WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(Adam Isacson)

15 Feb 2019 | Commentary

I’m at the Border, Where There’s no ‘National Emergency’

Today President Trump, in a dangerous and probably illegal abuse of power, declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border. All week, I’ve been here in Tijuana and San Diego, on the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border. I cannot affirm this strongly enough: there is no national security crisis happening here.

What I have seen is a humanitarian crisis, of the Trump administration’s own making.

All week I’ve been interviewing migrants, experts, officials, and service providers on both sides of the border. I’ve also been volunteering with our partners, a coalition of local church and humanitarian groups, providing brief shelter, food, and travel assistance to mostly Central American asylum-seeking families. ICE releases several dozen of these families from custody into San Diego every day.

I am bringing the stories of the asylum seekers I’ve met and what I’ve seen and experienced here back to Washington, to make sure policy makers know the reality on the ground and have the tools they need to fight back against inhumane policies and rhetoric at every front.

While here in Tijuana, I’ve accompanied several asylum-seeking families as they navigate airports and bus depots. The process is confusing and difficult, but they are hopeful and relieved that their dangerous journey is over, at least for now. These families, and all those waiting for their chance to apply for asylum, need strong advocates in Washington fighting for them. They need firm allies in Congress who’ll refuse to fund more walls or barbed wire.

Thank you for making this work possible. Click here to donate now to support WOLA’s work at the border and critical advocacy in Washington. You can stay involved and learn about the Beyond the Wall Campaign here.

Taking a break between meetings at a coffee shop in central Tijuana, I wanted to share some of my first-hand impressions and experiences from my second visit to the border so far this year:

  • A large number of the families I’ve encountered are from rural Guatemala and coastal Honduras. Nearly all are with children under five or six years old, and often with babies under one. Nobody has arrived with more than one or two small backpacks of belongings—usually the little ones that grade-school kids use. Nobody I’ve accompanied has a mobile phone. Some of those arriving now had a less brutal journey across Mexico, because the new Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador briefly provided humanitarian visas to new arrivals from Central America. Many chose to stay in Mexico—but with a legal identity document, those who wanted to move on to the United States could at least take a bus across Mexico instead of traveling in the shadows with smugglers.
  • A majority of the migrants I spoke with were forced to cross in dangerous rural areas and present their asylum requests to Border Patrol, rather than calmly approaching U.S. officials at the downtown border crossing. Currently the port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego—the busiest border crossing in the hemisphere, if not the world—is only accepting about 40-60 asylum seekers a day. That means that at least 2,500 people are waiting in Tijuana, Mexico, with their names on an informal list. Asylum seekers are waiting six weeks or more in unsafe conditions for their names to be called. This creates a huge, perverse incentive to take the risky route to a more rural area, hop the fence or climb through rugged terrain, and wait for Border Patrol to apprehend you and your kids. Yesterday I met a Honduran woman, eight months pregnant, who climbed the fence at night in a driving rainstorm rather than be forced to wait six weeks at the port of entry.
  • Now, even after that long wait, some asylum-seekers at the port of entry are being sent back into Mexico to await their asylum trials. The Trump administration is sending dozens of Central Americans back into Mexico each day, under a unilateral program that they call “Migrant Protection Protocols” but we call “Remain in Mexico.” This was being applied only adults, until Wednesday, when the first families—including one with a one-year-old baby—were sent back. They are among a group of exhausted-looking adult asylum-seekers who cross back in to Mexico every day. There they must find legal help to make their cases;many weeks from now, they’ll be admitted back across the border to appear before U.S. immigration judges.
  • There is a humanitarian crisis happening at the border. Of every migrant whom Border Patrol is apprehending right now, three out of five are kids, or parents with kids. That’s never happened before: in 2012, it reached one in ten for the first time. Respite centers helping new arrivals are overrun and low on resources. Amid gang violence, rampant extortion, drought, and extreme poverty, Central Americans will arriving at the border hoping for asylum, no matter what inhumane policies  the Trump administration puts in place.
  • Some will qualify for asylum, and some won’t. But the Trump administration’s response couldn’t be worse. That response is symbolized, for me, by barbed wire. There’s concertina wire everywhere along this border. It surrounds the “Mexico” sign as you enter into Tijuana. It tops the border fence that extends from the beach about 100 yards into the Pacific. It’s coiled along the barrier near the paved-over Tijuana River, where border agents used tear gas in November to disperse “caravan” participants, including women and children. It was put there by the ongoing deployment of active-duty military troops to the border, a use of active (not reserve or National Guard) troops that has very few modern precedents on U.S. soil.
  • The Central American migrants I’ve met are full of hope and palpably relieved, even though much lies ahead of them. Their kids pay close attention when I point out the airplanes at the gates, follow the route on my rental car’s GPS app, or read “Where the Wild Things Are” in Spanish.
  • At the San Diego airport I’ve guided several families through to their planes—to Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas, North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere (I’ve done some bus station runs too), and thankfully the airline employees and TSA agents have been really kind. Flying isn’t easy when your ID is your ICE “release on recognizance” form, you’ve got an electronic GPS ankle monitor constantly attached to you, you’ve got a small child or two, and (in all cases so far) you’ve never been inside an airport before. And then, of course, the language barrier: for some, Spanish is their second language after Mam or Qan’jobal. All the big airlines, though, have this figured out by now: if the flight is full, they bend over backwards to try to seat the parent and child together. I have no problem getting an “escort pass” to get to the gate. TSA agents, who have to pat everyone down, have all been very patient and friendly. Some kids even got little gold “badge” stickers. Many of the other passengers have been cool and friendly, too. Good for you, San Diego Airport.