The following blog posts are based on a recent trip to the Mexico/Guatemala border. There were four of us on the trip: Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson from WOLA who organized the trip, and Eric Olson from the Seattle International Foundation.
Loitering with Intent at the Mexico/Guatemala border – Post #1
Advocacy requires a lot of what I call “loitering with intent.” On the front end, you hang around places where few other people go, ask questions and use what you learn to inform others. On the back end, you hang around waiting for people with influence and then use the access you have to get them to address the problems you’ve seen.
Loitering with intent is not all that comfortable. You feel like you don’t know what you are doing, because you don’t. Loitering isn’t all that pleasant, but it can be impactful.
The following is about “loitering with intent” from the Mexico/Guatemala border trip.
Prior to the trip we reached out to the Mexican government to request meetings with officials. We were told that this was not a good time for them, so no official meetings. The beauty of being non-governmental is that you don’t need approval J.
We wanted to visit the famous Siglo XXI immigration detention facility in Tapachula, but didn’t have approval. We went anyway to see what we could see and talk with migrants waiting outside. This makes sense because while those seeking asylum in Mexico are awaiting the decision on their applications, they have to remain in the area and check-in with officials every week. The detention center is one of the check-in points.
When we arrived three buses full of people were sitting out front. We thought they were waiting to be processed into the detention facility. Instead, the buses left a few minutes later. Two representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were out front as well. They weren’t sure what was going on either, so they followed the buses.
We hung around and had conversations with the migrants. There were two recurring themes: violence as a reason for leaving their homelands; and poor conditions inside of the detention facility – more about that in a future blog post.
After that, we made our way to Ciudad Hidalgo, a crossing point to Guatemala. Near the official border crossing we came across the buses we had seen outside of the detention facility. Now they were empty. We asked a few locals on the street where the people from the buses had gone. They said that some crossed the border and some headed back into town.
Let me be clear, this situation was very confusing. Piecing together a variety of conversations, here is what we learned. Stick with me for a couple of confusing paragraphs.
Over the past few days a handful of other buses had arrived from Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros (cities on the US border). The people aboard seemed to be from the “Remain in Mexico” program. A program which requires asylum seekers, crossing into the U.S. at official points of entry, to wait in Mexico until their asylum cases are decided. This has created a humanitarian crisis on the Mexican side of the U.S. border where tens of thousands of people are now awaiting consideration of their US asylum claims. And they’ll likely be waiting there for months, if not years.
What we had witnessed was the Mexican government driving U.S. asylum seekers some 1,500 miles south to the Mexico/Guatemala border. This was not an official Mexican program that anyone seemed to know anything about.
It was unclear what people were told when they got on the buses – about 36 hours before we saw them. People seemed to think that they could wait in their homeland for their asylum cases to be called then return to the United States when their cases were heard. But if they now returned to Central America, how would the get back to the U.S. border legally without a Mexican visa? The Mexican government officials at the Guatemalan border didn’t seem to know what re-entry papers to give these people. They did not have any official forms that would let the asylum seekers cross again into Mexico.
Even more troubling, their asylum claims would be in jeopardy if they went home to await determination. For example, if you are asking for asylum in the U.S. because you fear persecution in your homeland (say Guatemala) and then you “voluntarily” return to Guatemala to await the outcome, your asylum case can be dismissed.
We were told that those on the bus were very frustrated and confused, and we witnessed a couple of dozen returned to Guatemala after getting off the bus. Others just wandered back into Mexico.
Let me be clear. What we were witnessing was the Mexican government driving asylum seekers across Mexico and dumping that at the opposite border. This was a shift in how asylum seekers were being handled, and most likely a shift that violates international law.
Here’s what we could do, and did, using what we learned by loitering with intent.
We saw what was happening, talked with UN officials, interviewed locals, coordinated with a Mexican migrant organization called IMUMI, in Mexico City, who was talking with Mexican government officials about what was happening, and we called the press. A few stories were immediately published and a number of national and international journalists started asking government officials questions.
We’ve now heard that over the past week there have been no more random buses of asylum seekers from the Northern Mexico border showing up at the Southern Mexican border.
Is this the direct result of our visit and calls? You can never be sure, but the combination of UN presence, our observation, coordination with Mexican non-governmental colleagues, and getting word to the press could not have hurt.
A day well spent “loitering with intent.”