In our special broadcast from the U.S.-Mexico border, we speak to human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury, who has lived here in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas for over 40 years and has been active in the response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was a Mayan comandante and guerrilla who was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. After a long campaign, she found there was U.S. involvement in the cover-up of her husband’s murder and torture. Now she continues to work with people fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Brownsville, Texas, ahead of a mass protest later today at the federal courthouse that’s right behind us, that’s calling on the Trump administration to end the “zero tolerance” policy, which has separated more than 2,000 children from their parents, who have been charged with a crime for crossing the border. In a minute, we’ll be joined by the person who helped draw attention to this crisis when she shared audio with ProPublica of some of the disappeared children in a CBP, a Customs and Border Protection, facility. The children are estimated to be between the ages of 4 and 10, and can be heard crying “Mami!” “Papi!” This is an excerpt. A warning: The audio is disturbing.
CHILD: [crying] Papá! Papá! Papá! Papá! Papá! Papá!
AMY GOODMAN: The person who made that recording asked not to be identified, for fear of retaliation. And they were able to share it with the help of our next guest, Jennifer Harbury, who is a human rights lawyer, well-known activist. She has lived here in the Rio Grande Valley for over 40 years, has been active in the response to the “zero tolerance” policy. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was a Mayan comandante guerrilla in the highlands of Guatemala. He was disappeared after he was captured by the army in the 1980s. After a long campaign, that she found here was U.S. involvement in the cover-up of her husband’s murder and torture. We will talk about this in the show, in a post-show, which we’ll post online. And she works with people who are fleeing violence from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and come here to the United States for political asylum.
For more, Jennifer, it’s great to have you with us. Political asylum, this issue, how important it is right now? What is – what are people missing, when they understand what’s happening here?
JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, there are, of course, two categories of people trying to come into the United States, and Trump is blending them together. One category would be cartel people. They have enough money to buy an airport and a jumbo jet and as many passports and visas as they want. We’re not going to be watching them swimming the river. The most important category are the refugees. And they’re fleeing this ungodly world of violence and exploitation that’s being set up by the cartels all through Central America and for most of Mexico. We also have many people coming in from Africa who are fleeing genocide against their ethnic minority, or, for example, a young man from Ghana who is gay and was nearly killed by a vigilante mob and who was nearly deported last week.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what is happening in these cases and in cases you know so well from Latin America, from Central America, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. What is the U.S. role? People say, “Why should we take in these people, even if their countries are wracked by violence? Why is that our responsibility?”
JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, number one, it’s who all of our parents and grandparents are, of course, right? We came here. My father was a refugee at age 11. He came to Ellis Island fleeing World War II. So, number one, it’s our heritage.
But, number two, the United States has everything to do with the creation of the monsters that are driving the refugees up to our border. They’re fleeing the cartels. Who are the heads of the cartels? Well, after the dirty wars ended, that included genocide and daily acts of torture and terror, according to the United Nations, those people changed their uniforms and became the head of the cartel groups. They’re extremely wealthy. They have full military experience, which is why a gang of young people are able to pull aside a bus so accurately. And they have unlimited access to all of the weaponry and everything else that they need.
Now, who were the people at the head of military intelligence, for example, in Guatemala? Well, those were people who were trained in the United States, worked very closely with the United States intelligence throughout the genocide. And we were, of course, severely criticized for that by the United Nations Truth Commission, and President Clinton apologized. Two hundred thousand people were killed by those death squads. Those of us that survived that era, we remember the sorts of torture and mutilations that the bodies would bear, when we found them out in the street. And they’re the same as now.
So, what’s happened is, the cartel leaders are the same people that worked hand in glove with the United States. We were armed by the – they were armed by the United States. They were trained by the United States. They were sold equipment by the United States. And to a large extent, they’re still being protected by our intelligence division. They will not release key files on the genocide if it involved someone that used to work with our people. For example, one of my husband’s torturers, Colonel Alpirez, was brought to the United States after the disclosures, lived near the CIA with his entire family for nearly 10 years, and when I found out about it, was tipped off, and he fled back to Guatemala. He was trained at the School of the Americas. He directly participated in the genocide. And he was a paid asset of the CIA. That means, in return for giving information, he received money from the CIA. He was a paid informant.
AMY GOODMAN: And now you have women and children trying to cross over these bridges to apply for political asylum, and they’re told there’s no room? Is this legal?
JENNIFER HARBURY: No, it’s completely illegal. I’ll describe very briefly what’s happening. You cannot apply for political asylum outside the United States. You have to get here somehow, even if it’s just an inch of turf. You can go across the river. Hopefully, your child won’t drown. You will be caught if you’re running with small children. And then you’re going to have your kids taken away.
How can you go the legal method? You walk across the bridge, as provided by statute. You knock on the door of the port of entry and say, “Hello. I’m here to ask for political asylum. I’m in danger.” They must then send you for a credible fear interview. It’s not optional. And if you pass your credible fear interview, which most people do, you go into the proceedings before an immigration judge.
There’s been a huge attack on that since President Trump came into office. In other words, we’re shutting down both doors. What happened when Trump came in is they started just turning people away at the bridge, saying, “Trump’s president now. We don’t do that anymore.”
One of my clients was a woman who had fled traffickers in Guatemala, was in a terrible wreck just before she reached Reynosa, and her daughter was killed, and she was horribly injured. She walked across the bridge on a walker, having just recovered from a broken pelvis, two months in the hospital. They turned her away. And at the base of the bridge back in Mexico, she was kidnapped. That stopped for a little while. It’s now going on full blast.
The second piece of the shutdown for them is if they do get across, which takes quite a battle these days, they’re sent to detention centers, which operate like terrible prisons. You know, no partitions between the toilet bowls. You can’t touch one another, even if your cellmate just found out her child was murdered. You cannot receive better food, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.
JENNIFER HARBURY: So, we’ve made it so unbearable. And people are in jail—in these jails now for two years, three years. That’s why it’s, quote-unquote, “full,” because we are no longer doing what we legally have to do, which is to release them on parole.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion in Part 2, and we’ll post it online under web exclusives at democracynow.org. Jennifer Harbury, human rights lawyer and activist here in Brownsville, as we broadcast from the border.