A Tale of Two Tent Cities

My column from Mexico Today 3/2/20 https://mexicotoday.com/2020/03/02/opinion-tale-of-two-tent-cities/

On a visit this past week to Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico I was confronted by a tale of two tent cities.

In easy view from the border crossing is a massive tent city that houses migrants. It is constructed of camping tents and tarps. Somewhere between 2,000 and 2,800 people (depending who you ask) are in the tent city. They are forced to wait in Mexico until the United States decides if they will be given political asylum.

The tents sit on hardened dirt. I can only imagine the muddy mess it is when it rains.  Anyone can walk into the tent city. There is no permanent security. We heard rejoicing over a new bank of port-a-potties; the first time the Mexican government had provided any sanitation. The other port-a-potties were donated.  Neither the Mexican government nor UN agencies run the tent city.  With the help of volunteers, many from the US, the refugees have had to figure things out for themselves.  

Just across the river (and border) from the tent city is a tent court.  This is where political US asylum claims are processed. It is also a tent city and covers the area of a few city blocks. Behind a strictly guarded perimeter, there are courtrooms, waiting areas, air conditioning, and childcare provided by licensed teachers. No mud here. This place is shockingly clean. The port-a-potties here are cleaned every 90 minutes.

Inside the courtroom the scene is reminiscent of the “Hunger Games.”  A judge appears remotely on a massive screen before rows of asylum seekers.  Even if the judge has a kind demeanor and is a clear communicator, it’s impossible to miss the underlying tension. What happens here is about survival. 

Three quarters of those in the camp are non-Mexicans who have applied for asylum in the United States. Once the application process starts, they are immediately returned to Mexico to await a decision – hence the camp in Matamoros. The US calls this the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” There is no evidence that “protection” has anything to do with what is going on here. Even people who were previously kidnapped in Mexico, and those who have been granted asylum, but are pending appeal from the US government have been forced to return and wait.. These so-called “protection” protocols are being challenged in US courts, but the practice remains in place pending a final decision.

The other quarter of the population is Mexican.  They wait for the opportunity to apply for asylum under “metering.” This is an informal system where numbers are handed out – like at the deli counter.  Mexicans can wait for months, often with their children, in the tent city just to ask for asylum. 

The US needs to stop this farce. We have a legal and moral obligation to provide protection to legitimate asylum seekers. Instead, we make them suffer hoping that they will abandon their requests. The Mexican government needs to take some responsibility here, too.  “The US made me do it” is not a policy. These asylum seekers are on Mexican territory.  Step up.

When desperation trumps misery

I’ve started a bi-weekly column for the Mexico Today, an English language site that is part of the La Reforma newspaper. I will cross-post the columns here. https://mexicotoday.com/2020/02/17/opinion-when-desperation-trumps-misery/

Misery should not be a public policy goal. But, it certainly seems to be if one looks at the experience of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border.  

While generally couched in other terms, the basic idea seems to be this:  If you let conditions get really bad, and people suffer long enough, they will give up and go home.  

The US government keeps making it harder and harder for anyone to request asylum at the southern border. They have created a nightmarish system.  Asylum seekers have to wait for months for the opportunity to approach officials and file a petition.  Once they do apply, they are returned to Mexico to wait for their claims to be adjudicated.  This process often requires repeated trips to the US and back out again to Mexico.

The Mexican government allows its territory for use as the anteroom for US asylum seekers – the Remain in Mexico program.  While I’m sure that the US pressured Mexico to do this, Mexico did it.  These asylum seekers are now Mexico’s responsibility. 

Unfortunately, Mexico seems to share the US policy goal of making asylum seekers miserable. According to the state of Tamaulipas, the federal government is not providing assistance to the asylum seekers while they wait.  The traditional private migrant shelters don’t have the capacity to handle the massive number of people now waiting on the border.

The media is flooded with stories of asylum seekers in dire conditions, living in tents surrounded by mud and cold weather.  The only thing in abundance seems to be illness and fear.  Small private organizations do what they can, but they cannot fill the gap left by the state ignoring its responsibility. For example, physical security is a constant problem.  A new report from Doctors without Borders, documented that last October, 33 of their 44 patients in Nuevo Laredo had been recently kidnapped.  These we people who had been pushed back into Mexico to await their US asylum claim.  

The Mexican government does help people who abandon all hope of asylum and agree to return home.  Some asylum seekers have given up and left the border.  Tens of thousands more remain.  This population is going nowhere fast.  

What you get when desperation trumps misery is human suffering.  This should not be anyone’s policy goal.

The death of anti-corruption efforts in Central America – or – Hang Crepe on Your Nose

We should all be in mourning for Central America.  Not only because a new caravan of migrants decided to abandon their homeland in search of safety and a better life, but because Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has killed off the innovative national anti-corruption mechanism that brought at least some hope that things might change.

Just a few years ago, Central America was in the global vanguard of anti-corruption efforts.  Getting to that place was not easy.  The region had world-class corruption; it infiltrated the state and inhibited national development.  But they also had amazing political and civil society leaders, supported by the international community, who took on this seemingly insurmountable problem.

Guatemala was first.  In the early 2000s civil society leaders, who had concluded that organized crimes’ infiltration of the state had paralyzed the justice system, began exploring models to support a functioning justice system. They concluded that they needed not just the support of, but also the intervention of, the international community – a decision not taken lightly. 

Over the next few years, civil society developed concrete proposals for new mechanisms. This pressure combined with a political moment created by a series of horrendous murders that were linked to the state, created a moment for change. In 2006, the United Nations and the Guatemala government signed an agreement creating the International Commission to Investigate Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  The CICIG accompanied the Guatemalan justice system in the investigation and prosecution of cases where organized crime had infiltrated the state.  While an uphill battle, laws were changed; complex investigations and legal cases were constructed and successfully prosecuted; and criminals, elected and otherwise, started being held accountable.

In 2016, Honduras, in response to domestic pressure created by blatant corruption that included the ransacking of the country’s social security fund, set up its own internationally supported anti-corruption body, this one connected to the Organization of American States and called the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). 

The creation of these institutions in Guatemala and Honduras required the stars to align in such a way that entrenched and corrupt political interests saw in their creation the only way to maintain a semblance of credibility. While these institutions were hard to create, they were easy to kill.  They existed because of an agreement between the government and an international body.  All any president had to do was to let the anti-corruption body’s mandate expire. Intense domestic, as well as international political support was required to keep the CICIG and MACCIH alive.

Support for the CICIG and the MACCIH was widely bi-partisan in the United States.  Congress approved money to support these efforts and a great deal of political pressure was exerted by US ambassadors to keep them from being decimated by the powers they were built to confront. Even during the most favorable environments, these two institutions were always hanging by a thread. That’s what happens when corruption goes straight to the heart of the government. In Guatemala, the CICIG helped take down President Otto Perez Molina. Honduran President Juan Orlando has been plagued by corruption accusations as well, and his brother has been convicted on drug charges here in the United States.

Under the Trump Administration, that political support disappeared.  US ambassadors in Honduras and Guatemala stepped back, no longer playing a vocal role in support of these critical anti-corruption bodies. In fact, US officials challenged the CICIG in Guatemala in relation to a case involving Russia, and in Honduras, rather than lifting a finger to keep MACCIH alive, the Administration sent constant messages of support for President Hernandez, making clear that he would suffer no consequences from it’s demise.

Now we see another caravan of Hondurans headed toward the United States and once again ask why they flee. The answer is a lack of hope. The majority of Hondurans live in poverty. They experience violence and extortion. Now they see their own government close down the MACCIH – a mechanism that could have confronted the corruption that keeps their country stuck. What do you expect?

I’m reminded of a phrase my father would use when we children would do something obviously stupid. “Hang crepe on your nose your brain must be dead.”

Reality Check

Skype call this morning with colleague in Belgium.

Wifi keeps cutting out as a helicopter passes over my house three times.

Me: I’m sorry for the interruption, there was a mass shooting in my neighborhood last night and the helicopters are interrupting my wifi.

Me Again: (recognizing the words that had just come out of my mouth) I need to stop right here. There was a mass shooting last night in my neighborhood. An assault weapon was used.  Two people died and five were injured.  That is what I should be sorry about, not my interrupted wifi.

Colleague:  I’m very sorry.

Me:  I am too.

Violence is normalized.  We accept it as just another part of the day. This isn’t normal.  Stop and recognized what is happening to you, to us.  This is our society and we are the only ones who will change it.

Mexican National Guard -Mexico/Guatemala border Post #2

One of the first things that President Lopez Obrador did upon entering office was to form a National Guard.  One of the first things he did with the National Guard was send them to the Mexico/Guatemala border.  This was done, at least in part, in response to President Trump’s insistence that Mexico do more to stop migrants headed to the United States.

What you see.

The most well-known border crossing is at Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.  There, the Suchiate River separates Guatemala from Mexico (picture above).  There is a bridge with an official crossing point where passports are stamped, but the real action happens on the river.  If you’ve seen pictures of migrants crossing into Mexico on rafts they were likely taken here.  It is quite a sight.  Within easy view of the bridge dozens of rafts carry goods and people across the river all day long.  We saw a lot of goods transiting back and forth. 

It is a rather expansive area with different loading areas for different goods – toilet paper and household items in one area, beer and sodas in another, cement farther down. Apparently the nearest Sam’s Club does a brisk business with those involved in informal commerce. One spot was reportedly where more illicit items crossed. 

We were told that commerce crossing by raft is still allowed under usos y costumbres (use and customs), which is an interesting application of a legal concept designed for the governance of indigenous communities.  It seems a handy way to explain the fact that the informal crossing of commerce is how these communities have functioned forever and they are not about to let the federal government change that.

What you don’t see.

Normally, there would have been a good flow of migrants crossing by raft.  We did not see them.  The river’s shore was filled with National Guard and other troops, each small group of them within eyesight of the next.  They wore regular military uniforms.  You know which ones are National Guard because they wear armbands with the letters NG.  They are there to stop the crossing of migrants. The goods flowed. 

Undocumented migrants, who have used this crossing point in the past, are not there now.  The presence of the National Guard has stopped that.  If migrants cross here, they are detained, handed over to migration officials and put in a detention center.

So did the migrants stop coming?  If you look at the numbers of detentions and deportations from the US and Mexico, numbers are down.  However, the numbers tend to drop this time of year because it is unbearably hot. Time will tell if the reduced flow will last.

The best-case scenario for undocumented migrants is that they pay a coyote to take them safely across the border and then accompany them through Mexico to the US.  That’s how undocumented migrants with money make the trip. Those without money cross in remote areas that are riddled with criminals who prey on the migrants. Undocumented migrants seldom report crime.

The presence of the National Guard in Ciudad Hidalgo is forcing migrants to cross in more remote areas where they will likely be the victims of crime, or forced to engage with criminal networks.  For historical reference, this is the same thing that happened at the US/Mexico border.  As the US enhanced border security, migrants started crossing in more remote areas.  This shift coincided with the consolidation of organized crime on Mexico’s northern border (something that really should be studied more) as well as a rise in migrant deaths in remote areas of Arizona and Texas.

Once inland, poor migrants don’t travel on main roads where there are checkpoints to ferret them out, but on roads like this one. 

At other border crossings we saw some National Guard, but not nearly the show of force that was present in Ciudad Hidalgo. 

I can’t help but comment on the border crossing at Nuevo Orizaba. It is not an official point of entry.  Nonetheless, it has a lovely, new border facility on the Mexican side that sits empty and is closed off by a fence.  Apparently the backstory is that the Guatemalan government never finished paving the road to the checkpoint so it was never opened. There is, however, a dirt road connecting the two countries that circumvents the unused migration building.  That road is where crossings happen.  And, it isn’t rafts filled with toilet paper, but semi-trucks filled with who knows what.

What’s real?

The deployment of the National Guard at the Mexico/Guatemala border, much like the US National Guard deployments to our border, is likely temporary.  It is to make a political statement and have a short-term impact.

One other thing struck me.  For years, the US has been interested in Mexico’s southern border supposedly for security reasons. The use of the National Guard at Mexico’s southern border is not about stopping drugs, guns or criminal organizations.  It is unapologetically about stopping poor people from heading north.

Loitering with Intent at the Mexico/Guatemala border – Post #1

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.” 

US/Mexico border installment #4: Reflections on Hope (includes links for giving and volunteering)

I did find hope in all of this. 

I found it in a boy named H. He is 16 and from Central America.  He was in the shelter with three siblings and his mother, who had given birth to the youngest a few days before. He fled violence in Honduras three years ago.  Went to Guatemala and then Mexico. They fled Mexico after his mother witnessed two murders and was threatened yet again.  He had to drop out of school after they left Honduras and started working at 13. He didn’t have educational documents from Honduras that would allow him to study in either Guatemala or Mexico and they needed the money.

This 16-year-old had ever reason in the world to be a jerk.  He wasn’t.  He was so kind in the way he cared for his siblings. He entertained himself with a book on learning English and watching evangelical rap videos. He told me that he really liked a sign in the volunteer office that read, “Don’t limit your challenges. Challenge your limits.”  It inspired him.  He thought that it would be difficult to go back to school after working for the last three years.  But already in the shelter he was trying to teach himself.  He was such a decent human being. God, I pray that he makes it.  He deserves a better life.

This border experience reaffirmed something I believe. Life is about showing up.  I didn’t do anything special this week, but I did show up and I am taking away experiences that changed me. People have thanked me for doing this. Don’t. It feels obscene to be thanked when after my shift I went out to dinner or walked on the beach.

Here’s my challenge to you. In your own way, think about what it means to show up and do something.  Please be an advocate for more humane immigration policy and vote in the next election. 

Lastly, if you want to make a financial contribution to either group I worked with this week, here is their information:

San Diego Rapid Response Network website –  http://www.rapidresponsesd.org/

To volunteer with the SDRRN email –  sheltervolunteer@jfssd.org

SDRRN Wish List – https://amzn.to/2yoQM7Z

El Otro Lado website – https://alotrolado.org/

To volunteer at Al Otro Lado – bit.ly/AlOtroLadoTijuanaTrips

Al Otro Lado Wish List – http://bit.ly/AlOtroLadoWishlist

Come back later in August for installments from the Mexico/Guatemala border.

P.S.  If you ever volunteer at a shelter bring bubbles.  Universal appeal.

US/Mexico Border Installment #3: Chaos as policy

Immigration policy is in chaos. This is not by accident. This is policy.  The Trump Administration implements changes to immigration policy that any decent policy advisor would tell the President will immediately be challenged in the courts – like last year’s effort at family separation, or this years’ Remain in Mexico, or the most recent “Safe Third Country” agreement with Guatemala.  All have been immediately challenged as illegal. It is hard to even figure out what border policy is on any given day.  Coyotes – the smugglers who get people to the border – tell desperate people that they must try to cross now or policy will become more restrictive and they will never get in.  Let’s just be clear, Trump may think that policy by chaos and fear is a deterrent, but in reality, chaos is driving migration. 

Chaos policy is also expensive.  This expense is borne on many fronts.  It is very expensive for the asylum seekers as they figure out how to exist as they await the processing of their claims without much, if any assistance.  It is expensive for the shelters that exist on both sides of the border.  Some shelters are entirely supported by individual donations, others are subsidized by the states. Detention is even more expensive. 

Current policy is cruel, ineffective and makes no fiscal sense.

US/Mexico border installment #2: The emergency room

Feeling frustrated about US treatment of migrants and refugees, and with some free time this month, I decided to go to the San Diego/Tijuana border to volunteer. I spent most of my time on the San Diego side. I’m writing a few short reflections based on this experience. In August I will be on the Mexico/Guatemala border and will do the same.

My most gut wrenching experience this week was to accompany a young woman, and her three children, to an emergency room.  Her oldest daughter, 3, was sick and the doctors at the shelter sent her to the hospital for further assessment and treatment. 

They had been allowed to cross into the US earlier that day.  They had spent four days is immigration detention in what the migrants call the hielera (icebox), a very cold room where the lights are kept on 24 hours a day.  That’s where the three year old had gotten sick.  I met up with them at the emergency room about 8 PM.  They hadn’t eaten in 12 hours.  Nurses where trying to insert an IV into the hand of the child. There was a lot of screaming. The other two kids did not want to be six inches away from their Mom. They wouldn’t let me hold them. There was little that I could do but translate. 

Once that drama subsided, and the sick child fell asleep, someone from billing entered the room. While the shelter residents should be treated as homeless and not billed, the person from billing saw the address of one of the woman’s relatives and insisted that it be listed on the intake form. I pushed back, but did not win.  She would be charged. The billing person said that she should apply for Cal-Med, or could register for assistance provided by the hospital.

The young woman wanted nothing to do with anything that required registration for assistance. She wanted to be charged for the visit. I told her that it could cost thousands of dollars. This stunned her. She kept saying, “My kids are my world.”  She would not put them in jeopardy.  Finally she told me that while in detention a migration official had told her that if she applied for services her children could be taken away from her. While I told her that wasn’t true, she was panicked and would not budge.  She would be billed.

The billing person walked out to register the visit and took the woman’s immigration forms along. This caused another round of panic.  She did not what those documents out of her hands. They contained her story and were her lifeline. They were ultimately retrieved but not before being copied by the hospital and even that stressed her out. 

It was 1 AM by the time we left the ER.  She looked so tired and sad. 

I glimpsed the human side of a migration policy where people who are already suffering are made to suffer more.

US/Mexico Border Installment #1: The Context

Feeling frustrated about US treatment of migrants and refugees, and with some free time this month, I decided to go to the San Diego/Tijuana border to volunteer. I spent most of my time on the San Diego side. I’m writing a few short reflections based on this experience. In August I will be on the Mexico/Guatemala border and will do the same.

US/Mexico border installment #1: The Context – There is currently a “metering” program in place at the US/Mexico border. Asylum seekers wanting to apply for protection in the United States go to the port of entry in Tijuana and put their name on an informal waiting list. There are thousands of names on the list. Then they wait – getting by however they can, at over-crowded shelters, on the street, selling things on the beach, whatever. I’m not sure how they do it, but they do. When their number comes up, they have 24 hours to show up; otherwise they are back at the end of the line. After applying, a few, with extraordinary circumstances, are let into the United States pending their final asylum determination. The rest are sent back to Mexico to wait while the US considers their case. Only after the final asylum determination will they be let in.

I spent one day in Tijuana with an NGO called Al Otro Lado. They help people prepare for the asylum process. They organize and train volunteers to do much of this work. It is an impressive operation on a shoestring. I talked with a few asylum seekers whose crossing number would be coming up the next day. They were learning about asylum law and the process. Being prepared to share the most difficult details of ones’ persecution can make the difference between protection and deportation.

Immigration opponents often question whether these people are really refugees, or if they are just trying to sneak into the US, gaming the system. What I heard directly from immigrants were horrible stories about extortion, violence, and threats of violence. Whether these examples will qualify under US law, I don’t know.

What I do know from my experience at the border is what anxiety and exhaustion look like. I saw fear and I also found reasons to hope.