Layers of barbed wire held to the side ready to shut down the bridge border with Mexico.
In March, I spent a week in El Paso, TX to research family separation at the USA border and it reminded me of many other deliberate bottlenecks and bad cover-ups in American history. Even the declared national emergency is aimed to sway public opinion because of a fabricated security emergency. Yet the emergency is a humanitarian one: we know from childhood trauma research, that family separation impacts the child brain irreversibly.
I have been studying family separation, for the past 20 years, in a different context, in Philadelphia. In my forthcoming book: Give Me Back My Child: How the USA System Kidnaps Children the lives of six mothers reveal how six systems — legal, housing, welfare, mental health, physical health, and school to prison-pipeline — intertwine with the child welfare (foster care) system.
There are many perspectives on the border “crisis.” In El Paso, I spoke with immigration officials, advocates, activists, local families, and volunteers. Yet, all the people on the frontlines I met — even the ones who voted for 45 — agreed that this emergency was deliberate: plotted and planned. “The process has never been as sudden and arbitrary as it is now,” one advocate said.
The variation in rejection rates supports this: in Alabama 96% get rejected, in New York 34% do. The asylum seeker experience is complex. To make the process easier to understand, imagine a family of five, the Taboras.
The Taboras flee Honduras, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Tabora, who have three children ages 1, 5, and 10. Mr. Tabora’s distant cousin lives in upstate New York and offers to host them. They flee Honduras because their small grocery store cannot sustain the pressure from organized crime. The Taboras endure intense fear, but they wait for the threats to get more explicit. They know that to get asylum, they will have to prove that the threats are real. One day, after a bomb is thrown at their family store, they get a police report and run.
In the past years, the USA invested funds in immigration prevention by reducing crime in Central America. Now that 45 has reduced this funding, we can only expect worse.
Our Tabora family sets off on foot, with their family savings of $500. They head North, hoping to reach the United States. They hitch-hike a ride or grab a bus some stretches of the 2,301 mile-journey. But, for a good part, they are on foot to save money. They cross three borders: Guatemala, Mexico, and U.S. When they arrive in Cuidad Juarez, in the Chihuahua desert of Mexico, at the border with El Paso, they have foot sores and have gotten robbed. They feared for their life and survived nights sleeping outside. They have $200 left in their shoes — hidden from the thieves. The last border ahead: the USA. The Taboras are relieved. They almost made it. They walk over the bridge. At mid-bridge, the Border Patrol Officer stops them. Behind him, 8-feet of rolled up bared-wires meant to shut the bridge down if needed. The Taboras have passports, but no visas.
“You have to turn back,” says the officer.
“We were told to report to a border patrol officer to request aslyum.”
“No, not anymore, you have to go back to Mexico and wait.”
A border patrol officer told me this on the bridge, when I asked him what happened to people without visas. Of course, it’s impossible for someone who is requesting asylum to have a visa, since visas are granted for tourist and work reasons. Since the Migration Protection Protocols policy, passed in January 2019, we send asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for a “number” to be called, like a lottery. Mexico is holding people in stadiums and factories.
Layers of barbed wire held to the side ready to shut down the bridge border with Mexico.
After a week sleeping under foil blankets on the ground in an open stadium, the Taboras’ number is called. They are brought to El Paso’s detention center. Mrs. Tabora and the three children are in one place, and Mr. Tabora in another, everyone sleeping for two weeks on floors under more dreaded foil blankets.
A volunteer who visited detainees for the past 10 years said: “ICE doesn’t want anyone to know that people are being detained long-term.” She had visited some detainees for over a year. So it’s true. You can see Mark Lambie’s EL PASO TIMES pictures for more details.
The Taboras are lucky enough to see a judge in 1–2 weeks, but they don’t have a lawyer. They are very confused in court, but they are able to request asylum. Next, they have to pass a “credible fear” interview, where Mr. and Mrs. Tabora will be asked why they were persecuted and by whom and will give documentation of how their life was in danger.
If they don’t pass the credible interview, they are deported. Yet even this selection process is becoming a sham: officers report that we are simply turning everyone back.
The Taboras pass the interview stage, but it will still take months for a decision to be made. They have a cousin waiting for them in New York State, but they are not allowed to call him. The judge releases them requesting they appear later in court in NY State for the final hearing. They are free, for now. They may get deported after the hearing in NY, if they are not granted asylum.
The practice of releasing asylum seekers on bond is also ending. As of this week, people can be detained for months between his first hearing and the final decision.
So who is actually making it through? Very, very few. In 2012, the rejection rate was 42%, in 2018, it was 65% and rising still. The constant roadblocks are out of integrity with who we are. We signed an international convention in 1967 where we vowed to protect asylum seekers in danger in their own country. Instead, we are turning people back by the thousands. We are breaking the very laws we agreed to follow.
Fabricated bottlenecks are not new in American history. In the 1800s, we locked up in orphanages any child begging on the streets of NYC, even if they had parents. Eventually, the buildings were so full, another dramatic turn was taken: the orphan trains, moving thousands of children arbitrarily to mid-west families. More recently, Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) made it easier to sever parental rights more easily, supposedly to make adoptions easier. Instead, it’s resulted in a crisis of legal orphans, whose biological parents have no visiting rights over and are too old to ever be adopted. To mediate that crisis, Arkansas, Minnesota and Oklahoma have changed direction in allowing parents whose rights were terminated a second chance, by restoring their parental rights. What new tragic and inhumane solution will our government choose next?
The Tabora family is placed on a bus and dropped off in El Paso the middle of the night, with hundreds of others. Waiting on the sidewalk, they wonder what’s next.
When I visited El Paso, ICE was dumping 200–600 people a night because their detention centers were full. The city is left to assist them to find their way to where they are going. Host institutions are doing their best to respond to this emergency. It appears that they’re doing this to strain the humanity of border town residents. It’s a deliberate, planned emergency that leaves everyone at the doorstep of civilians in border cities.
But there’s worse, too. A week after I was there, the news broke: ICE was also detaining hundreds of people in a haphazard open cage under the bridge. Out in the open, even at night, in the desert, it’s cold. One night there was a wind storm in El Paso, I can’t even imagine what it was like for them. The latest of many horrors. They are now gone, but where they have been moved to, no one knows.
The Tadoras are the lucky ones. After a few hours waiting on the street, a staff person from one of El Paso’s welcoming homes, religious institutions, offers them a shower and a bed, for 1–2 nights and help contacting his cousin. After two days of rest, more lines, and frustrating attempts to call the cousin, the Tabora family finally has a bus ticket to Albany. It will take them five days on the bus to get to Albany from El Paso with all their layovers. Fortunately, the welcoming center has provided them with some food and fresh clothes for the journey.
So while our country fails our values of “freedom and justice for all,” the welcoming centers and volunteers of El Paso are the ones picking up the slack. I watched them work, exhausted, overwhelmed, intense, generous. They are small institutions, their beds are filled, too. They gather donations for migrant families to stay in motels for two days of sleep before they proceed. It’s intense work. These small institutions are lifting a whole lot.
Migrant families that ICE has just released into the community, waiting to receive basic supplies before getting some rest or continuing on their journey.
Yes, the immigration flux is higher than it was, but it’s not so high to warrant our total overwhelm. So the crisis is not in the people arriving, but in the deliberate bottleneck that our immigration process has become. We have stopped the approval process to deliberately fill the detention centers. The crisis is intended to strain the capacity of the immigration and volunteer system to shift public opinion towards conservatism.
Don’t fall for this folks, it’s all made up. Were we following the agreements we have and the processes we have in place, our borders would not be jam packed. Consider this. What is happening at our border is sort of like, clogging our exhaust pipe and then complaining that our engine stalled. One deliberate crisis after another. This is America.
It’s time to take responsibility for this fabricated mess. What would it look like to transform our country from causing crises to responding to change? What would it look like to build more resilient communities in the USA so we could face the flux of challenges in our own communities? Whether it’s immigration, opioid crisis, or homelessness, we can build stronger communities that can face challenges together. We can strengthen our collective power instead of asking individual people to make it on their own. That is what the El Paso community is doing. They are facing this wave with bravery. I’d love to see us learn from this, that we are always stronger, together.
Picture from the border highway, USA-side. The X is on the Mexico side.