by Heather John Fogarty
This continues our series highlighting women whose work and activism are helping immigrants caught in the dragnet of our country's immigration system.
Emily Claire Goldman is an international human rights lawyer and founder of ESG Transparency Initiative, a nonprofit whose flagship campaign, Educators for Migrant Justice, seeks to end family separation and migrant abuse profiteering.
Heather John Fogarty: What led you to create Educators for Migrant Justice?
Emily Claire Goldman: Last spring when the Trump administration’s family separation policy and all of the information started coming to light about the companies that were profiting from these human rights violations, I began looking for pressure points to hold these companies accountable. As an international human rights lawyer focused on corporate accountability, one of my areas of expertise is following the money and looking for opportunities to exert leverage to improve human rights conditions. After looking into the investors behind the companies aiding and abetting in the Trump administration’s crimes against humanity, I identified public state pension funds as the most strategic pressure point and [in June 2018] I launched the Educators for Migrant Justice campaign to push public state pension funds to divest from the for-profit prison companies that have played a critical role in the human rights abuses of migrants.
HJF: What direct impact can divestment have on human rights conditions?
ECG: Divestment ultimately affects a company’s bottom line and its overall ability to operate as a result. That’s because divestment can lower a company’s stock price, making it more difficult for it to access loans, repay debt, and expand. Without that financial support from investors, for-profit prison companies can’t continue operating facilities where migrants and other detainees are subjected to horrific conditions. Because the increased detention capacity provided by these companies has been critical to the administration’s ability to commit egregious human rights violations against migrants, pulling that financial support can stem these abuses. Financial complicity in crimes against humanity is not something anyone wants to support in any way—legally, ethically or morally. We want our money to align with our values. Human rights abuses are inherent to the for-profit prison business model and no amount of pressure from investors can force these companies to change; if we don’t want to contribute to these abuses, divestment is the only acceptable course of action.
HJF: Some of these for-profit prison companies, like CoreCivic and GEO Group, list revenues in the billions. How does a grassroots movement take on companies of this size?
ECG: The lack of transparency in the world of finance is the biggest impediment to holding companies and their investors accountable, so raising awareness amongst pension fund members has been really key. Once people learn that their hard-earned retirement money is being used to prop up these companies and the larger migrant abuse crisis, they want to take action. We started working with members of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), the second largest pension fund in the country, and the largest educator-only pension fund in the world. After we successfully pushed CalSTRS to divest in November 2018, we turned our attention to CalSTRS’ sister fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)—the largest pension fund in the US. These two funds are recognized leaders in responsible investing and set the standard that other pension funds and institutional investors around the world follow.
HJF: You were successful in pushing CalSTRS to remove CoreCivic and the GEO Group from its holdings in just five months. How did the campaign gain momentum so quickly?
ECG: The campaign gained a lot of momentum in a short period of time for a couple reasons. For one, I launched it at the height of family separation when the issue was at the forefront of everyone’s minds and people really wanted to take action but didn’t know how; the campaign offered people a simple and powerful way to effectuate change. The rest of it really came down to the sheer passion, power, and dedication of CalSTRS members themselves. They made their voices heard. From the beginning, the strategy involved building a grassroots community from the ground up. There were a handful of educators in the Bay Area who played a critical role in raising awareness about their pension fund’s investments in the migrant abuse companies and mobilizing colleagues to build that bottom-up pressure. I’m not a CalSTRS member. I’m here to provide the research, insight, and strategy advice, but ultimately it’s the pension members whose voices matter most to the board. The fact that it only took five months for CalSTRS to divest from CoreCivic and GEO Group is unprecedented and really a testament to the power of grassroots activism by rank and file union members.
HJF: What’s next for Educators for Migrant Freedom?
ECG: Since our historic victory with CalSTRS, we’ve been working with CalPERS members, who have been protesting at board meetings since December 2018 and we’re not letting up the pressure. We’ll be addressing CalPERS’ board at their next meeting on September 16th in Sacramento to urge immediate divestment from GEO Group and CoreCivic. Our primary focus is on having members—from firefighters to public defenders to Cal State University staff—speak out at the meetings or stand with us in solidarity and show support. We have built a lot of support internally, and having members directly address the board reminds CalPERS that their members care enough to show up and raise their voices, and that we are going to be watching until the board sees this through.
HJF: During the November CalSTRS meeting was there a particularly memorable moment or member addressing the board that tipped the needle? It was such a momentous win—what argument had the biggest impact?
ECG: The board really seemed to recognize that their members were not going to accept their pension fund’s complicity in human rights abuses, and the board’s discussion prior to voting focused heavily on the concern and outrage CalSTRS members expressed through calls, emails, and protests. I think the most memorable moment of that November board meeting was the statement one of the board members, Nora Vargas, made when she raised a motion to divest. Vargas’ explanation cut to the heart of the matter: CalSTRS was investing in companies that were—and still are—hurting migrant families and communities of color where she and other CalSTRS members live and work and CalSTRS has the power and influence to make a difference by divesting.
Emily Claire Goldman is an international human rights lawyer focusing on the intersection of business and human rights, including corporate accountability and responsible investing. She is recognized as one of the human rights field’s foremost experts in following the money to hold companies responsible for their adverse impacts. In June 2018, Emily launched the Educators for Migrant Justice campaign targeting public state pension funds invested in companies aiding and abetting the Trump administration’s crimes against humanity at the US border. She is currently advocating for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the country’s largest pension system, to follow CalSTRS’ lead and end their financial complicity in the migrant abuse crisis.
Heather John Fogarty is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work appears in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Marie Claire, the Hollywood Reporter, and has been featured on NPR. She currently teaches journalism at USC Annenberg.