San Diego, Border Communities, and Militarization: An Interview with Pedro Rios


Pedro Rios is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program and has been on staff with AFSC for 13 years. He is on the board  of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a coalition of over 35 different organizations in San Diego working to support the rights of immigrants and refugees. He was interviewed by TBI on September 6, 2016 as part of it’s Freedom of Expression Project’s guest editor series.

Pedro Rios

TBI: You are a USD alum; how did your experience here shape your later career with AFSC?
PR: I entered USD as an electrical engineering major, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t a passion of mine. Shortly after that I decided that English was what I wanted to do, and I ended up with an English BA. Several courses in English ended up really being informative for me, one was Literature of the Borderlands, which included an eye-opening set of material that really spoke to my experience.

Eventually I became involved in MEChA (the Chicana/o student organization). Initially, there was a student who kept inviting me to MEChA events, though I really shied away from it and I didn’t want to get involved even though I always considered myself to be politically savvy and I was interested in politics. It wasn’t until my junior year when I really felt that there was a need for collective response to what I saw as an assault on the immigrant community, statewide and nationwide with California’s Proposition 187 initiative.

There had been an incident on campus when I was a freshman that was recorded in the police blotter as “two Mexican men were seen walking on campus, and no crime has been committed as of yet.” My roommate at the time was someone I knew from high school and we said, “that could have been us!” And so incidents such as that, and others that took place around campus, pushed me into thinking that I really needed to connect with other students, and so MEChA at the time became a place of refuge because there weren’t really a lot of people that I knew who shared a similar experience and background at USD. Having grown up in South San Diego and coming from immigrant parents, I really didn’t feel that there was an understanding here on campus, and MEChA provided that community.

So did your experience in student organizing influence you down the road?Definitely, it was a safe place for me. The politics that came out of the Chicano movement to some extent had changed by the mid-1990s but it was still grounded on ideas of self-determination, the ideas that as students of color, as Chicano students, we should have access to higher education. I think that it was a foundational experience for me, and not only at USD but also as I became involved in the MEChA central committee that was comprised of representatives of MEChA from across San Diego county, so it was an opportunity to learn from other students on other campuses who were also having similar experiences.

After graduation, you worked in San Francisco helping seniors retain access to benefits.
Yes, I was there until 2002. 

When you came back from San Francisco, had San Diego changed?
It changed dramatically. Mainly around housing issues. The expansion of Chula Vista from what I remembered, with the incorporation of Eastlake and the housing boom at that time. There were areas of San Diego county that I just could not recognize.

But also I had left shortly after Operation Gatekeeper was implemented, and growing up in high school I would regularly hear of people that were run over as they were trying to cross the 5 freeway. It was a weekly occurrence. So coming back it was much tamer, in terms of what we no longer saw regarding a so-called “migration problem.” But yet returning to San Diego in post-9/11 context it was intense, crossing to Tijuana and coming back, the experiences were intensified because the surveillance had increased. That might have been a generalized feeling because of 9/11, but I think the borderlands took a particular enforcement hit that specifically affected our region.

And that’s one of the big questions I wanted to address: the changes you’ve seen in the community and the region in terms of those issues.
When I returned to San Diego the Border Patrol was conducting what were known as transportation checks. And these were Border Patrol agents getting on the trolley or getting on the bus and asking people for documentation, detaining people.  Up to the point when I joined AFSC, we would get regular calls, we would go out and start documenting, filming the Border Patrol doing this. One of my colleagues was taken down by an agent and he was detained for 24 hours—this was before I started at AFSC and before he was at AFSC. I came down to interview him because along with my regular job in San Francisco, I was also involved in the organizing wing of the group I worked for, and we were establishing what we called no-raid zones, or raid-free zones. There had been significant ICE (at the time, INS) immigration raids in San Mateo County, Redwood City, the City of San Mateo, so we were setting up these zones particularly in those areas. So when I heard about the incident in San Diego I came down and interviewed him about it so as to compare notes to what we had been doing in San Francisco. But when I returned I didn’t realize that I would eventually end up working with him and that he would be a colleague of mine.

So generally, when I came back there was this intensified surveillance in the urban setting, outside of what would have been the immediate border area. Many more agents, than what I had remembered.

And that was sort of a visceral thing, regardless of actual numbers it was something you felt?
Something I felt. I remember my dad going to the local grocery store and someone dressed in civilian clothing went up to him and asked him for his documents. My dad is naturalized—he derived his citizenship because his parents were born in Los Angeles. He was born in Tijuana, because through Operation Wetback, his parents had been repatriated even though they were U.S. citizens, so he and his siblings were born in Tijuana and years later he derived his citizenship from his parents. So my dad still carries his very old actual green-colored document that has a photo of him and says he’s a U.S. citizen… so he pulled that out and showed the agent. So when he later shared that story with me I was outraged, but these were the sorts of enforcement activities that we began documenting that were taking place around the city of San Diego in ways that we had not necessarily seen in the past.

Sounds like harassment…
Harassment, and I think also in many ways it was a testing ground for policies and practices, because what we found was that following the conclusion of their training in New Mexico, Border Patrol agents were sent out and they would be placed in these scenarios of questioning people—a lot of the agents involved in transportation checks were new agents, rookies, very new to the job and it appeared to us that they were putting them out in the field to get their feet wet in that sort of dragnet type operation.

That seems to me to be a strategy to normalize, to naturalize that sort of style of aggressive enforcement. To socialize new agents into it.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. And there were a lot of people that were questioned, a lot of people that were detained, and they stopped for a while, then they continued again. I think they resumed the pattern around 2005, supposedly because the Border Patrol had received intelligence that there was going to be an attack. There had been a bombing in Madrid (the ETA attack) and so they apparently had information that something similar would happen here, and we essentially were able to call them out on it, because they didn’t have any information and they were using it as an excuse to continue that type of enforcement operations. Later they stopped generalized transportation checks but they do still continue to a degree, they do them on the Amtrak, at larger transportation nodes, but not as random as what we saw in the early 2000s.

And you think that reduction is in response to community pressure?
I do. There was an incident around 2009 where they included TSA and the local police at the Old Town trolley station and they detained around 22 people, three of whom were minors on their way to school, and the minors were deported without any real consultation from the Mexican government. So we launched a campaign, it was a 30-day campaign, and we were able to bring the (minors) back, and they were processed as though they had never been detained.

So occasionally they will start up again, but because of the community response they tend to not have a lot of success.

Which brings up another question regarding your (AFSC’s) relationship with the Border Patrol, because it’s obviously somewhat an adversarial one, but I have to think there’s more nuance than that.
Sure, I think at first glance it would appear to be an adversarial relationship… the relationship we have is complex, because we interact with the local sector as well as with national representatives of the agency… we have an established communication and dialogue process that includes NGOs from throughout the country, and our goal is not for it to be an adversarial relationship, our goal is for it to be a relationship that assumes a respectful dialogue process where we can communicate, and arrive at solutions that best respond to the needs of affected community members. We certainly take issue with troubling enforcement tactics that Border Patrol agents use.  We are concerned about lack of oversight and transparency, that serious incidents leading to the loss of life have not been adequately addressed… And we are concerned about how a militarized Border Patrol impacts the quality of life of people living in the borderlands and elsewhere. What I can say is that there has been an evolution of engagement over the past 10 years, and it’s a give and take that’s not easy to navigate… but in this give and take we don’t compromise our principles in seeking justice for our communities while we push for transparency and accountability. Because we address this directly, there is a tendency to mischaracterize our relationship as adversarial on its face value precisely because we challenge an operating power structure that is accustomed to impunity.

What would you identify as the biggest obstacle to change on these issues?
I would say a couple of things. One is that it almost feels that we are running out of time to get to a place where we can get the changes that need to be made. What I mean by that is it seems that police forces have been on a track to militarize so that militarization is normalized  and to the extent where the general public stops questioning its normalization. And that to me is dangerous and it really scares me. As our society has moved on to a much more digital age—and the rate of change is so fast, from ten years ago to today, and imagining ten years into the future–and so you know this discussion that CBP agents could potentially go into your social media feed and see what you’re putting up… there’s a very thin line that I feel that we are almost at the point of crossing. It feels that we’re at a breaking point between the protection of civil liberties and the encroachment of a hypersecurity state. And I don’t know if we’ve had enough discussion within the greater U.S. body politic around what that really means, and there’s almost an acquiescence… and that’s really frightening to me. So I think that’s a big threat to having meaningful change on these issues.

The other threat, on the community level, is that fear still prevents people from becoming active—whether that be a mother who is able to advocate for library books at her child’s school or a person who is a legal permanent resident and doesn’t want to become a U.S. citizen because they fear that an incident that happened with law enforcement 20 years earlier might land them in deportation proceedings. So fear is a tremendous obstacle that prevents people from actually living out their full potential as citizens—defined in the broader sense of political participation, not in the legal definition—prevents them from being able to assert their right to place, from asserting their human dignity in the face of an onslaught of so much nastiness in today’s political world.

What is your relationship with community groups? How do you work with those groups to address that fear?
One of our areas of work is basebuilding, and how we do that is through the idea that people have the capacity to become their own leaders, and that leadership needs to develop through a collective understanding and a collective education and a collective space. So in the context of these groups we provide participants with a 20-hour training that includes the basic question of who am I—contextualizing them within the current situation—and how did I get to be here and in this place, where does my story fit—and most have a migration story that they are able to share and there’s a sense of community that’s built around that sharing.

Then we look at what are our rights and responsibilities are in this country—looking at U.S. history of migration, looking at the bill of rights—then we move on to what are human rights, what’s human dignity, what’s your responsibility to that. And then much more practical tools—how do you document problems, what is the purpose of documentation, how does that affirm your own human dignity and how do you do that—and finally organizing, demystifying organizing so that they’re able to move beyond that fear factor and become active in whatever that might mean for them.

We’ve had some people that have gone through these trainings that have leadership positions now, there is a person in Escondido who ran for city council, we’ve had people who work in unions who are now part of teams that are helping others, helping janitors—helping those who represent what their parents might have done as work to put food on their tables. So it’s great to see examples of how they’re able to defeat that fear that used to hold them back.

It makes me think that AFSCs’ approach is unique to this…
I would say that is it is one approach in terms of how we do organizing… obviously there are other models of organizing. It was originally adapted from the Zapatista model, adapted to the border community—we used to have close relationship with an organization out of El Paso, and we essentially used the Zapatista model they had developed and created our own for the purpose of border communities. So in that sense, maybe it is unique, but it is one of many different models that exist to activate people.

In working with border communities, how can we broaden the dialogue – how do we talk across the divide on very contentious issues like immigration?
My experience with that is that most people are willing to have a conversation, and I think that there’s a small bloc of people that just have made up their mind and will not engage that conversation in an honest way, and we’ve had the experience of dealing with that. We made a documentary called Rights on the Line that focused on the Minutemen, and two members of my advisory committee at the time, both Quakers, decided to screen the film at different venues, and as the invitations were going out there were people affiliated with the Minutemen who were going to the screenings and confronting the Quakers, and they were really not allowing for any real conversation and dialogue to take place. And I think that is key, that we sustain a dialogue process where the parties involved are genuinely committed to getting something out of it for the benefit of the entire group.

I think that is where we certainly have some possibilities for bridging that divide and in creating modes of communication. That certainly has helped us with CBP for instance.

So that’s certainly important.

Within AFSC we have often discussed how, when members of Congress or policymakers are discussing immigration reform, that there really hasn’t been a sustained consultation process with border communities and that’s why it’s easy for them to always include a Title One that’s border security in their bills, and a lot of times some of our allies will be quick to accept it because they don’t understand the border reality; things like wanting to double the number of Border Patrol agents without wanting to understand the implications of what that means to communities that are bearing the brunt of that militarization. So unless we are engaged in a sustained dialogue process with investment and commitment that’s honest and genuine we won’t get to that point of building bridges

So this topic of militarization keeps coming up, can you describe the practice of non-violence and how that works in this militarized border space?
We have to continue to speak truth to power, which is a phrase that AFSC uses and borrows from the Quakers and I’m sure the Quakers borrowed it from someone else. If we don’t speak truth to power, then we’re letting the militarization process take place without questioning it. We need to be consistent with our messaging and not let go of the idea that peace with justice can resolve the issues. That’s definitely a difficult conversation to have.  When we look at the borderlands and how the militarization process has taken place—and I don’t use militarization to just mean a process where something is militarized, there are concrete examples of how this has occurred  going back to the 70s and 80s with IRCA (the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act) at the time and allowing the us military to engage in interdiction programs along the border—there are concrete examples of what that means.

I think that one of the ways to do it, to really have a peace with justice approach is to engage those who are most affected by the militarization. And that’s why we root our work back on base-building and having conversations with people who are most affected, having people speak for themselves on what their lived experience is, rather than having talking heads define it for them. In our work we try to revert the concept of leader by focusing on the community. And going back to the Zapatistas the concept that we use is that a leader is really someone who leads by following, mandar obedeciendo, that’s really a concept that comes out of the Zapatista movement. And we certainly have adopted that when we talk about what the principles are of good leadership within the trainings that we offer.

What does peace on the border look like?
I think first you have to begin demilitarizing communities.

But beyond that, peace would begin with a process of recognizing that there has been a wrong, recognizing that there is a wrong that has yet to be acknowledged. I think that the fact that we have hundreds of people dying along the border on a yearly basis without any recognition from our policy makers is shameful. We know that there has been some effort by some border representatives, from (Raul) Grijalva from Arizona and more recently from (Juan) Vargas from San Diego. There are people who have been more outspoken on this issue, but when policy makers are quick to adopt Title One border enforcement as a starting point there isn’t a real significant recognition that a humanitarian crisis exists along the border. So one, acknowledgement and recognition. And then peace with justice I would say we can’t have justice if there isn’t a process of healing. So if I look at some of the families that we’ve worked with, Anastasio (Rojas)’s family, they’ve become their own spokespersons on the issue of families that have lost a loved one to CBP violence. And how they define justice is not only about determining who was responsible for Anastasio’s death, but about how we heal as people. So how do we get to a place where we collectively heal as a people who have been bearing the brunt of these terrible policies? Within the larger pro-immigration movement there is now a greater adoption of that viewpoint that comes from the border communities themselves.

And I think that the border manifests itself in many different ways, and it is not only in the region where the physical border exists, but in every ICE raid where someone is detained and deported the border is there, because we know that individual will be sent across the border to another country. So the border is represented in many ways, symbolically and tangibly, and it’s not just the border wall that people are quick to point to, but what it carries as a symbol is very tragic.

But there’s a little bit of hope there, as well, and I see that too. On the weekends at Friendship Park—I mean, it’s sad, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, when you have a 10-year-old from Michigan who came all the way from Michigan to see his grandmother from Michoacán on the other side of the fence and she has terminal cancer and that’s probably the only and last time he’s going to see her alive, through that border fence… So that’s what the border represents and it’s represented through all these border raids, so you can’t have peace without justice and justice can’t happen without a collective healing. And I’m not sure how to begin that healing, but I know it begins with acknowledging that a wrong has happened.

What do you want people to know, what can people do?
The most important thing is for people to get involved in ways that make sense for them. For some people that might be making a donation to their local organization that is doing work for others, it might be contacting their members of Congress and pushing for a certain piece of legislation or against a certain piece of legislation. For others it might be getting their hands dirty, volunteering and getting involved in an organization. It seems that we’re always in a crisis mode, and this past year the crisis mode is much more elevated and what we have coming in the next year, whoever gets elected, doesn’t bode well for me especially if people aren’t involved and actively participating. So if people are involved, that is where I think we will see positive and meaningful changes taking place.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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