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From Nogales, Arizona to Ofer prison: Witnessing racism in the American and Israeli borderlands

US Politics
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Camped under a recently erected roadside surveillance tower near the border town of Sasabe, Arizona, a group of hunters stood in a circle. I had seen the tower from a few miles down the highway and come to take a look at the installation first-hand.

“Those towers are for catching illegals,” one man shouted. “Get ‘em the hell out of here!”

Sasabe has become a major border crossing point for migrants attempting to enter the US. Under the Clinton administration in the 1990s, border enforcement became concentrated in urban areas forcing migration to rural areas that require several day journeys through rugged desert that have had fatal consequences for at least 6,000 people. But this count is surely low. It is based on the number of human remains recovered — often a pile of bones that may or may not contain clues to the identities of the victims. Many who have lost their lives in the Arizona deserts will never be found.

“It’s like a balloon,” Maryada Vallet, media coordinator for the humanitarian group No More Deaths observed. “Border Patrol squeezes in one place and the migrations routes are pushed to another.”

I told one of the hunters that I am from Phoenix but I currently work in Israel.

“What do you guys hunt over there” he asked.

Another man blurted out, “They could hunt Muslims!”

Only weeks after Craig Hicks murdered execution-style Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan in their Chapel Hill, North Carolina apartment, the hunter’s statement felt particularly chilling.

A surveilance tower is Nogales, Arizona (Photo: Bryan MacCormack with Left In Focus)

A surveilance tower is Nogales, Arizona (Photo: Bryan MacCormack with Left In Focus)

In the expanse of the Sonoran desert that stretches from the north of Mexico into southern Arizona, anti-immigrant fervor has made fertile ground to implement systems to sustain racism and inequality. Technologies that Israeli firms developed to enforce Zionism in Palestine are being imported to the US-Mexico border to sustain the disenfranchisement of Mexican and Central American immigrants whose livelihoods have been wiped out by US neoliberal economic policies and imperial misadventures.

The towers the hunter spoke of are being erected by the Israeli weapons giant Elbit Systems, whose Texas-based subsidiary won a $145 million contract with United States Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection to install a system of “Integrated Fixed Tower systems” in southern Arizona. This is the latest piece of Israeli technology to be imported — the Hermes 450 drone already patrols southern Arizona’s skies. This drone is a major component of Israel’s unmanned arsenal whose destructive capabilities I witnessed last summer in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge which killed 2,319 and injured 11,000 Palestinians.

Over the last two decades, and in particular since 9/11, the United States government has transformed the southern borderlands into migrant killing fields. Often portrayed as an unfortunate consequence of failed border policy, humanitarians on the ground tell a different story.

“The death and suffering that we continue to see today is a direct result of the policy of deterrence by death,” Vallet said. “While Congress can’t agree on legalization for immigrants, killing them at the border has long been a bipartisan effort.”

Indeed, Border Patrol’s policy was written by planning experts from the Department of Defense Center for Low Intensity Conflict (CLIC). The paper recognized the “mortal danger” posed by the environment and that the mountainous desert could be weaponized against migrants as part of a “well-managed border.”

Across the highway from the hunters, a white van operated by G4S — one of the world’s largest private security firms which also operates at Israeli military checkpoints and prisons —  was parked on the shoulder. The van was one of many stationed throughout the desert waiting to be filled with migrants who would be sent to detention centers before being processed in Operation Streamline — what locals call “assembly-line injustice.” Initiated in 2005, Streamline proceedings take place on a daily basis in eight locations across the border region, where several dozen Mexican and Central American migrants take plea bargains to avoid felony charges, landing them 30-180 day sentences — disproportionately the latter.

Streamline is part of Border Patrol’s Orwellian-named deterrence policy: the “Consequence Delivery System.” These prison sentences have failed to convince migrants to abandon plans to enter the US despite Border Patrol’s claims. As Tucson-based journalist and author Todd Miller observed, “Heavy-handed enforcement won’t stop people from coming over the border for much deeper reasons.”

Deterrence is foundational in Israeli policy vis-a-vis Palestinians. The Dahiya Doctrine — named for a Beirut suburb that Israel flattened in 2006 — explicitly demands disportionate force to be wielded against civilian populations and infrastructure as collective punishment for resistance. In Israeli political discourse, accusations of harming deterrence are as commonplace as the catchphrase “secure the border” is in the US.

Though Operation Streamline has failed to deter migrants from entering the US, it has been wildly successful in incarcerating them in order to earn profits for private prisons. Indeed, contractual bed quotas oblige the Arizona Department of Corrections to provide prisoners to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA played a role in crafting model legislation similar to Arizona’s 2010 anti-immigrant SB1070 legislation which mandated that police check immigration status using racial profiling tactics, thereby increasing Arizona’s supply of undocumented migrants to CCA prisons.

I observed Operation Streamline on January 20th, 2015, in a federal courthouse in downtown Tucson, Arizona. Arizona’s second most populous city, Tucson is considered the liberal counterpart to Phoenix, the conservative megalopolis that sprawls over the Salt River Valley as well as Arizona’s political landscape. Though Tucson is thought of as a liberal hub, what happens five days per week in downtown Tucson is a visibly racist affront to justice and human rights.

Inside the Evo DeConcini Federal Courthouse in downtown Tucson, fifty-six men and four women, all from Mexico and Central America, sat gender-segregated on several rows of benches. Their hands had been cuffed with a chain around their waist, feet shackled, and their shoelaces and belts had been confiscated. All but one prisoner wore the clothes in which they had been apprehended — he had been issued a grey prison jumpsuit.

Echoing a long history of anti-immigrant disease hysteria, hand sanitizer and boxes of tissue sat on each courtroom table and a court employee donned blue rubber gloves to sterilize court-provided earphones for language interpretation. A century ago, agents of US Customs, the precursor to the modern-day Customs and Border Protection, used typhus hysteria as pretext to disinfect Mexican day-laborers coming from Juarez to El Paso with gasoline, DDT and Zyklon B — the chemical used to murder a million people in Nazi Germany’s gas chambers.

In the back of the courthouse, federal marshals hovered over me and a group of University of Arizona student observers, making sure that no one recorded the proceedings. Eight at a time, chained migrants sauntered to the front of the courtroom, silent except for the jingle of their shackles. Standing before Magistrate Judge Eric Markovich, the migrants were flanked by additional US marshals as if they presented a physical threat.

In reality, by the time migrants are rounded up in the desert by Border Patrol, they have been traveling for several days or even weeks with only what they have on their backs and are in immediate need of water, a medical check up and clean clothes.

“It’s like picking up a dehydrated and lost hiker in a tank instead of an ambulance,” Vallet remarked to me.

With Border Patrol supplying a large daily haul of migrants to prosecute, the state has resorted to hiring private lawyers, a lucrative business for local attorneys who earn $125 per hour.

In Streamline’s current format, lawyers spend a few minutes meeting with each migrant before the proceedings, strongly advising them — what some migrants have described as pressuring — to accept a plea bargain that gives up their right to appeal. Worse yet, migrants who have been previously deported face felony charges and prison sentences ranging from 2 to 20 years if they are caught in the US again.

The migrants then stand before the judge, with their lawyers behind them — often whispering answers in their ears. The judge recites a script to each migrant before they are whisked away into holding cells inaccessible to the public before being sent to CCA prisons.

Todd Miller told me this is a recent development — they used to be sentenced en masse.

“I’m sorry that I’m mispronouncing your name. I’m mispronouncing most people’s names ” Judge Markovich said, eliciting audible hisses from a group of University of Arizona students observing the proceedings.

I was reminded of my visits to Ofer Prison, the massive Israeli military prison for Palestinians just inside the occupied West Bank. Only a short drive from Tel Aviv’s vegan cafes, Ofer Prison embodies Israeli apartheid — inside these courts, the military convicts Palestinians at a 99.7% rate. Like Tel Aviv, most Tucsonans will never see the kangaroo courts that are a mere formality in these racist systems.

Inside Ofer Prison, I saw Palestinian-American Mariam Barghouti, then 20 years old, go through a similarly farcical process. Barghouti had been translating for me at a West Bank protest when Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint detained us and crafted a lie on the spot claiming that she had thrown rocks during the protest, hitting one of them on the foot. This was enough for Border Police to kidnap Barghouti and imprison her inside Israel — a violation of international law.

When I saw Barghouti in a dilapidated trailer that served as a courtroom in Ofer Prison, she was shackled like the migrants I would see in Tucson. Conflicting testimony from the soldiers and media attention resulted in Barghouti accepting a plea bargain. But her case was an extremely rare exception. Last month, Lina Khattab, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman, had no such luck when she faced the same charges. The Israeli military court refused to release Khattab even on bail, and she now sits in the Israeli Hasharon prison.

Back in the Tucson courthouse, two grueling hours of repetitive proceedings were coming to a close. The last defendants were from indigenous tribes and did not understand Spanish. Unable to find an interpreter, the court couldn’t complete the formalities in order to imprison the two men. In total disregard of the severe reality that pushed them to the US, the judge told them they would be turned over to immigration authorities and returned home.

“For those of you who speak a different dialect, hopefully you understand what I tell you now,” Judge Markovich said.

The men stood silently, unable to understand him.

“It’s very important that you not return illegally to the United States because there is a possibility you could just be charged with a felony and face significant prison time. So please don’t come back to the United States. Gentlemen, best of luck to you.”

Dan Cohen
About Dan Cohen

Dan Cohen is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Palestine. He tweets at @dancohen3000.

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15 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson
    March 20, 2015, 12:19 pm

    RE: “The towers the hunter spoke of are being erected by the Israeli weapons giant Elbit Systems, whose Texas-based subsidiary won a $145 million contract with United States Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection to install a system of “Integrated Fixed Tower systems” in southern Arizona.” ~ Dan Cohen

    TIKUN OLAM (MARCH 19, 2015):

    [EXCERPT] . . . The [leaked] cable notes that the recently appointed chief of El Al security at Oliver Tambo Airport was suspected of being an intelligence agent.

    El Al security officers routinely harass South African travelers at airports. A vice president of the national municipal workers union, traveling to Israel to attend an anti-Occupation conference in the West Bank village of Bilin, was strip-searched, interrogated and detained before his flight departed. He was escorted by Israeli security to his plane one-minute before take-off.

    Besides El Al, the cable notes it is an “internationally-known practice” that Israeli defense companies like Elbit and Israel Aircraft Industries play key roles in assisting the Mossad in its operations in countries where it operates. . .

    SOURCE – http://www.richardsilverstein.com/2015/03/19/south-african-intelligence-cables-expose-mossad-africa-operations/

  2. Bornajoo
    Bornajoo
    March 20, 2015, 2:36 pm

    “The towers the hunter spoke of are being erected by the Israeli weapons giant Elbit Systems, whose Texas-based subsidiary won a $145 million contract with United States Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection to install a system of “Integrated Fixed Tower systems” in southern Arizona. This is the latest piece of Israeli technology to be imported — the Hermes 450 drone already patrols southern Arizona’s skies. This drone is a major component of Israel’s unmanned arsenal whose destructive capabilities I witnessed last summer in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge which killed 2,319 and injured 11,000 Palestinians.”

    The racist policies are horribly similar, the treatment of vulnerable human beings is similar and the devastating and powerful military technology is imported and shared. Yes there’s definitely a very special and unbreakable relationship between these two countries

    Thank you for bringing these facts to our attention Dan Cohen

    And thanks for the link to the Richard Silverstein article JLD!

  3. just
    just
    March 20, 2015, 3:05 pm

    “Those towers are for catching illegals,” one man shouted. “Get ‘em the hell out of here!””
    ———-
    “I told one of the hunters that I am from Phoenix but I currently work in Israel.

    “What do you guys hunt over there” he asked.

    Another man blurted out, “They could hunt Muslims!””

    This is the monstrous result of colonialism~ here and in Israel. As far as I can tell, Sasabe is an Tohono O’odham word. The irony is truly stunning.

    “O’odham (pronounced [ˈʔɔʔɔðɦam]) or Papago-Pima is a Uto-Aztecan language of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, where the Tohono O’odham (formerly called the Papago) and Pima reside. In 2000 there were estimated to be approximately 9,750 speakers in the United States and Mexico combined, although there may be more due to underreporting.

    It is the 10th most-spoken indigenous language in the United States, the 3rd most-spoken indigenous language in Arizona after Apache and Navajo. It is the 3rd most-spoken language in Pinal County and the 4th most-spoken language in Pima County.”
    (wiki)

    I think that you are the most tireless humanitarian that I know of today, Dan Cohen. You see things that others refuse to see, and then you write about them. This piece is in need of mass distribution.

  4. Hostage
    Hostage
    March 21, 2015, 3:19 pm

    Hell yes! This is a great article. I’ve been wanting to see something about these social parallels and corporate connections at Mondo for years. James North and I exchanged a few emails last summer over the subject of the surge of refugee women and children from Central America who were fleeing gang violence. We agreed that situation had its roots in the U.S.-sponsored wars there in the 1980s that economically devastated the countries in the region. The ICJ opinion in Nicaragua vs. the United States held the U.S. accountable for the military aggression and said it was responsible for reparations claims (valued in the hundreds of billions) that remain unpaid to this very day.

    I would only add that there are still untapped subjects for more articles about things like the ironic parallels between Netanyahu’s Iranian security psychosis and Obama’s recent Executive Order which declared Venezuela a “national security threat”; or Obama’s failure to end one of the world’s longest illegal military occupations by closing both the Naval base at Guantanamo and its notorious detention facility in order to (really) normalize relations with Cuba, etc., etc., etc,.

    • OyVey00
      OyVey00
      March 21, 2015, 4:31 pm

      His mass amnesty and de facto abolition of border control wasn’t enough for you?

      • Hostage
        Hostage
        March 21, 2015, 6:54 pm

        His mass amnesty and de facto abolition of border control wasn’t enough for you?

        WTF? Article 2, section 2, clause 1 of the Constitution has always given the President nearly unlimited power to grant reprieves or pardons to anyone for criminal offenses against United States. So there’s no sense in me getting “all worked up about it” when one of them actually does it.

        In any event, there were “Mexicans” living here long before I personally “discovered America” – and they were already here when my ancestors helped setup the first Zionist colony in our State. The part of town where I live today was actually established as a Mexican American community in the 1880s, when the founders were encouraged to emigrate to curtail the labor shortages in mining, agriculture, and the railroads. That remained part of the status quo right up until the 1950s. Many of my childhood friends were either Mexicans themselves or had parents who were. Many more were first generation US citizens. Back then, if someone had told me that I’d live to see the day when our government would start shreying Gevault, as if that was some sort of dire situation, I’d have told them they were crazy. If Presidents Regan, Bush, and Obama in-turn, each resorted to offers of “amnesty”, then there just might be something intrinsically flawed with the idea behind the statute and the need for that type of border control in the first place.

      • OyVey00
        OyVey00
        March 22, 2015, 10:54 pm

        Yep, an amnesty for 6 million illegals? Peanuts!

        I guess some people are only satisfied when the border guard is officially dismantled and the gov declares that every immigrant is welcome.

        Btw if this is bothering you, you should vote GOP in 2016. Tearing down the southern border and flooding the country with cheap workers is one of Jeb Bush’s not-so-secret ambitions.

      • Hostage
        Hostage
        March 23, 2015, 3:35 pm

        Yep, an amnesty for 6 million illegals? Peanuts! … Btw if this is bothering you, you should vote GOP in 2016.

        I’ve already pointed out that, if you don’t like it, you should amend the U.S. Constitution. Presidents from both the Republican and Democrat party have granted similar mass amnesties in the past and each time it happens again the statistical odds against another one get lower and lower.

        I guess some people are only satisfied when the border guard is officially dismantled and the gov declares that every immigrant is welcome.

        Other than the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s, just about every kind of immigrant was welcomed by our government. The plaque on the Statute of Liberty still proclaims it. Until the Quota Acts of the 1920s were adopted very little changed. Those were largely the result of yellow journalism campaigns, just like ones being waged today. They were carried out by the likes of the New York Times beginning in the 1880s. They were directed against various ethnic minority groups, such as the 30 million or so Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Here is an example of one complaining that Jews were unsanitary, stupid, and uncivilized – and that they were spoiling the neighborhood:

        Yet the long-whiskered descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah on the east side gets out of the street without being hit with a stone or having a putrid fish or piece of meat thrown in his face.
        This neighborhood, peopled almost entirely by the people who claim to have been driven from Poland and Russia, is the eyesore of New York, and perhaps the filthiest place on the Western Continent. It is impossible for a Christian to live there, because he will be driven out, either by blows or the dirt and stench.
        Cleanliness is an unknown quantity to these people. They cannot be lifted up to a higher plane because they do not want to be. If the cholera should ever get among these people they would scatter its germs as a sower does grain.

        — Published: July 30, 1893 The New York Times link to query.nytimes.com

        I would be happier if the US would just pay more attention to those borders in the first place when we decide to conduct covert wars in Central America in violation of our international obligations or if we would pay the reparations due to the countries in Central and South America for our illegal interventions there in the past. Our own government’s misdeeds left much of those regions economically and politically devastated and it doesn’t look any better when we Americans blame the victims than it does when the Zionists do it.

      • catalan
        catalan
        March 23, 2015, 3:41 pm

        Our own government’s misdeeds left much of those regions economically and politically devastated – Hostage
        Yup, the reason Venezuelans wait in line for 3 hours to get their quotas of toilet paper and tampons is the evil US. If the genius of Maduro was given full rein we would no doubt cure cancer and solve illiteracy and overpopulation too. Lol.

      • Hostage
        Hostage
        March 24, 2015, 10:39 am

        Yup, the reason Venezuelans wait in line for 3 hours to get their quotas of toilet paper and tampons is the evil US. If the genius of Maduro was given full rein we would no doubt cure cancer and solve illiteracy and overpopulation too. Lol.

        I think you are trying to divert attention away from the real issue I was discussing by being truculent or flippant about the effects of subversive CIA and DoD interventions in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, Nicaragua, & etc. See for example: The U.S., Colombia & the Spread of the Death Squad State http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/05/23/the-u-s-colombia-the-spread-of-the-death-squad-state/ The inhabitants of the region no doubt view things like US trained and subsidized death squads as a bigger issue than standing in line for basic commodities. The US border security measures mentioned in the article above certainly aren’t necessary because there are multitudes of Venezuelan illegals trying to sneak into the USA. While I’m not an enthusiastic supporter of the Chavez or Maduro governments, even the World Bank admits that their redistribution of oil income reduced poverty by 50 percent. The Obama administration claim that Venezuela poses a national security threat to the USA is simply ludicrous and counter-productive. It has been condemned by The Union of South American Nations and foreign affairs experts alike. See for example: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/17/venezuela-advert-new-york-times-obama-national-security-threat

        No matter how bad you claim that things are in Venezuela, there are about a quarter of a million Colombian refugees living there today who obviously think they are better off in Venezuela than living under the conditions the US has helped create for them back home or elsewhere in the region. I suspect that most of the US furor over human rights conditions in Venezuela really stems from the desires of US oil interests and some local industrialists to dictate domestic Venezuelan policies from Washington. The US standard procedure is to act unilaterally in violation of the UN and OAS Charter and to quietly fund both peaceful and violent paramilitary opposition groups. As I noted earlier, the World Court concluded that the US government was guilty of aggression and that it owed the victim states concerned billions in unpaid compensation for its illegal military and paramilitary campaigns. That obviously is no laughing matter.

      • lysias
        lysias
        March 23, 2015, 4:12 pm

        Shortly after that 1893 piece, the New York Times was bought in 1896 by Adolph Ochs, the scion of the Sulzberger family that has owned the paper ever since.

    • catalan
      catalan
      March 24, 2015, 1:26 pm

      @hostage “even the World Bank agrees” …well, I mean, who could argue with THAT? The World Bank, now, that’s a final authority on all matters. Well I guess the Venezuelans did get tired of waiting in line, if we are to believe the latest surveys of Maduro’s rating.
      Nothing like an American lecturing on how waiting in line is no big deal.

      • Hostage
        Hostage
        March 24, 2015, 4:32 pm

        @hostage “even the World Bank agrees” …well, I mean, who could argue with THAT? The World Bank, now, that’s a final authority on all matters.

        Not at all. I was just alluding to the fact that the US Government can’t really take issue with the banks reports, since the other shareholders were faced with the choice of accepting or rejecting the US nominee for President of the Bank during the period in question. China and most of the Asian states and the BRICS countries have plans to jump ship and establish their own banks because the World Bank is viewed as too much of a client of the US government.

        In any event, the bank has reported that poverty dropped from 50.4 per cent in 1998 to 28.5 per cent in 2009 due in large part to redistribution of the country’s oil income. The inequality index went from 0.498 in 1999 to 0.412 in 2008. That’s unparallelled in Latin America. But at the same time, crime and charges of corruption and human rights abuses skyrocketed. Like I said, I’m not an enthusiastic supporter of the Chavez or Maduro governments.

        Nothing like an American lecturing on how waiting in line is no big deal.

        I didn’t mean to belittle your problems. OTOH there is nothing like comparing “waiting in line” for commodities with the aftermath and destruction caused by internecine wars – complete with US trained, equipped, and funded death squads – tens of thousands killed or missing; and hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees – including helpless and unaccompanied children.

  5. Citizen
    Citizen
    March 22, 2015, 4:06 pm

    Are we now drawing an analogy between Palestinians and Mexicans? Aren’t there a few discrepancies? Should we send all Americans back to Europe? Take Texas, and go from there. Thanks.

  6. pabelmont
    pabelmont
    March 24, 2015, 10:03 am

    This article and many comments are most important for information about migrants and what happens to them at the USA border (and the courts that “try” them). Horrible.

    Also horrible is the economic imperialism, the private prisons which have been built with guaranteed (for how long?) quotas whereby either the USA or Arizona guarantees the private prisons a number of prisoners (“beds”?) at what enormous expense we may only guess and at what enormous profits, ditto.

    So the prison industry (another “BIG” in the American oligarchy along with BIG-BANKS, BIG-DEFENSE, BIG-ZION, BIG-OIL, etc.) lobbies to get laws passed to guarantee lots of prisoners for them to imprison, at a wonderful profit part of the surplus of which goes to further lobbying — Duh!

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