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Withholding Money, Sending Muscle Instead

Trump tried to get away with mobster-style extortion in Ukraine. He's trying to get away with it here.

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Editor’s Note: This piece is in response to a call from the editors of DigBoston in their editorial of a couple weeks ago, Editorial: Resist Ice & Border Patrol Immigration Raids,” for news publications to stand up to the growing elements of fascism both in the White House and in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. We encourage our readers to read that excellent editorial penned by Jason Pramas, and to look at Dig Boston’s and our piece as a journalistic front line in the fight to preserve democracy.

What happens when the president of the United States withholds millions of dollars in aid from a government until they agree to do his evil bidding? He gets impeached, right? Depends. If we’re talking about the governments of seven states, plus New York City, that have enacted “sanctuary” policies, not so much.

On Wednesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan ruled that the Trump administration can shut the spigot on the flow of Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) unless cities and states comply with conditions set by the U.S. Attorney General.

In 2017 New York City, New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington joined to sue the administration for then Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ requirement that city and state recipients of the grants cooperate with surveillance and deportation activities against undocumented immigrants. 

In 2018, Judge Edgardo Ramos of Federal District Court in Manhattan sided with the plaintiffs by asserting that the Trump administration lacked “lawful authority” to require such compliance in exchange for  JAG grant awards. Two other appeals courts since 2018 have concurred with Ramos’ decision.

This week’s ruling, however, upends prior understanding of the constitutional rights of states in determining whether and how much authority city and state governments have to control their own law enforcement systems. Writing in the court’s opinion Judge, Reena Raggi noted, “Repeatedly and throughout its pronouncement of Byrne Program statutory requirements, Congress makes clear that a grant applicant demonstrates qualification by satisfying statutory requirements in such form and according to such rules as the Attorney General establishes.” Raggi, a George W. Bush appointee, continued, “This confers considerable authority on the Attorney General.”

And, as if to underscore just how much power the Trump administration holds over those who would defy its reign of terror against immigrant communities, in February the president sent U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Units (BORTAC), essentially the urban warfare division of Border Patrol, into sanctuary cities to back up Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in sweeping, mass arrests of undocumented individuals and families. The BORTAC units are scheduled to roll into sanctuary cities in their armored vehicles all Spring, ratcheting up fear and the militarization of America’s neighborhoods.

Although the Department of Justice claims that Sanctuary City policies make the country’s streets more dangerous, the reality is that undocumented immigrants are treated like any other person charged with a crime. The main function of sanctuary city policies is to prevent local law enforcement from being turned into de facto ICE agents. If the only thing a person is guilty of is unlawful entry into the United States (a civil infraction, not a criminal offense), then no local resources will be expended to  arrest, detain, or transport the person into ICE custody. An undocumented immigrant charged with crime will get no special protections whatsoever against prosecution.

So, there are a lot of angles to this issue, but I think focusing on money and ethnic cleansing are probably most useful.

How much money does Massachusetts stand to lose in Department of Justice grants if we stand our ground against egregious federal overreach? That depends. If we are talking solely about JAG awards, not much — $4,844,965 seems to be the 2019 total. But here’s the catch: if the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling stands, that could set a terrifying precedent that might embolden this rogue administration to start shutting the faucet off on other federal cash pipelines as well. Adding up ALL the 85 DoJ grants awarded to the Commonwealth in 2019, we’re looking at $100,077,448.00. And that’s a bit more cabbage.

Cutting off all DoJ federal funding would be a death stroke to programs of all kinds, from youth job training to services for victims of human trafficking to opioid research and response initiatives. Going down the list of grants, a few of them have at least the whiff of pork barrel spending, but in the main, these grants seem genuinely to support meaningful work in justice offices and law enforcement  agencies all over the Massachusetts (though Berkshire County gets a pittance compared to Eastern Mass, but what else is new, right?) And while there has been no mention of a threat to grant programs beyond the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, it’s kind of hard not to paint by numbers and get a picture of Trump’s next plays if he doesn’t get his way. In adjacent line items, the City of Springfield, Mass. Received $132,119 in an “Equipment and Technology Upgrade” grant through JAG, and then a $1,122,000 grant for the city’s body-worn camera program.

While I’m sure that Trump would enjoy withholding $132K from Springfield, I bet he’d be positively gleeful in making that city suffer to the tune of $1.1 million. The two grants appear to be connected, so it’s hard not to envision the other shoe dropping if the administration gets away with what is clearly an infringement on states’ rights. And once the administration starts to subject cities and states to that kind of shakedown, we’ll start to see who’s who among the allies of the immigrant community. Politicians are going to have to choose between having spines or easy money. Because withholding aid is a form economic sanctions, and sanctions are really just financial warfare, and real people really do suffer when extortionists have nearly unlimited power — especially against their own citizens.

The government says it’s just enforcing the law. Justice coming out of the Trump administration is far from blind, however. The regime condoned the brutal treatment of Native American oil pipeline protesters at Standing Rock, yet pardoned the Bundy family who, with their gang of heavily armed followers, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for over a month. It refused to counter the right-wing narrative that the Black Lives Matter movement was a terrorist organization, but went on to pardon U.S. military personnel who were convicted of slaughtering innocent Iraqi and Afghani civilians.

And this administration has shown, time and again, that its true intention is to make policies affecting immigrants and people of color so insufferably cruel that they will “self-deport.” Whether referring to homelands of immigrants from developing nations as “shit-hole countries” or throwing rolls of paper towels to victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico or ramming through a Muslim ban to deny U.S. entry to residents of seven muslim-majority countries, Trump has demonstrated his contempt for, and probable hatred of, people of color. And while we all suspected that White House adviser Stephen Miller was a racist, it wasn’t until recently that we learned just how well he fit into the category of the “very fine people” on one side of the split between progressive inclusiveness and genocidal, torch-carrying neo-Nazis.

In December, a series of e-mails delivered in two separate troves, one to Rolling Stone and one to the Southern Poverty Law Center, surfaced showing irrefutable evidence of Miller’s collusion with alt-right publications and hate groups. The e-mails contained correspondence from Miller pushing an agenda of eugenics, white nationalist paranoid conspiracy theories of white genocide, and the desire that immigrants from the developing world should be portrayed in the press as criminals.

If we only had to worry about just one whack-job racist in office, it might simply be a matter of riding it out and waiting for the nightmare to end, and then reversing his discriminatory policies. Unfortunately, Miller’s seething animosity towards black and brown people is just the surfacing of a white supremacist cancer that has been growing in government and law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels for decades. That we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg ascending in the White House in the form of senior creepster Miller’s shiny pate should fill anyone with an ounce of humanity with real foreboding.

It means that white supremacists are already in place in key positions all over government to carry out an accelerated program of American ethic cleansing. Across the country, police officers are being outed for white supremacist behavior, either overt or covert. Some cops are so bold as to wear teeshirts in public showing off their white nationalistic connections; others are being doxxed after violently racist comments on Facebook or in text message groups find their way into unanticipated inboxes. Still other police officers are becoming masters of the practice of “Ghost Skin,” of giving no outside indication of extreme right wing, white supremacist views, but working secretly to recruit racists and neo-Nazis onto police forces and organizing them into shadow units of a decentralized fascist army.

When an unarmed Black or Latino is gunned down by a police officer who felt inexplicably threatened by skin pigmentation, the media narrative has, almost without fail, focused immediately on how the slain person of color was either responsible for his or her own death due to their actions (which may include complying with an officer’s every command), or how the lifestyle the person led was bound to find them in an early grave one way or another anyway. The talking heads on the evening news will breathlessly draw the most tenuous connection from the deceased to rumored criminal activities or groups, but the emphasis NEVER includes a line of questioning into whether or not the police officers involved may have have ties to white supremacist organizations. 

And this really fucking matters when the country is facing an “Epidemic Of White Supremacist Police.”

The public’s collective silent yawn, even now as some in the media are beginning to finally confront the issue of the blue lynch mob masquerading as peace officers might explain why “We Are Being Eaten From Within.” Why America Is Losing the Battle Against White Nationalist Terrorism. 

Because these thugs aren’t just riding around in cruisers in urban neighborhoods looking for gangsters. They’re in all types of communities and all types of professions within law enforcement and justice, including prison guards and senior-level positions at ICE detention centers. As reported by VICE in early January, thirty-one year old Travis Frey wrote for the neo-Nazi site Iron March, which employed as a captain at the Nevada Southern Detention Center, run by private prison corporation CoreCivic and contracted with ICE. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement more or less washed the agency’s hands of the scandal by telling VICE that the “incident in question does not involve a federal employee.” Presumably, the agency holds the same cavalier attitude about the couple hundred or so allegations of adult staff members sexually assaulting immigrant children among the 4,500-plus allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment that ICE has faced since 2014. The agency states that it is “committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe and humane environments and under appropriate conditions.” Even after the Berks Family Residential Center, run in partnership with ICE, attempted to shield itself from legal consequences of reported sexual assault by staff, claiming the detainee “consented” to the abuse, a spokesperson for the agency claimed that reports of abuse at the facility “are unequivocally false.” 

It is hard to conceive of such staggering, horrific atrocities committed against a population of families of white asylum seekers without wrathful public backlash.

And now we’ve come full circle back to ICE and raids in the immigrant community. The Greylock Glass’s colleagues at DigBoston truly have front-row seats to the fascism carried out in our names since Boston is a designated sanctuary city. Here in the Berkshires, despite some welcoming language in resolutions passed in North Adams and Great Barrington, not a single municipality has mustered up the cannon balls to officially become a sanctuary city. Outside of city and town government, both attempts in the Berkshires to establish sanctuary residences in churches, one in Pittsfield and one in Williamstown, were met with internal, NIMBY opposition that torpedoed any chance of creating a living space refuge for desperate, frightened immigrant families.

I have no reason to think that any particular police officer in the Berkshires aligns him or herself with white supremacists, but we’d be naive to think that racism isn’t flourishing in the county. We’d be more naive to think that some elected officials don’t hold viewpoints that paint the immigrant community with a broad brush of condemnation. In 2016, when North Adams was discussing designating the city as a “safe and inclusive community,” the Berkshire Eagle reported that City Councilor Robert Moulton, Jr. complained that “there are illegal immigrants in the country and about which ‘nothing is being done,’” despite President Obama’s record of deporting as many as five million undocumented immigrants, earning him the title of “Deporter-in-Chief.”

According to the Eagle’s Adam Shanks, Moulton promoted the lie that, “That’s where getting people who are immigrants who are felons…I take it from this that you’re kind of protecting them, we’re going to accept them.” 

Moulton also registered his opposition to the resolution’s inclusion of Muslims and Jew as deserving of special protections by arguing, falsely, that Christians are “the most persecuted religious group in the country.”

The Berkshire Eagle gets points for running pieces calling out public officials, such as John Seven’s powerful and spot-on commentary. Unfortunately, this same local paper of record made the bizarre decision to publish an open letter by Pittsfield resident Jeffrey M. Costa to, of all people, the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, entitled “Sanctuary city is a haven for murderers.” I imagine that the editorial decision to run this piece of shit mostly centered on the clickbait quotient, but have to wonder if a certain strain of anti-immigrant sentiment was at play there, too.

So what’s to be done, here, at the local level when we don’t even have an actual sanctuary city in our fair, fair county? I echo Jason Pramas’ suggestion that if you see an ICE action against immigrants going down, choose your response carefully. These are heavily armed commandoes who are likely tense as a spring during these operations. Interfering in any way could end up with you in jail. You could end up in the morgue, too, if things went really far south. You will have to assess the situation and assess what you’re willing to sacrifice to live up to your ideals.

But you do NOT have to wait for ICE activity in your city or town to get active. The reason that I spent so much time on the economics of extortion being levied by the Trump regime is give you the ammo to fight back. Our elected officials need to hear that we know that “Freedom is not Free.” They need to hear it from us that YES, we know there’s some Department of Justice money on the line. We KNOW that some programs will not be able to run at full strength without federal grants. They need to be assured that WE’RE OKAY with making up for those resources in other ways.

The Trump/Miller tactic against Sanctuary Cities is exactly the same sleazy mobster shit that he tried against Ukraine — You want the money? You’re going to do me a favor. But It’s not Breitbart’s or the the white supremacist group du jour’s money he’s trying to withhold. This is OUR money meant to be used in OUR communities. Contact your elected officials to let them you know you expect them to uphold the protections for immigrants that the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts’ voters support.

And be loud online. TAG your elected officials when you post your rage and fury about Trump’s unconstitutional shakedown — leave no room for doubt that you’re watching to see whether they stand strong or whether they buckle under pressure. When you get pushback from people who ask why they should risk having to pay a couple bucks more a year to make up the difference? Well, you get as creative as you like with that one, but ask them in return how they’ll feel spending that couple of bucks knowing that they’re likely buying a ticket back to a life of sex slavery, drug exploitation, or death for a woman or girl, since that’s a huge portion of those immigrants who get caught.

Lastly, share this article. Let’s make an editoral ring around the most vulnerable among us.

Thank you.

Jason Velázquez

Editor, The Greylock Glass

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