I have been at the border on a trip arranged through HIAS, the Jewish agency dedicated to providing protection to refugees regardless of religion or nationality. I was accompanied by two HIAS professionals – Liz Sweet and Merrill Zack – and Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, the president of the Rabbinical Association, and Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).
We spent one day in Juarez, visiting the HIAS attorneys providing legal services largely to Central American asylum seekers who are now detained in Mexico. We visited CAIM, the Mexican center charged with metering asylum seekers trying to physically enter the United States to initiate the asylum process through the “credible fear” interview process and then the various agencies in Mexico administering the Migrant Protective Protocols (MPP), more commonly known as the Return to Mexico program that actually serves as a de facto deportation initiative, as well as a migrant shelter operated by the state of Chihuahua to provide a modicum of temporary protection (normally limited to 15 days) to those in the MPP program.
Back in El Paso, we met with HIAS attorneys embedded in a local community-based rights organization, El Paso Councilman Peter Svarzbein, Carlos Spector who is an indefatigable advocate for the right of asylum seekers, Annunciation House which is a shelter for asylum seekers released from CBP detention, HOPE Border Institute which is a refugee protection agency of the Catholic Church and Rep. Veronica Escobar, who is the Congresswoman representing El Paso and a leading voice seeking to “rehumanize” refugees.
While I will likely parse through the searing experiences of the past few days for a while, my basic takeaways are: The rules and regulations governing the U.S. refugee program now exist as an ad hoc pastiche of thrown together initiatives rather than a rational, consistent policy tied to the national welfare; the current border crisis has nothing to do with our national priorities and everything to do with a cynical politicized and utterly fabricated fear of the other; the border crisis is not a harbinger of open border to immigration, but rather a constantly changing and mean-spirited constriction of time-honored juridical principles that have guided the U.S. immigration system for 70 years; there are terrible overlays of race, xenophobia, income inequality, and ethnic nationalism that is producing an intolerable system at the border; the entire panoply of current directives is aimed solely at disincentivizing asylum seekers from coming to the U.S.; whereas the need in the past was to transport asylum seekers to family members and sponsors living in communities throughout the U.S., the current need – pure and simple – is legal protection; the MPP program is nothing more than a deportation program wrapped in bureaucratic niceties/pablum; as a nation, we have the capacity to admit vulnerable populations in a manner that serves our social, moral, and economic interests; the United States has through political manipulation and economic exploitation been a principal cause for civic and political instability in Central and South America; people do not traverse thousands of miles to face a miserably uncertain future unless they hold legitimate fears for their own safety and the welfare of their children; it is unconscionable to deprive a person, irrespective of alienage, with liberty through a detention system constructed on an absence of due process protections and humanitarian values; there is a right engrained in treaty commitments, basic humanitarian principles, and widely-held religious precepts to allow vulnerable populations to seek protection in the face of persecution in the home country.
But perhaps most saliently, standing in the Chihuahua shelter surrounded by literally a hundred women and children, I spoke with Sylvia, a woman from Honduras, along with her three children. She was a teacher in her home country; her husband was murdered; she was fleeing the gangs in her home country. This Saturday, she will have fulfilled her 15 days of residence in the shelter. Impoverished, alone, and with dwindling hope of ever presenting her claim of persecution to an impartial adjudicator, she will be sent out on the streets of Juarez. Her words to me were simply “thanks for listening,” and it is her story and the stories of others whom I met who now haunt my dreams and animate my world.
Robert Aronson is a Minneapolis immigration attorney and serves as the president of the board of HIAS.