WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
6 Apr 2020 | Podcast

Beyond the Wall: Seeking Shelter in the Age of COVID-19


This month, Mario Moreno, WOLA’s Vice President for Communications, interviewed Joanna Williams, the Director of Education and Advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative. The Kino Border Initiative (KBI) is a binational organization in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. KBI works in the area of migration, providing direct humanitarian assistance and accompaniment with migrants.

They discuss what is happening at the border, how shelters and service providers are adapting, and the repercussions of the virus and government actions on migrants and asylum seekers.

Beyond the Wall is a bilingual segment of the Latin America Today podcast, and a part of the Washington Office on Latin America’s Beyond the Wall advocacy campaign. In the series, we will follow the thread of migration in the Americas beyond traditional barriers like language and borders. We will explore root causes of migration, the state of migrant rights in multiple countries and multiple borders, and what we can do to protect human rights in one of the most pressing crises in our hemisphere.

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Music by Blue Dot Sessions and ericb399.

Transcripts are generated using a speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.



Intro clips (00:01):

The countries of the Northern triangle — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — are facing a set of conditions that are forcing many families and children to migrate from their community. They’re saying “we’re here in the shelter, I’m afraid to put my kids into school” Crimes, corruption, poverty and inequality. And they don’t have a lot of hope because we know that most people get turned away. These issues are forcing many to seek protection and opportunities elsewhere. What do we project as a country with how we’re treating these people, many of which are seeking protection? Barbed wire on the top of the fence…It looks like world war one out there.

President Donald Trump (00:32):

Someone at border crossing comes in, you say sorry, we’re taking you back. That’s if we’re nice and I want to do that.

WOLA Expert Quote (00:37):

Say you’ve been kidnapped in a Mexican border town, you may feel so unsafe there that you’re willing to run the risk of all the insecurities that led you to flee your home in the first place. But is that really a choice?

Mario Moreno (00:49):

Hi, my name is Mario Moreno. I’m the vice president for communications at the Washington Office on Latin America. On March 20th in response to rising concerns of the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States and Mexico agreed to temporarily shut down their shared border to all nonessential travel, a category that was determined to include all asylum seekers. This move fundamentally ends the right to asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border, but more importantly, it raises clear concerns for migrants who have already been waiting months in dangerous Mexican border towns to present their asylum claims or to attend their asylum hearings. This raises several key questions worth exploring. How will the closing of the border exacerbate the dangerous these migrants face and could this action put them at severe risk? Should covid-19 spread on the border to seek answers to these questions and explore these issues? I talked with Joanna Williams, the director of education and advocacy at the Kino border initiative, an organization that provides direct humanitarian assistance in accompaniment with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Joanna Williams (01:59):

So the Kino Border Initiative. We’re a binational organization that is located in Nogales, Arizona, in Nogales, Mexico. And we work in three different areas. So the first area is humanitarian aid, the second is education. And the third is research and advocacy. The humanitarian aid that we do is all on the Mexican side of the border. So we’re providing basic services like food, medical attention clothing to individuals who are in Nogales, Mexico; migrants specifically. And that means in part migrants who are being deported from the United States and increasingly has meant migrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S. And who are stranded in Nogales, Mexico. So that’s, it’s out of that day in and day out work that then we engage in education and advocacy. And we have the Kino Border Initiative have really seen shifting realities over the course of the last couple of years. And specifically I think in, in light of our current situation, what we’ve seen for the last year and a half, almost two years now are really systematic efforts to dismantle access to asylum at the border that has left people in more and more precarious situations.

Joanna Williams (03:11):

In Nogales, Mexico. So it’s almost two years ago when metering started. Which metering means that people are, instead of being processed, when they arrive at the port of entry, they’re told that they have to wait, that there’s not capacity at the port of entry and they have to wait in Mexico for indefinite periods of time or for, for how long typically. So the, the instruction from the U.S. Side is essentially for an indefinite period of time. Then since metering began people, the on the Mexican side, there were certain systems are arranged of how to even have a list to organize people who are in line. When metering started, people were literally sleeping out at the port of entry, waiting for their turn. That became very unsustainable as people were waiting for many days or even weeks. Now even before last week’s announcement people had been, who are metered in Nogales. We’re waiting for over four months in most of the families who have been metered in Nogales, our Mexican families. So they’re fleeing violence in Mexico and they’re not able to escape from their own country to seek protection in the U.S. So this has been a worsening situation over the course of the last two years. And it’s one example of how asylum has been dismantled. The other big policy that’s affected us in Nogales is what’s known as the Remain in Mexico policy or also known as MPP in which asylum seekers have to or return to Mexico and are then made to wait for their court dates in the United States. So they have to be in Mexico for many months over a year in order to wait for a, an asylum decision on the U S side of the border. And they don’t have access to housing, to work, to medical care and certainly to good legal support in that time of limbo.

Joanna Williams (05:04):

So this is all the, the background to the current moment. And I think important to understand because of that systematic effort to dismantle asylum, now we see the administration taking advantage of this current pandemic to further that agenda of eliminating access to protection for people fleeing violence. And it has three different impacts on, on these different populations. So one, when we talk about the suspension of processing at the port of entry just to give an example, we have a family that fled from the state of Mexico several months ago. So they’ve already been waiting about three and a half months in Nogales there. The dad was actually shot and almost died. He was shot by organized crime. The family, even after that, tried to file a police report. They tried to stay. They said they were, they wanted to be able to stay in the place that they were at because they didn’t want to displace their kids.

Joanna Williams (06:04):

But after filing the police report, then they got even more threats from organized crime for having dared to speak out. And eventually saw it is impossible and had to flee up to Nogales. They know that the organized crime group is still looking for them. They, their house was the, the criminals open entered their house and searched the, their belongings, not, they didn’t steal anything. They just searched through all of the notebooks and any kind of information within the house. So they know that the group is looking for them and that they’re still in danger. And in Nogales, they’ve been here for three months and now they’re looking at being here indefinitely because they’re no longer allowed to present at the port of entry to seek asylum. So that’s one sample of the effect on this, of this suspension of port of entry processing.

Joanna Williams (06:55):

And the second area, which is the, the Remain in Mexico policy. As I mentioned, people have been returned to Mexico to wait for court dates in the U.S. In Nogales. The people who are returned here, their court dates are all the way in El Paso, which for those of you who aren’t familiar with geography on this, in this part of the border, that means they have a essentially a 10 hour bus ride from Nogales, Mexico, all the way to what is in order to then present for their court dates. Because of Covid-19 MPP courts have been suspended. So all of the court dates for the next month have been canceled. But the U S government is still saying that people have to go all the way to the El Paso port of entry in order to get just a piece of paper with their notification of their new court date.

Joanna Williams (07:40):

And what the U S government is saying is if people don’t do that, then they won’t be allowed to present on their new court date. And this means, for example, we have two women who are with their children. They fled from Guatemala and they speak primarily mom. So it’s very difficult for them to navigate in Mexico. A mom is an indigenous Guatemalan, language is very difficult for them to, to navigate in Mexico. One of the women has a court date on March 31st and she’s at a loss of what to do because if she goes to what is and presents for her court date she then won’t have anywhere to stay in. Is there any way to find where to stay? Most of the migrant shelters in the Northern borders aren’t accepting new arrivals in light of this pandemic, trying to keep the folks that are currently sheltered, healthy. But that means she doesn’t have any shelter options if she arrives to what is, and she doesn’t know anybody in what is, but she can’t, according to the U.S. Government, she can’t just wait in Nogales where she’s at least managed to rent an apartment and knows a couple of people. Because then she wouldn’t, she won’t be accepted when ever her next court date is, which is probably going to be in May. So it’s putting everybody in a situation of vulnerability, but it’s particularly affecting those indigenous language speakers who struggle to adjust.

Joanna Williams (09:04):

And then the third reality that we’ve seen in the last week or so is this what were announced as rapid expulsions, which goes to this U S government border shutdown. Just for, again, for geographical context, Nogales is one of the primary ports of deportation along the border. And we’re one of the largest cities in this part of the border. So we’re the largest city along the Arizona border. And all of the deportations of folks who have been detained in Arizona have for many years gone through Nogales. And because we’re a place that with more services, we have the bus lines, we have systems in place. Well now with these rapid expulsions, people aren’t being returned through Nogales. They’re being pushed back in the smaller cities where they have much fewer access to services. So I was just hearing this morning, for example, that in the town of Sasabey, migrants are being rapidly expelled. Some of them are being brought over being received by group Obeta. Others are just walking into the Mexican side of the border really with no sense of what the next steps are. They’re in complete legal limbo.

Mario Moreno (10:16):

So, you really painted a compelling picture there. So there’s, there’s really, the border shutdown has exacerbated, in your words, what had already been a fairly concerning situation. You had nearly 60,000 migrants and asylum seekers stranded on the U S Mexico on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border because of Remain in Mexico and metering. And because of the border shutdown, they’ve, there’s, there’s, you know, three additional challenges that migrants and asylum seekers face, which is fairly concerning. I guess the question then becomes, you know, what’s the alternative part of the argument on the COVID-19 border shutdown, an announcement was that they were restricting travel for all non-essential travel. The argument is the argument that you’re making sort of that asylum seekers and migrants should be considered a central travel. And if, so, is that legal obligations that a humanitarian application or is that just informed by what you’re seeing on the ground of the impact that this policy could have on, on these populations?

Joanna Williams (11:18):

Exactly. So we, we argue that asylum seekers asylum is literally a matter of life and death. This, this dad that I mentioned from the state of Mexico, he has literally came within a few inches of death. And that’s the experience of many asylum seekers. So their pursuit of life is an essential pursuit. It is essential travel far more essential to be honest than the travel that I make across the border, which I’m still considered an essential traveler even when these asylum seekers are not, which I think is a great injustice. Ubut, I still want to be able to go over it and provide meals, but just to put it in context, they’re both essential travel, but asylum-seekers have been more essential travel. Uand I think what, what we forget sometimes is that we do have other ways to manage this reality,uin ways that have been successful in the past.

Joanna Williams (12:16):

So I was speaking with one, one woman who again has been stranded for several months under metering and she said if I was processed at the port, if I was allowed to enter the asylum process, I would be more than happy to go to my sister’s house in the United States because many of the families that are stranded on the Mexican side of the border have relatives or or friends in the U S who are ready to receive them. She said, I will go to my sister’s house and I will completely self quarantine for the next 14 days.

Mario Moreno (12:50):

They’re even aware of the fact that there’s a global pandemic and they’re even willing to take public health precautions on their own if let into the country.

Joanna Williams (12:57):

Exactly. People are really aware of the health implications. They’re very aware actually of how it’s more likely that the pandemic is reaching Mexico from the United States than the other way around. But they’re also want to be attentive to not being a carrier of coronavirus and to taking the necessary measures. So if we allowed people to go to their us sponsors and self quarantine there I think that could be a really a best practice because then people are in isolation. They’re in a more stable place than the folks in this situation of instability on the Mexican border. And to your question about whether it is that legal or is that humanitarian? I would say it’s legal. It’s humanitarian and it’s in the best interest of public health. So it’s all three. We have an asylum law that has to be obeyed and that has been unfortunately discarded. We also should have humanitarian concern, but it’s also, this is what’s best, even if we’re only acting from our self-interest, this is in the best interest of our public health, is to have people in isolated homes in which they can self quarantine in this time of social distancing.

Mario Moreno (14:12):

But in lieu of that happening, which, you know, as you said, we’re in a very difficult moment with the Trump administration taking a series of actions over the, over the last several years to, to chip away at the right to asylum. And then with this, you know, temporary shutdown basically, and the right to asylum that the alternative, you know, sounds promising. And it is, it sounds like it’s the right thing to do. But in lieu of that you know, the Mexican asylum system has been overwhelmed over the last couple of years because of remain in Mexico because of metering, because all of these actions that’s one entire conversation that we could have. But the other side of the conversation now that you add in a complete shutdown on the Mexican border and you add in covid-19, a global pandemic that that you know, is spreading worldwide. How is the Mexican public health system equipped and ready to, to, to serve and protect the needs of migrant and asylum seeking populations on the US Mexico border?

Joanna Williams (15:11):

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen evidence that the Mexican government is ready for this responsibility. And again, here we could have a longer conversation. I think it is important to note that these are policies that the Mexican government agreed to. So in their agreement to MPP the Mexican government said they would provide for health education and work and shelter for individuals who are returned. The Mexican government has assumed responsibilities that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to carry out. And that means unfortunately that the, that migrants are going to be the last in line as a Mexican government is looking to respond and treat the effects of covid-19 in Mexico. And that’s why I think it’s particularly important that we see this as a shared responsibility, but we especially focus on the impact of, of us policy and putting people in this situation of vulnerability.

Mario Moreno (16:07):

So, so it sounds like really what winds up happening is that the responsibility of protecting and caring for the health and safety of these migrants oftentimes falls on shelters like the ones that, that the keynote border initiative in Sonata and Nogales. So, so I guess the question becomes, you know, how has your work shifted as a result of, of both the U S shutting down the border a week ago and, and you know, the Mexican government committing to all these steps but not quite delivering on any of them. How are you attempting to sort of deal with a population that had been stranded for a long time on the us Mexico border and who now also might face the risks of a public health pandemic that isn’t being adequately addressed?

Joanna Williams (16:58):

I think you’re precisely right. They didn’t in the void of government and the void of Mexican and us government action. Ultimately it’s the civil society groups and individuals that have to step up and are stepping up as the, as best as we can, but with far fewer resources and far less capacity than a government could have. So just to, at the keynote border initiative, we’ve been really conscious about, first of all, the absolute necessity of the food services that we provide. So we can’t have people going hungry just because of Covid-19. And so that we say we have to maintain even as we scale back on other pieces. So we haven’t, for example, been giving out as many clothing, as much clothing in recent weeks. Because of that’s beyond our capacity at this moment as we try to just food and provide very limited medical services.

Joanna Williams (17:54):

The, we have volunteered nurses and doctors that used to come down to provide medical services. Some of them are in the high risk category and it’s not advisable for them to be in contact with a large population. And some of them are providing medical services to respond in, in other institutions. So we essentially don’t have those volunteers, nurses and doctors in the Red Cross here in Nogales is shut down for now. So we’re doing the best that we can to provide the services that are possible and the medical side. And again, continuing with that absolutely essential service of providing food for people. What we’ve changed is we we exist in a space for, so w what used to happen is that we would bring people in to our space. We call it the comidor or dining room for meals.

Joanna Williams (18:46):

And then after that time provides several services within the space. In this, over the course of the last several months, we’ve had to do multiple rounds of meals because we have so many migrants who are stranded here relative to the capacity of our physical space. But in light of Covid-19, we’ve shifted all of our services to outside of the building. So we’re providing all the food to go form and families. We’re asking families that are able to, so unless they’re a single mom to just send one representative of the family to come and get the, to go food for the whole rest of the family to reduce the amount of crowding as people are waiting for their food. Cause there are long lines as people wait for breakfast. So those are some of the ways that we’re adapting and you know, trying to take the appropriate measures to protect staff and protect the migrants. And to the extent that in this long line people can stand six feet apart to try to encourage folks to do that as well. Right,

Mario Moreno (19:46):

Right. So I’m trying to, to understand sort of all this from the perspective of, of a migrant or an asylum seeker who you know, left their home country in search of, of, of a better future, but our life of safety, of, of, of a number of, for a number of different reasons was forced to stay on, in dangerous Mexican border towns and sort of figure out their way to, to stay safe while they awaited for their asylum hearing or they even just waited the chance to present a sound claim and now faces the additional risk of, of of, of a pandemic and of exposure to Covid-19. Do you have a sense of, of what options these, these individuals, what’s next? What kind of options are they sort of trying to figure out in terms of the next actions that they want to take? Is it stay and try to stay as healthy as possible? Is it go back home? Is it something else?

Joanna Williams (20:43):

Yeah, that’s what the several individuals are grappling with of whether to stay in Nogales in this prolonged limbo or whether to return to their home towns. What I’d say is that several w in the last week or two violence is flared up in really dramatic ways. And some of the hometowns of folks of the Mexican asylum seekers that we accompany so many of the Mexican asylum seekers are from Guirerro. And I’ve said that recently their houses have been burned. Other family members have been killed, that there’s been a sudden spike in their communities. So some people are thinking about going home, not because they think it’s safer, but because they left a family member there and they want to go and rescue that family member and try to find another alternative. So it’s going home and staying isn’t really a viable option for most individuals who’ve been displaced. But they don’t have any viable options at this point either.

Mario Moreno (21:42):

That’s yeah, I can’t imagine being in that situation. One of the, one of the, one of the things that’s really fascinating about KBI is, is that you have this really compelling and, and, and sort of unique view into the world. You know, we talk about us border policy being, you know, infringing on human rights. We talk about Mexico not living up to its commitments that it made in reaching agreements on Remain in Mexico metering and, and shutting down the, the border. We talk about all these big policies and systems, but on a day to day basis, all of you interact with migrants. So from that perspective and from the perspective that, that your organization is, is sort of nurtured by, by Catholic social teaching as an organizing principle, what’s missing and in how we talk about this, about the, the issue of immigration in the media and the public writ large.

Joanna Williams (22:42):

I think the biggest missing piece in one that migrants here bring up on a constant basis. When I asked them, well, what do you want people in the larger public or folks in the United States to understand is that we have more that’s in more in common than what separates the than what separates us. So there’s more ways in which individuals in the United States can identify with migrants. And I have similarities to migrants than the differences that oftentimes are, are seen as are the most obvious. So just an example, I’d say, you know, what, mother and the United States would want their children to be in a dangerous situation. What mother wouldn’t do it everything or sacrifice to be able to provide a better life for their children? Those are very similar desires. The desires of family, desires of safety and stability.

Joanna Williams (23:38):

There’s so many ways in which we can identify with migrants at the border or in a general sense. And I think we ignore that whether, whether we ignore that from a perspective of a xenophobia of seeing people as the other or even from a perspective of so-called humanitarianism, of helping the poor migrants. What we ignore is the similarities as human beings and their own power and voice. And that’s something that I’ve been really struck by in the last month or two. As I mentioned, Remain in Mexico’s existed for a while along the border, but in Nogales was just implemented in starting in January. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many families that are so courageous and determined and speaking out against injustice and in believing that another world is possible. And it doesn’t have to be that way. I, and that’s the other vision.

Joanna Williams (24:35):

So, so listening to those voices, but also understanding that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there are other ways we can manage migration and, and welcome people. There’s a phrase from the Jesuit migration network of hospitality reminds us that another world is possible. And I think we have a lack of imagination at this moment as we become closed in by fear and we’re really missing out on so many blessings and so much fruit. That’s the Catholic perspective as well. So we miss out on the, on the opportunity to see God and receive God’s graces when we are so entrenched in a mentality of rejection, of limitation and scarcity.

Mario Moreno (25:19):

So that was a really poignant and, and, and, and beautifully said statement on, on how we need to imagine a different outcome on the border and as it relates to migrants. So, so to all the listeners of the, Beyond the Wall podcast, who care about this issue deeply and, and who are looking for ways to, to stay involved in, into help in what is increasingly very desperate and hard times, what’s your message to them?

Joanna Williams (25:48):

So I think there’s two important realities or important ways to think about how to respond. The first is to recognize the power of individual actions. So if we’re really going to construct this better world that is possible, then it does matter to call your congressperson, to write an editorial and submit it to your local paper, to speak to friends and neighbors even via virtually in these times of social distancing to help them understand the reality of migrants in the border and feel closer and identify more with them. So not, I think it’s important that listeners not become overwhelmed by the context of policy and news and this constant flow of information, but recognize your own power in this moment to, to do good and be a part of transformation. And the second is that in that process the invitation is to incredible persistence.

Joanna Williams (26:47):

So I’ve think, and I’m constantly inspired by the women who I know who have crossed the border five or six times to try to reunite with their family members in the U S after being deported and separated from their kids. And the dad from who was deported from Las Vegas, who the other day said to me there’s no way that I wouldn’t go back to my daughter. And so that spirit of persistence is also the, what the invitation for us is in advocacy and in, in engagement and creating this other world individual action matters, but not just one individual action. Be as persistent as the migrants at the border are and allow that to propel you forward. Because only then will we be able to create transformation,

Mario Moreno (27:34):

Persistence, action, and imagination of a better world. I think those are three important words to keep in mind during this time. Joanna Williams, thank you for being with us today and keep up the important work down in Nogales.

Joanna Williams (27:50):

Thanks for the invitation and attention. And it’s a blessing to be able to amplify folks’ voices.