Viewpoints: Asylum seekers blocked at the border

  • Marjorie Margolis speaks at Peterborough's Lights for Liberty event in July. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Published: 12/3/2019 2:39:30 PM

Last January I flew myself down to El Paso to volunteer with Annunciation House, a “hospitality center” sponsored by a Catholic organization that has helped migrants resettle for forty years. When I volunteered, thousands of Central Americans from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) were migrating en masse to the United States, escaping the violence of the narcotics trade in their home states. After being detained in chained-linked spaces known as heleras (ice boxes) where they slept on concrete floors, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) dropped off their detained “family units” at Annunciation House. They carried nothing but the papers for their first immigration hearing and a heavy battery pack for their locked-on ankle bracelets, which need to be recharged every eight hours. Everything else was taken away by Border Patrol – their birth certificates, passports, identifications, clothing, even their shoelaces. However, despite the dire situation of their lives, the limbo of their futures, the guests of Annunciation House warmed my heart with their gratitude and their children made each day of my service joyful.

Determined to keep informed, this month I joined a group from Upstate New York and New Hampshire (which included Rosemary Weidner from Dublin Bill Whyte and Katie Schwerin from Gilsum) to participate in Annunciation House’s Border Awareness Experience (BAE). Last week we crossed the border into Juarez where we visited a shelter and witnessed masses of Mexican asylum seekers camped out by the bridge. We spoke with Mexicans encamped there; migrants with whom our BAE group lodged during the program; immigration attorneys, advocates, public defenders, community organizers and Annunciation House Director Ruben Garcia. As hard as it is to imagine, things are far worse than they were last year.

The inhumane conditions of detention centers remain, but Annunciation House is almost empty. Detention is no longer the lowest level of hell; its horror has been surpassed by the borderland of Mexico due to the White House policy euphemistically called Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) or Remain in Mexico. Under this policy, asylum seekers must remain on the Mexican side of the border while waiting for their applications to be processed, which can take years. Forced return to Mexico has trapped tens of thousands of people in muddy tent cities by the border bridges, exposed to life-threatening illnesses and in constant fear of cartels who prey upon them for kidnapping, extortion, and trafficking.

Another new policy called Safe Third Country forces asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first country they enter. Guatemala is not a safe place, and the Mexican National Guard is now stationed along that border. The conditions from which they are fleeing have not changed, but we don’t know their current situation.

The policy impacts all Spanish speakers except Mexicans because they are seeking asylum from Mexico, the country administering this program. While it is illegal for the US to prevent asylum seekers from entering, but it is not illegal to say, “No room, take a number” and block crossing. This practice is known as metering. Asylum seekers under MPP are blocked while Mexicans are on a separate list.

Juarez, El Paso’s sister city, is a horror show. Murders are daily occurrences and the city is littered with burnt out vehicles. The Cartel controls everything; though they have allowed no other immigrant group to live under the bridge, the Mexicans to have tent cities there. We ask ourselves why, and ponder how this benefits the Cartel.

Most alarming to me this week is that the Central Americans have seemed to have disappeared.

Kidnapping has become so common that those waiting to cross the border are keeping a very low profile. Lawyers and advocates we’ve met here say Central Americans are not even safe staying in shelters in Juarez. One attorney, Taylor Levy, told us of an incident on the Bridge of the Americas itself. While consulting with a Honduran couple on opposite sides of the border gate, a Mexican approached the migrants and forced the couple to come away with him. Taylor told us that the going extortion rate for kidnapped Central Americans is $10,000, negotiable. Once forcefully detained, the Cartel video chats with their victims’ families back in Honduras, inflicting whatever level of violence necessary to compel the families to pay up. As the word gets out through apps like What’s App the migrants from the Central America’s Northern Triangle are nowhere to be seen at the border. We wonder where they have gone.

Equally distressing, all of the advocates and lawyers we meet during the BAE – even Ruben Garcia, Annunciation House Director – believe it is safest for parents to send their children over the border unaccompanied. Can you imagine? They believe the child detention centers are safer than the Mexican borderlands. According to them, the notorious Homestead and Tornillo children centers, now closed, were emergency shelters that were way too large. At that time, the administration was finger printing those who surfaced to sponsor these children, so it was not safe for parents or relatives to come forward. This created a huge back up. Now, that policy is no longer in effect, and the goal of these centers is to unite children with families as soon as possible. We were told that no children have been held more than 50 days recently.

Unlike detention centers, children centers are run by Health and Human Services, under the Office of Refugee and Resettlement. They are licensed by each state and must meet the standards of that state. Still, the militaristic protocol with prohibitions against human contact of any kind adds to the trauma of these children.

The single adults and families permitted in through metering must go through detention; however, because of the deaths of six children in detention, CPB is releasing anyone who looks sick or obviously pregnant. Families are usually released within 72 hours. We were told that there are single adults who have been kept there for over three years.

The most recent guests at Annunciation House are Brazilians, not under the auspices of MPP because they don’t speak Spanish. We were based in a smaller shelter during the BAE and met a few families staying there: a beautiful Honduran with her 7-year-old, 4-year-old, and newborn (that’s why she got through, her baby was born on 11/4/19 in US), and some Mexican families with sad, sad stories. I will write more about who is here when we volunteer next week in the big shelter.

So that’s the update. We are at a point where child detention is safest, being sent to a detention center brings hope, and there must be thousands and thousands of disappeared Central Americans.

Marjorie Margolis is a retired Conant High School teacher living in Sharon. After volunteering at Annunciation House last winter, she organized a group to join a Nov. 9 to Nov. 16 fact-finding Border Awareness Experience facilitated by Annunciation House. Others from this area include Rosemary Weidner from Dublin, Four of the group, including Marjorie, stayed on to volunteer through Nov. 22.

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