Congress has agreed to a temporary funding measure to end the government shutdown, but there is still no guarantee for bipartisan immigration reform. Native American activist Bill Means discussed the issue of humane reform with Dennis J. Bernstein.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
Following a brief government shutdown over the weekend, House Democrats conceded to fund the government until February 8. The deal came after congressional Republicans agreed to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Programs for six years and promised a discussion on DACA. But many viewed this concession as a betrayal by the Democrats, who have not been guaranteed any reasonable action on immigration reform in return for re-opening the government.
In the following freewheeling discussion, I spoke with Bill Means about the quest for truly humane immigration reform in the context of the current Trump crackdown on so-called illegal aliens. Means also addressed the nature of immigration and forced migration as a result of highly destructive U.S. free trade policies.
We also discussed the recent decision by a federal court to dismiss charges against renegade ranchers in Nevada, while still holding under lock and key protesters who stood bravely against the pipeline at Standing Rock.
Bill Means is co-founder of the American Indian Movement and also sits on the board of the International Indian Treaty Council. I spoke to Means on January 23rd, 2018.
Dennis Bernstein: We have now seen the weak-kneed, spineless Democrats take a half-assed stand and capitulate to the Republicans, and we find ourselves again at the mercy of right-wing extremists in terms of so-called immigration reform.
Bill Means: Real immigration reform is being opposed by all these white males, all of whom were immigrants as little as two or three generations ago. They act as if they were indigenous peoples themselves!
It is disgraceful that we are treating in this manner people who are contributing greatly to the well-being of American society at all levels. It is pretty audacious for this Congress to make deals on behalf of the so-called immigrants.
We call them “migrants” because they have a right to be here as our friends and relatives to the south. Most of these people are Indian descendants. They probably have more Indian blood than a lot of Indians alive today in America.
It used to be that if you had one-quarter Indian blood you were an Indian, according to the U.S. government. A lot of these people should be allowed in based on their Indian heritage, if nothing else, or there should be some sort of path to citizenship for them. There has been some talk among tribal governments giving amnesty to these migrants on their reservations so that they wouldn’t have to leave the country and could seek, in this way, a path to citizenship.
DB: Let’s talk about this concept of “border security.” We know that there are many tribes that live on both sides of the border who are being devastated by these border policies. We are hearing that we can’t have a deal without there being a wall.
BM: There has been a wall for many years, a partial one. In some parts there are mountains and canyons that would make a wall almost impossible to erect. But a wall was something that was tried in Berlin, has been tried in Palestine. All it does is divide people from their relatives.
In the south of Arizona and New Mexico we have about twelve tribes living on or near the border. Their people travel back and forth every day, either for employment or for social services like medical care. Many of these people are already known by border control and the department of immigration. This wall has been going up for many years.
We had a conference in Arizona in 2004 and at that time the border was still open, at least in the Indian areas. Then came law enforcement of all kinds: border patrol, U.S. marshals, FBI, National Guard. They all moved in to predominantly Indian territory and began to set up their operations, disrupting the everyday life of our communities and desecrating many of our sacred sites.
We have seen a diminishment of many of the rights that people had prior to this wall going up. The human rights of these Indian people are being violated, whether they consider themselves Indian or not. They still have the right to migrate to other countries.
When the Europeans were coming, they had signs all over Europe which said, “Free land! Come to America! Be part of the Homesteading!” But they didn’t mention that this was already Indian land. Now that they are here, they look on Hispanic people as aliens, as a detriment to American society.
They have built prisons to hold the children of immigrants once they have separated them from their parents. And all of these human rights violations are documented by sanctuary groups as well as the Indian tribes directly affected by this military occupation on the U.S./Mexico border.
DB: Our vice president is right now in Jerusalem congratulating Netanyahu on plans to move the U.S. embassy there. For the Palestinians, it is like an endgame in the nature of ethnic cleansing. It seems to parallel the government policy toward indigenous communities in the United States.
BM: We have always been allies with the Palestinian people. The Palestinian is the Indian, and vice versa. We have a common history in terms of the human rights violations, the robbing of our lands when they are protected by various treaties and agreements and human rights standards. In Palestine, people can be uprooted at any time, even though they have lived there for generations! It is very close to the Indian struggle, which continues today.
DB: It was no surprise that one of Trump’s first actions after taking office was to try to remove the opposition at Standing Rock and open up the pipelines, endangering the sources of water.
BM: “Water is life” has become an international cry. You cannot drink oil. Now people figure that even if the water is polluted they can go to Walmart and pick up a case of bottled water. Well, soon it will all be polluted by petroleum and there is no filtering that out.
Oil pipelines are running rampant. In financial periodicals they are talking about investing in petroleum pipelines instead of investing in oil development. There are thousands of new permits being issued in every state.
And it is the oil executives who are making the decisions on behalf of the government. They are on a full-scale operation to exploit every mineral they can. They have even begun to open up protected lands and monuments. But when they start to endanger the water, it is time for all people to come together in opposition.
You have to understand that all pipelines leak eventually. It is unnatural to put a pipe in the ground and expect it to last. Mother Earth is moving all the time. When oil leaks, it doesn’t go anywhere but into the earth and then into the water. You cannot do any recovery for water pollution by oil.
They say modern technology can provide warnings, but it never does. We just experienced a huge spill in northeast South Dakota that they claimed at first was 200,000 barrels but which turned out to be 800,000 barrels. And they spilled before anyone knew it, until a farmer discovered a lake of oil in his field.
These modern technologies are a myth. There is no way to protect the environment, especially when it comes to water.
DB: We just saw that the “vigilantes” who destroyed indigenous, so-called government property and took over buildings have now been set free by a federal judge, whereas there are still resisters at Standing Rock in jail facing time.
BM: There has always been a dual standard of justice in this country. When these armed cowboys took over a national park in the Northwest, [they were acquitted of the charges]. When we, on the other hand, act peacefully at Standing Rock, we had over 500 charged with various felonies. Some were charged with a felony for even traveling to Standing Rock!
This is an absolute violation of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed at the United Nations by President Obama in 2007. These standards have been set but no one is following them. American law treats Indians and protesters one way and white people another way. The dual standard of justice is alive and well in the US courts.
DB: Speaking of justice, in Arizona we have the pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio now running for public office.
BM: That is about standard operating procedure in this country. Here is a guy who violated a federal judge’s court order, told him to go to hell publicly. He would have been jailed because of his attitude, his violation of the law and his refusal to accept responsibility. The president pardons him and now he has the audacity to run for public office. And he may be elected, because Arizona has been a racist state for many years.
The reason Arpaio was able to get reelected time after time is that he represented a racist standard not only against migrants but also against American Indians. The state of Arizona has the largest Indian population in America. He went on violating the human rights of these populations and no one did anything about it. This is the standard of human rights in America.
DB: We are now seeing expanded raids and mayors in sanctuary cities under threat of arrest. Do you think they will be coming on to reservations to arrest people?
BM: I am sure that if the opportunity arises they won’t hesitate to, although they may find themselves in their own courts, because we have a legal relationship with the United States that no one else has. We have a certain sovereignty whereby we can invite people in and allow them to live in our territory. It will involve complicated legal maneuvering for the immigration people to enter our reservations. No doubt they will try but we will fight them all the way in the courts and there will be public resistance.
DB: Would you like to give a shout out to Leonard Peltier, the longest serving political prisoner in the United States?
BM: Leonard has been in prison for over 41 years now. We are trying to get him moved closer to home where he can get more visitors. They have taken him as far as possible from his home in North Dakota to Florida, so that his relatives and supporters and advisers have to travel all that way and pay all the expenses just to provide him with the access to the legal system that every prisoner is entitled to.