continued reports of police launching tear gas into the university in attempts to disperse the teachers. Mr. Sosa told Witness for Peace over the phone today that “repression continues to be fierce.”

Please take a moment to send a message to the U.S. embassy in Honduras to express your concern with the violent repression of peaceful protests in Honduras.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New Report Links U.S. Aid to Human Rights Violations in Colombia

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) has released a new report on U.S. military assistance to Colombia and its association with human rights abuses in that country.

According to the report, "U.S. military aid flowing to Colombia is having a direct, negative effect on the human rights of Colombians." In particular, the report links U.S. military aid to instances of extrajudicial killings.

Based on the findings, FOR recommends suspending military assistance to Colombia. The report's release is aptly timed: within the next few weeks, the U.S. State Department will evaluate Colombia's attention to human rights. If the State Department decides not to certify Colombia's human rights record, military aid to the country will be sharply reduced. Stay tuned this week for opportunities to call on Hillary Clinton to defend human rights in Colombia.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Partial Victory for Immigrants’ Rights

By Beth Baker-Cristales

The infamous law SB 1070 took effect in Arizona on July 29th with some key provisions of the law blocked by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton in response to arguments by the U.S. Justice Department. For example, provisions requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people they believe are involved in criminal activity as well as the requirement to check the immigration status of individuals being released from jail were blocked. Five other suits have been filed against the law, and the legal battles will likely continue for years.

Passage of the law reflects the xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria that is increasingly common in Arizona and other parts of the country. Now legislatures in 17 states are considering legislation similar to Arizona’s SB 1070 and some states and municipalities are implementing mirror policies without passage of legislation.

Although Judge Bolton’s ruling is a key victory for advocates of immigrants’ rights, we have to continue to put pressure on the Obama administration and the Congress to pass meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, there has been little public education about the real roots and impacts of immigration in the U.S. In fact, much of the immigration in the past several decades has been fueled by free trade agreements that devastated local economies in Latin America or by U.S. military intervention abroad.

Economists have concluded over and over again that immigrants do not take jobs away from U.S.-born workers and that immigrants contribute much more to the U.S. economy than they consume or utilize in the form of benefits. But in a time of declining standards of living and a faltering economy, blaming immigrants is a convenient and easy tactic for politicians and activists who are unwilling to analyze the real sources of economic decline – corporate greed, government deregulation, and an economy based on consumption and profit rather than human needs and sustainability.

Our economy and our society have much to benefit from immigration reform that allows the full incorporation of immigrations who currently are denied legal permanent residence and citizenship. The keys to achieving comprehensive immigration reform are public education and continued pressure on Congress and President Obama. The past several years have shown that together, activists can make a change in the national political environment. And this election cycle is a perfect time to educate those around you about the issues and to push for reform now – stay tuned for details about Witness for Peace’s fall campaign.

Beth Baker-Cristales is on the board of Witness for Peace – Southwest.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Human Rights Backlog Illustrate Concerns about a Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia

By Denny Scott

The Washington Post recently commented on the startling backlog of Colombian human rights cases. Our congressional representatives should take note as they consider whether or not to persue a U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement. While the Colombian government claims success in prosecuting human rights violations there are many thousands of cases that are being ignored or stonewalled. I personally know of one case in which a 21 year old student was shot and killed in 2005 on the campus of the University de Valle in Cali by the military/police as they pursued students who had been protesting the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement being negotiated at the time. Jhonny Silva, a chemistry student, was killed because a birth defect caused him to drag one leg and, as a consequence, he lagged behind the other students as they fled the police. The Colombian constitution prohibits the military from entering university campuses. The police chief and person responsible for the killing are known but the justice system in Colombia continues to obscure and avoid dealing with this case.

I was part of a Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia in November 2009 that met with the father of Jhonny Silva. Despite anonymous threats, the courageous Mr. Silva pushed the case forward and it eventually landed at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. It languished there for two years and then was referred back to the Cali courts on the promise that it would be prosecuted there. Now, the case has virtually disappeared from the system with the time period for prosecuting it running out.

Mr. Silva said, “I am bitter and indignant that nothing has happened to punish those responsible for assassinating my son. My only hope lies with the international community to send petitions to the Colombian government concerning my son’s case.”

The Silva case illustrates why so many Americans oppose ratification of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. As long as the murders of those who disagree with the government continue and those responsible for murders are not prosecuted the U.S. should not ratify the trade agreement with Colombia. It’s moral issue.

Denny Scott traveled to Colombia with a Witness for Peace delegation in 2009.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Seeing migration from the bottom up...

By Sarah Monroe

In the United States, the controversy over immigration is heating up. In my own community in rural Washington state, there is fear that immigrants are taking jobs from an already severely depressed economy and a suspicion of foreigners who are changing the demographic of a predominately white community. I came on this delegation after several years of research, interviews and activism surrounding immigration and immigrant rights in western Washington.

I had heard the stories of immigrants from the perspective of those who had already crossed and were trying to reconstruct their lives on the other side of the border. I had seen the level of fear in immigrant communities, fear of being seperated from their loved ones and being deported back to Mexico or Central America. But this was the first time I was able to talk to people who were getting ready to cross.

As part of this delegation, we visited a migrant center here in Oaxaca, La Casa del Buen Samaritano. There, we had conversations with Central American migrants who had come from El Salvador and Guatemala. A shy 27-year-old was going to join his brothers in the states because there was nothing left for him in El Salvador. ¨There is no education, no jobs. I have no choice,¨he said. His eyes filled with tears when he talked about his parents, left behind in El Salvador. When we asked how he planned on crossing the border, he shrugged and said, ¨I will cross with God´s help.¨

A man from Guatemala had a family in the states, a wife and a child, and had just spent 6 months in a U.S. detention before being deported back to Guatemala and dropped off without any resources. He was determined to reunite with his family and spoke about the dangers he had faced jumping a freight train to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border and the danger from bandits who prey on migrants. He talked about his fear of the rest of the trip, facing both the Mexican police and gangs, who both are known to extort and assault migrants traveling north.

A crucial question for all of us on this trip was what was fueling this migration north. Oaxaca itself sends many migrants to the United States. In San Juan Sosola, a tiny town in the indigenous Mizteca Alta, we met the people left behind. The streets and schools were nearly empty of children and we were greeted by older members of the community. Members of the shrinking community were working hard to develop sustainable agricultural techniques to offset the depleted soil from modern agricultural techniques, the severe erosion from centuries of deforestation, the incursion of mines and recent climate changes that have affected harvest. We learned that the sale of corn, the primary crop in the region, was being undercut by large scale agribusiness in the United States and that neoliberal policies that laid that groundwork for free trade agreements like NAFTA had cut off farm subsidies to small farms. Don Gregorio informed us that this area had been settled before the time of Christ, though only 50 members of the community now remain. The poverty, lack of opportunity for young people, and hunger had taken its toll.

As I return to rural western Washington, I wonder if the farmers and small town folk I know will be able to relate to this community, as we too face increasing poverty and lack of opportunity for our young people. Small farms in my community also cannot compete with large scale agribusiness. Is it possible that the global trade agreements and large corporations that have reduced opportunity and sustainability in southern Mexico are also affecting my own local community? Could the communities that send migrants and the communities that are receiving them have a common enemy to fight?

I think so.

Sarah Monroe recently traveled to Mexico with a Witness for Peace delegation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Senselessness of Hate

by Mark Stevens

I recently saw an article on that investigates whether Arizona law SB1070 has sparked or intensified anti-immigrant sentiments and violence. As I read about the growing number of these hate crimes, I immediately thought about those people I have met here in Nicaragua who have told me why they decided to venture to the U.S. illegally. With these stories in mind, the facts the article reported no longer made sense to me.

Maybe it was my awareness of the fairly recent history between the United States and Nicaragua that made the internet article seem illogical. Here’s the basic story: In 1979, a revolution occurred against a family of U.S.-backed dictators that had held power in Nicaragua for nearly 40 years. The government that was born out of the revolution was socialist, led by the Sandinistas. The United States was fearful that Nicaragua would be drawn into the Soviet-led bloc of leftist countries, becoming another Cuba. This led Ronald Reagan’s administration to financially and militarily support an insurgency against the Sandinista government in the mid-1980s. Essentially, he started a civil war in Nicaragua, fought between the Sandinista government and the rebel “contras.”

What happens when a government has to fight a war against its own people, on its own land? Here are a few consequences:
  • Families broken up by violence. Imagine the deterioration of the Nicaraguan family structure when fathers (and even sons) would go off to fight, many never to return.
  • War over development. The Nicaraguan government had to use what little money it had to finance the war instead of using that money for the country’s development.
  • Little or no economic growth. Why would businesses want to invest in a country ravaged by war? Unemployment is an obvious consequence of little economic progress.

Clearly the effects of these problems are still felt in Nicaragua, where the poverty rate is greater than 45% and where 65% of the population does not have a formal job. The war that we started in this Central American nation isn’t fully responsible for its status as the 2nd poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere of course, but we can’t deny that it was a contributor. Now that we’re clear on the facts, hopefully you understand my bewilderment. After nearly destroying a country from the inside only 2 or 3 decades ago, now some are infuriated because the victims of our destruction want to find a way to survive in our country? This is not to say that undocumented migration is right, or that all those without papers in the U.S. come from countries with this kind of history. To practice such abject discrimination against those who have so been negatively affected by U.S. foreign policy, however, is simply senseless.

Mark is an intern with Witness for Peace studying the causes of migration in Nicaragua.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Delegation to Mexico: Learning from the Heart

By Arnie Alpert

Don Gregorio was one of the first people our Witness for Peace group met in San Juan Sosola, a small village in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. One of the first things he told us was a story about a young woman from the village who had died in Los Angeles without her family being able to contact her.

You don’t even have to scratch the surface in Oaxaca to learn something about Mexico-U.S. migration. Talk to just about anyone and they’ll ask, “where are you from?” Once you say, “the USA,” you’ll hear stories about brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins living north of the border. The challenges facing separated families are painful, even without workplace raids, desert border crossings, and deportations.

If you do scratch the surface, you can learn why beautiful, peaceful villages like San Juan Sosola are pretty much empty of young adults, most of whom leave as soon as they are old enough to travel on their own. Some reasons, like soil erosion caused by excessive logging, go back centuries to the time of Spanish colonialism. Others are more recent, like the pressures put on Mexico in the 1980s to reduce price supports for tortillas, and the flood of subsidized corn from the USA which entered Mexican markets after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.

According to Jesus Leon Santos, of CEDICAM, the Center for Integral Development of Small Farmers of the High Mixteca, the region has experienced longer periods of drought and periods of intense rain brought on by global climatic change. Moreover, he says, chemical inputs of the “green revolution” made the land less productive.

Miguel Angel Vásquez, of EDUCA, Services for an Alternative Education, says 60% of the Mexican youth who enter the labor market every year are unable to find work. Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and according to some figures, a third of its people are now living in the USA.

And it’s not just Mexico. In a religiously affiliated shelter in the city of Oaxaca we met 3 young men from El Salvador and Guatemala, trying to make their way through Mexico past migration police and criminal gangs. A Salvadoran man says, “If I could stay in my country and make money I’d never leave.” But he’s making his second attempt to reach the USA – the first ended with arrest in northern Mexico – despite his knowledge of the perils of the road. It’s not like he expects money to fall from the sky, he says. He expects to work hard so he can send money home to his mom.

When the farm economy is failing, rural people migrate. That’s the story of US history in the 19th century, of modern China, of modern Mexico and Central America. But unlike the “mill girls” who left my state’s small towns in the 1830s and 1840s for the bustling new cities of New England, and unlike the workers in Chinese sweatshops now, Mexicans and Central Americans have to cross a highly militarized border and face a climate of racism and persecution if they reach the other side.

Our ten days with Witness for Peace deepened my understanding that “immigration reform” requires addressing the reasons why so many people are forced to migrate in the first place. My passport will enable me to return across the border to my own community with new insights, and with my heart enriched by the people I’ve met.

Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calling all activists for our annual Roots of Migration campaign!

With each passing day, the joint demands for just immigration reform and just trade reform grow increasingly urgent. To unite and advance these twin struggles, our upcoming fall campaign will boldly connect the dots between unjust trade and forced migration. The next two months provide an opportunity for immigrant rights activists, trade activists, unionists, students, people of faith and all concerned individuals to work in solidarity for a common cause.
Thousands of participants will join for fun, educational events that highlight the trade-and-migration link through poetry, videos and crafts. Schools, churches and community groups across the country will host public performances and rallies to generate media coverage of the underreported roots of migration. Advocates will speak up in town halls to pressure electoral candidates to take a firm stand for trade and immigration justice.

It is only with your support and activism that we will achieve immigration reform that truly respects immigrants and rectifies the trade injustice at root. Please join us this September and October. To get involved, or contact WFP’s National Grassroots Organizer, Catalina Nieto ( Stay tuned for campaign alerts and resources.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Searching for the “American Dream”and falling victim to the “American Nightmare”

At a recent workshop for migrants and their families that Servicio Jesuita para los Migrantes hosted in rural Nicaragua, one of the participants was willing to share his tragic, but not uncommon, story. Pedro has four children, and like any father, he wants the best for them. He knows that having an education gives them a chance to escape from the poverty that afflicts his home country, but his family lacked the financial resources to put them through school. With virtually no opportunities available for him, it was out of sheer desperation that he decided to search for work in the United States.

He was not successful in making it to the U.S. But his determination to give his children a better future would not allow him to quit. He made the journey two more times, in spite of the perils and difficulties of the journey north to Nicaragua. He would not be as lucky on his fourth attempt, receiving irreversible damage to his feet while trying to board a fast moving train.

“Sometimes the American dream is an American nightmare,” he admits. “And that dream will kill you.”

Heartrending stories such as Pedro’s reveal that there is a crucial element missing from the immigration debate: the fact that U.S. economic policies force many of Latin America’s poorest to try their luck on the journey to the U.S., even when the odds are so heavily stacked against them. Unfortunately, very little has been said about how U.S. foreign policy encourages or perpetuates the economic weaknesses that prevented Pedro from being able to find work in his community.

Through international education and grassroots advocacy, Witness for Peace calls for Congress to consider these economic realities as representatives prepare to craft legislation for immigration reform. We must ask our legislators this question: Does it truly make sense to create laws addressing symptoms of migration without addressing the root causes?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mexico Supports Lawsuit Against the SB 1070

Mexico has formally offered its support for the lawsuit being put forth by a wide list of civil rights organizations calling on the Supreme Court of Arizona to declare SB 1070 unconstitutional. The announcement followed a visit to the U.S. where Calderón’s openly criticized SB 1070 before Congress.

Mexico’s stance on the law brings into question the country's own position on migration. While Mexico wants an immigration policy that allows Mexican workers to safely work in the U.S., joint economic policies continue to push millions of Mexicans to make the difficult and dangerous journey north .

Many immigrant rights advocates consider Mexico’s stance to be hypocritical, as Central American migrants passing through the country hoping to reach the U.S. often face severe human rights abuses both at the hands of Mexican authorities and organized crime. Failing to address the roots of migration for both Central American and Mexican migrants ensures that mass immigration will continue. While this link remains missing in government debate, Obama and Calderón’s joint stance against SB 1070 law does acknowledge that the legal and social system that many workers will continue are entering does need fixing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Obama’s Ratings Down Among Latino Population

This month, polls are showing a decrease in President Obama’s popularity among Latinos in the United States. Some say that the numbers reflect growing frustration over Obama's inaction on immigration reform.

"You have large segments of the Latino population who have as their number one legislative priority immigration reform," said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio. "The bottom line is that they haven't seen evidence of the legislation being moved in congress."

At the end of April, amidst widespread criticism of Arizona SB 1070, Obama announced that he was dropping immigration reform from his administration’s agenda this year.

A May 1st immigration rights rally (Photo Credit: National Immigration Forum)

However, controversy surrounding legislation like SB 1070 has provided an important catalyst for grassroots mobilization pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. It’s a critical time to keep the pressure on Obama and on our Congressional representatives. And based on the polls, Obama will have incentive to pay attention.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A year after the coup in Honduras

Imagine if the United States military staged a coup d’etat, removing the president from the White House and turning over power to another administration.

One year ago today, this is the situation that the citizens of Honduras were dealt when soldiers forced President Manuel Zelaya from the country. By recognizing the “elections” that the de facto government held last fall, the U.S. has condoned insurgent activity against constitutional order. Even more baffling are the millions of dollars of military aid that the State Department has pledged to the current regime.

The double standard couldn’t be any clearer: how is it that the United States claims to promote democratic values around the world, but makes an exception for Honduras as if nothing happened on June 28th, 2009? Witness for Peace has been speaking out about this paradox for a year and continues to document and publicize the Honduran government’s numerous human rights abuses. In fact, we are holding a delegation to Honduras this August for U.S. citizens to hear first-hand testimony and learn how they can support the resistance movement. Find out how you can get involved here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why the Merida Initiative Isn’t Working…and What We Can Do to Change it

by Stephanie Brewer, Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez (CentroProdh)

Recently, President Barack Obama announced his intention to deploy U.S. National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico Border. This US military response to Mexican crime may seem new, but the U.S. has been backing Mexico in an increasingly militarized response to crime for the past couple of years under the Mérida Initiative.

As you may know, since taking office in 2006, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón has unleashed a “frontal war” against crime, deploying nearly 50,000 soldiers throughout the country. The results of this military war have been nothing short of catastrophic for Mexico’s civilian population. Reports of human rights violations committed by the armed forces and reported to the National Human Rights Commission have increased nearly ten times, from 182 in 2006 to 1791 in 2009. These include arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, sexual abuse, torture and warrantless searches and detentions.

As documented in numerous cases by the National Human Rights Commission and by non-governmental organizations, the army arbitrarily detains civilians and tortures them in military bases, sometimes falsifying medical certificates to claim that the victims were not tortured, with the aim of eliciting information or confessions related to organized crime. Recurring methods of torture documented by the Commission and by civil society organizations include beatings and application of electric shocks to sensitive body parts. Those who denounce violations face threats and attacks.

Finally, the army operates without meaningful control by civilian institutions. No military human rights violation committed during this presidential administration has been tried by the competent civilian authorities, and the military courts, according to information from the Ministry of the Interior, have sentenced just one soldier to a term of 9 months for shooting and killing a civilian. Meanwhile, the federal government states that civilians killed in the crossfire or by the army are “collateral damages,” despite the fact that as of today, roughly 23,000 civilians have been killed since December 2006 in Mexico’s drug war; last year alone, nearly 10,000 people were killed.

To give one concrete example of the above, we can mention a case that we documented and represented in Center Prodh: the case of four civilians arbitrarily War on Drugs, shot by soldiers in Sinaloa state in March 2008. The four were riding in a car with other family members when a group of soldiers in another vehicle opened fire with no justification, killing the victims and injuring two other passengers. The military authorities immediately took over the investigation, guaranteeing that the victims’ family members will not have access to justice. One family member, the wife of one of the victims, took the case all the way to Mexico’s Supreme Court, but the Court ruled that she did not have legal standing to challenge the military’s assumption of jurisdiction over the case. Thus, the military remains judge and jury in any case of human rights violations that is investigated at all.

In light of the above facts, it is difficult to argue that Mexico is gaining anything by deploying its army to do the work of police. In this context, perhaps the more interesting question is: what does the United States gain by financially supporting the Mexican army through the current Mérida Initiative?

The answer, currently, is quite simply: nothing. Or perhaps, put more cynically, it risks loosing face before the international community for throwing its support behind armed forces that are increasingly known throughout the world as violators of human rights, and whose participation in policing tasks have gone hand-in-hand with skyrocketing levels of criminal violence.

Now let’s ask a different question: what could the United States gain from a thoughtful, holistic, results-oriented approach to reducing criminal violence in Mexico? First and foremost, the U.S. could gain credibility – and advance security – by addressing effectively the engine that drives drug trafficking and drug-related violence in Mexico: demand for illegal drugs in the United States. In this sense, redirecting funding from Mexico’s military to treatment clinics in the United States would certainly bring a much more efficient return than the current Mérida Initiative. The Obama administration recently signaled its intention to place greater emphasis on treatment-based and demand-reduction approaches, although it remains to be seen what degree of change we can expect. Along similar lines, the need for the U.S. to halt the flow of arms into Mexico (U.S. guns currently serve as the armory for drug cartels) cannot be overstated.

To the extent that the U.S. remains engaged in security cooperation programs with the Mexican military and police, the minimum standard for such engagement must be that the basic human rights requirements already built into the Mérida Initiative are respected. By banning the use of torture to obtain confessions and prioritizing police transparency and accountability,the United States acknowledged that human rights were under threat in Mexico. Yet the United States did not keep up to its own standards: last year Washington released the portion of the Mérida Initiative funds supposedly conditioned on progress in these areas despite an obvious lack of advances. This year, then, the U.S. has the chance to regain legitimacy in this area and have a potential impact on human rights by withholding the conditioned funds until true progress has been made.

In short, the most effective steps that the United States can take right now to reduce drug violence in Mexico are to treat the problem on its own side of the border and respect its own laws regarding foreign aid. This is not to rule out all possibilities of collaboration between the two countries in the future, but it’s time to prioritize effective strategies and to place human rights front and center, rather than letting them become the collateral damages of a drug war that is unwinnable on current terms.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Suarez: an Afro Colombian Community in Resistance

By Diego Benitez, Colombia International Team

In January, I co-facilitated a delegation organized by Gail Phares to Suarez, Cauca, in southern Colombia. The delegation arrived at a critical moment. The community in Suarez is struggling to hold on to their land and maintain independence from multinational corporations that are looking to mine vast gold deposits in the area.

These corporations have been threatening the communities’ well being and have worked in various ways to divide the community and break the social bonds that have taken centuries to build. It is not uncommon to hear of massacres and disappearances throughout the region.

In April, a horrible massacre took place where eight people were gunned down by unidentified assailants.

As part of our solidarity with the community, two Witness for Peace International Team members, Melissa Cox, and I traveled to the region. An inter-ethnic meeting was held where members of indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian communities worked together to identify ways to resist the violence and influx of multinational corporations by building upon their social and traditional bonds.

During our visit we accompanied community leaders at a meeting where the Mayor and Ombudsman of Suarez were present. A representative of the Organization of American States was also there. As a result of the contentious issues discussed, many of the leaders we accompanied have received death threats from right-wing paramilitary groups. Some community members insist that the multinational corporations operating in the region are behind the threats, offering incentives for paramilitary groups operating in the region and using them to scare away all opposition. Yet to date there is no definitive proof to identify who these illegal armed groups are working for.

On May 20th I received a call from Licifrey Ararat, one of the threatened community leaders we accompany. He shared with me the terrible news that there are orders to forcibly remove the residents of the region in the town La Toma. At least 1300 families comprised of 6000 people are at risk.

Licifrey suggested the community is willing to die before they are removed from their ancestral land.It has become a worrying situation and we are nervously waiting to receive updates as the events unfold.

Because the U.S. Agency for International Development is funding community projects in the area, the U.S. government has the responsibility to speak out against this attempt to displace the community.

Please write to our embassy in Colombia at to express your concern for the forced displacement of thousands of Afro Colombians from their ancestral lands.

Please also consider contacting your congressional representative and ask them to support House Resolution 1224 on displaced Afro-Colombians and indigenous.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Obama and Calderón’s Washington Meeting Points to Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Nonviolent Solutions to Drug Trafficking

By the Mexico International Team

At last week’s state meeting between Presidents Felipe Calderón and Barack Obama, the Mexican leader found himself having to answer to growing concerns about high-profile violence in Mexico. First, there was the disappearance of former PAN (National Action Party, to which Calderón also belongs) leader Diego Fernandez last week. Media reports are uncertain, but many think he has been kidnapped or murdered. Then there was the murder of mayoral candidate Jose Maria Guajardo, also of the PAN party, in the state of Tamaulipas, which media sources refer to as a “drug-plagued region”. These more recent incidents, in addition with general reports of violence along the border, leave Calderón with the duty of addressing the violence in Mexico as necessitating aid from the U.S, while assuring that the situation can be controlled and the aid will not go to waste.

Early on, Calderón attacked the Arizona immigration law, arguing that the law is discriminatory. President Obama agreed that the law “has the potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion” and stated that it is currently under review by the Justice Department. John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona, later stated that it was “unfortunate and disappointing” that Calderón chose to comment on this particular item of policy during this state visit.

President Obama took this opportunity to address general immigration reform, saying that "the Arizona law expresses some of the frustrations the American people have had in not fixing a broken immigration system." He called upon Congress, saying that he needs 60 more votes in the Senate. However, the need for immigration reform was illustrated much more poignantly by a little girl in Maryland, whose school was visited by First Ladies Michelle Obama and Margarita Zavala on May 19th. The girl asked if Barack Obama was really “taking away” undocumented immigrants, adding that her mother “doesn’t have papers.” Michelle Obama also called upon Congress in fielding the question, stating that “everybody’s got to work together on that in Congress.”

During his address of a joint session of Congress, Calderón referred to the record number of extraditions of high-level traffickers to the United States as proof that Mexico is taking the drug war seriously. With funds provided by the U.S. through the Mérida Initiative, Calderón has carried out an intensive military strategy to deal with the drug violence. However, during this visit, President Obama took some responsibility for the role of the U.S. has played in creating this problem: both drug demand and arms imported from the U.S. fuel drug trafficking and ensuing violence in Mexico.

In the face of increasing violence, it is clear that the Mérida Initiative’s emphasis on police and military funding is ineffective. Even record numbers of extraditions have done little to quell drug trafficking. The violence does, however, force many people to seek work and homes elsewhere, and many choose to migrate to the U.S, where they often face discrimination.

Ironically, President Calderón, said that “the time has come to reduce the causes of migration and turn this into a legal, orderly and secure flow of workers and visitors,” when it is so often policies created collaboratively by the U.S. and Mexican governments that are at the roots of migration. As long as policies putting free trade and militarism over people continue, people have no choice but to leave their homes.