A few days ago, I returned from two weeks of volunteering in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican border town across from Douglas, Arizona. I had the opportunity to assist two organizations, Frontera de Cristo and Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus, who are working together to provide hospitality, shelter, food, legal support, and safety to families and individuals seeking legal asylum at the US border. I worked for 13 days straight for 8–10 hours each day, I made lasting connections with migrants and other volunteers as we all strived to make a seemingly impossible journey feel a little more possible.
Before this experience, I had thoughts about immigration, migration, and asylum, but that’s all they were, thoughts. Each day brought new challenges, learning opportunities, and complicated stories that have helped me see the true consequences (good and bad) of US immigration policy on people, real people. Below you will find five short stories that I wrote while I was living this experience. I have not changed anything. My hope is that more of us can shed light on the realities of the border, because understandably, it is something that so many Americans will never know for themselves.
La Frontera: The Land of Contradictions
La Frontera is neither Mexico nor the United States, but rather a space of its own filled with contradictions; a place where one day can drag on forever for the families trying to reach a new life. For those of us privileged enough to help them (even just for a few days), and willing enough to live uncomfortably in the grayness of their situation, it’s an opportunity to better understand the realities of seeking for something better without really knowing what you’re seeking for.
In just the first three days, I’ve witnessed a young family reach their “promised land”, yet I know that the drawn out process of being granted asylum may at times feel harder than the situations they leave behind. I’ve been welcomed each morning at the migrant shelter with smiling faces, even though they have every reason to give up. And I’ve watched countless Americans and Mexicans cross the border freely on a daily basis as if there is no border, meanwhile a migrant family sits in the 100 degree heat for days hoping for a chance to do the same.
If you think you understand the border, think again. I am quickly learning that the complexities of the issues for both the migrants and the United States are beyond the capacity of any news organization to explain accurately. I am witnessing the consequences of decades of failed policies and promises by my government to find a workable solution. I am meeting courageous families who are willing to endure almost anything for an American Dream that on many days I no longer believe exists. But most of all, I am worried that most Americans will never take the time to appreciate this always changing, 1,000- piece puzzle.
Today I spoke to a mother with a 10 year old son who enjoys coming to my arts and crafts time each morning. They are from a part of Mexico that has recently experienced a dramatic increase in cartel violence. She told me that two months ago cartels entered their town and have made it so unsafe that schools have closed; her son no longer has any opportunities and the government has not been able to successfully intervene. You may at first wonder why this family can’t move elsewhere in Mexico, I certainly have, but the reality is that most of us will never experience true systemic violence on this level. Luckily, most of us will never fear for our safety in a way that makes us feel the need to cross a border into an unknown world in hopes of finding peace.
La Frontera: The Cave (La Cueva)
If I ever had any doubt about the legitimacy of asylum claims, La Cueva has washed them away. The aptly nicknamed structure sits on the sidewalk, bound to The Wall with rope, and is just steps away from the port of entry into the United States. It’s covered with tarps, and was built a few months ago when migrant families approached the shelter (CAME) in search of a solution. You see, the shelter is about a 10 minute walk from the port of entry, which is nice, but of no use when trying to cross legally. When their is capacity at the border to assess a new asylum claim, a Customs and Border Protection Officer takes one step outside of the gate and announces the number of spots available at that time, so if you are not within a few feet, you will never get your chance.
Hence, La Cueva.
The case workers at the shelter keep a list of the families in their care, and create a non-linear wait list. For example, families with very small children and infants usually are put toward the top, which unfortunately means that individuals and couples without children continually get pushed back. Once families or individuals appear toward the top of the list, they are moved to La Cueva, where they may have to wait for up to one week.
La Cueva only takes up about 200 sf, but typically holds 15–20 people at a time. The inside is lined with mattresses, which have been placed on plastic risers, leaving only about six inches of space between the foot of the mattress and the “outside wall”. Four times a day volunteers walk in pairs from the nearby resource center to pick up anyone wanting the restroom, shower, water, or simply a break inside with air conditioning. For the last two days I’ve been struck by the terrible odor that wafts out beyond the tarp when I stick my head to ask if anyone wants to come. Keep in mind, the average temperature this time of year is 100 degrees.
Heat + 20 people in a small space + trash = We have to do better
The resource center is a small, two-story building only 1.5 blocks from La Cueva. It is surrounded by a tall, locked gate for protection; it is not uncommon for migrants to tell me about being harassed or robbed at points along their journey. For those living in the tent, if it even deserves to be called that, the resource center is a few hours each day where their lives can be just a little bit better. Each time I have to walk them back to La Cueva I feel a little less human.
No one should ever have to live in these conditions.
But sometimes there is still a little brightness. Today when I took a group back to La Cueva after about an hour at the resource center, we were greeted by three locals, one of which owns a restaurant. They had decided to bring dinner to those in the tent: homemade fried chicken, roasted potatoes, rice, and soda. The man told me he would like to start coming once a week.
La Frontera: First Impressions
Today during a text exchange with my mom, she asked me if I thought I was doing any good down here. Of course I know that bringing activities to families during their asylum process is doing good, but this question got me thinking; what are volunteers on the border really doing? So many of us are only here for only a short amount of time, can we really be making an impact?
After 10 straight hours of painting, coloring, making friendship bracelets, throwing a ball, playing with bubbles, and attempting to communicate in a language I just started learning six months ago, the answer is yes.
Why? Because the border needs a welcoming committee.
Since I arrived, I’ve become acutely aware of the families first impressions of the US, which unfortunately aren’t usually welcoming or caring. While I understand that Border Protection Officers have an important job to do in keeping our country safe, their daily attitudes toward the migrants are less than desirable. I want to respect them, but they continue to make this task difficult. In fact, just a few days ago one of the Russian families overheard an officer say “those fucking Russians”, assuming that none of them understood English. I broke into pieces when the young woman relayed this story to me. Those words are not the country I know, and it’s certainly not the country I want these families to know.
For the first time, today I was able to actually speak to a border field agent. At first, the conversation seemed to be going well. He was complaining that not enough Representatives or Senators have been to the border, something I agreed with because how can you fix a problem you’ve never seen? Unfortunately, just a few sentences later this officer was saying things like “it’s not like these people are Australian or Austrian” and “it’s not our problem, it’s Mexicos”. Since I did not feel like being arrested I kept my mouth shut, but inside I was screaming the following:
- And Australians and Austrians are what? More educated? More white?
- And how do you know that they are less educated? You don’t!
- And why is this Mexico’s problem? Why isn’t it also our problem to help ensure that other countries are safe and economically stable?
- And if you really don’t believe that these families have credible fear, when will you next be vacationing in Honduras?
While there are certainly a lot of policy changes that can be made to help the situation, my fear is that nothing will change if these are the prevailing attitudes in the US. It also makes my head spin that often times the same people draping themselves in American Pride are the same people unwilling to acknowledge that it IS America’s greatness that motivates so many people to make long, dangerous journeys just for a chance at it.
We can’t always assert ourselves as the best country in the world, but also be surprised when these claims draw in those searching for a better life.
La Frontera: Stories
What is often missing from even the best written news on immigration are stories, because if there is one thing I’m walking away with it’s that no one story is the same, yet they are all powerful and real. Over the last week and a half, sometimes with the help of Google Translate, I’ve listened to many stories. Much of what I’ve been told are pieces of much bigger journeys and motivations, but I believe it’s important to share even the smallest tidbits. Below you will find pieces of people and families whom will remain with me.
- Today I watched a young Russian couple cross to the US, since they do not have children, they had been waiting in Mexico for over two months. They were unable to obtain the correct visa to fly directly to the US, and are seeking political asylum. When they first arrived in Mexico they were robbed by a cartel member; all of their money was lost, and the stress of the event caused the woman to miscarry. Today I saw a glimmer of hope for them.
- For the last few days I have gotten to know a large family from Honduras. Two sisters, each with a husband and young child, with their brother. Like so many of our families, when they first arrive they are devastated to learn that there is a 2–3 week waiting list just to get into the CAME shelter, where they will then wait another few weeks. Many of these families have little money by the time they reach us, so they are currently paying a hotel by the hour to stay for a few hours each night in order to sleep. During the day, they come to us at the resource center. I’ve been spending these afternoons coloring with the girls, blowing bubbles, and teaching them a few English words.
- There’s a 10 year old boy who has an incredible amount of artistic talent. He sits patiently each morning for two hours painting with watercolors. Many of his pictures are now hanging on the kitchen walls at CAME, and today he made me a bracelet with pipe cleaners and beads. He and his mother fled cartel violence so that he can have a future; the violence has caused the schools in their town to close indefinitely.
- I now have two new Cuban friends, both seeking political asylum. They did not know each other in Cuba, but have become good friends here. I connected with them as they are my age (25 and 32). They both already have family in the US, but made the hard decision to leave loved ones behind. One evening, I had the opportunity to speak to one of them at length about their journey so far, and learned that when all is said and done, this will cost them almost $9,000 USD. They both left Cuba over 2 months ago, having to start their treks in Guatemala.
- There is a beautiful 9 month old baby here with his parents from The Republic of Dagastan, and majority Muslim region of Russia. They should be crossing to the US any day now, but we will all be sad to see them go. Today, through the help of Google Translate, the father shared that even throughout this incredible journey he has had few fears, and knows that God will protect them. Last night, they showed me incredible pictures from their country. There must be real fear for anyone to leave a place as beautiful as that.
- The next people in line to cross are a married couple from Guerrero, Mexico, also fleeing cartel violence. They have been waiting a while since they do not have children. The wife has become incredibly nervous as their turn approaches because when her father tried to reach the US last year, “he was disappeared”.
For me, it is impossible to separate these stories from the immigration policies. Our current system isn’t working because we have decided that immigration policies should be “easy”, but the fact is that none of this is easy or simple. These families do not want to leave their countries, but they have been left with little choice. They have waited as long as they can to see if things get better for them and their families. So many of them have told me that they hope to return to their communities soon, but for now, their safety and futures are more important.
La Frontera: Final Thoughts
I left Agua Prieta at 7:00 this morning, and am now sitting in the Phoenix airport waiting for my flight home; sorting through everything I’ve experienced over the last two weeks. As I was speaking with some of the other volunteers over dinner last night about my mixed emotions, the only analogy I could come up with is that leaving CAME after 13 days of working feels just like leaving summer camp. For two weeks I have known nothing except what is inside the bubble of volunteer work, I’ve made deep connections with people in a short amount of time, and I’m returning home completely exhausted, yet oddly reinvigorated. It will takes weeks, if not months to completely unpack everything, especially since I am bringing home more questions than answers. I will continue to think about the families I met; wondering how they are adjusting to their new lives, and praying that they are granted asylum.
Yesterday’s chain of events unfolded into a complete picture of the challenges legal migrants face, and the importance of organizations like CAME and Frontera de Cristo. Mary and I walked into arts & crafts with a plan, but quickly realized we would need to correct course as the number of children at the shelter had doubled overnight. Halfway through a group of 12 Cubans, mostly young men, arrived at the shelter. They had been waiting in a nearby town for months as their names inched up the waiting list, and had finally been called back to continue their asylum process. So there we were; 2 volunteers, 12 Cubans, and about 15 children under the age of 10 crammed into a small room.
Later that afternoon we started our shift at the resource center, and were greeted by yet another large group of Cuban migrants who had just arrived into town after waiting for 3 months in Ciudad Juarez without any progress. They were devastated to learn that there is a wait in Agua Prieta as well, and concerned for their safety due to a recent interaction with a taxi driver. You see, in recent weeks migrants in Agua Prieta have become more frequent targets of cartel threats and violence. In fact, many hotels and taxi drivers will no longer accept business from migrants out of fear for their own safety. It is heartbreaking to send people back into the street because the shelter is full, knowing that their lives are a risk.
Luckily, the day ended on a slightly better note. One of the young men in the tent (La Cueva) turned 28 yesterday, something we were made aware of the day before. He is traveling alone, ahead of his wife and child, and told us he was not looking forward to his birthday. One of the most important jobs of volunteers along the border is providing moments of hope and normalcy, so we sprung into action with cake, candles and beer for everyone in the tent during their afternoon break in the center. As we were walking them back, he pulled me aside to express his sincere gratitude, and in his broken English told me that being able to celebrate his birthday brought back happiness, which he had been missing for weeks. By the way, this young man wants to join the US Army.
I’m returning home with so many stories; some good, some not. I’m still waiting to hear from new friends who crossed into the US a few days ago to make sure they are safe. They are currently in a detention center while their initial paperwork is processed, and will not have access to their phones until they are released to their sponsors. But I also know that a family who crossed last week is already safely in New York.
In a perfect world no one would have to seek asylum, but we’re far from that world. It’s not the fault of Mexicans that their government can’t solve cartel violence. It’s not the fault of Venezuelan’s that their country is in a civil war. It’s not the fault of Cubans that they continue to live under an oppressive regime, so while we continue to figure out how to best improve those places, we also must remember that they are people, just like us, who will suffer extreme consequences if they stay. It is unfortunate that the topics of immigration, migration, and asylum have become so tense and divided in our country. While I do not expect everyone to agree on solutions, I do expect us to hold ourselves to a higher standard of empathy and acceptance.
This post is a compilation of stories from my blog Finding Normal, where I write more broadly about my life living in Mexico City.