Reflections on the US-Mexico Border

In November 2019, four members of the Romero House community journeyed down to the US-Mexico border. We were hosted by our friends in the American Sanctuary Movement, who have been doing courageous work along the border for decades. We invite you to enter into the realities of the border by reading through the reflections below. And we invite you to consider what this calls us to as Canadians, as a country complicity in these policies.

The pilgrimage begins – November 6 , 2019

Greetings from Tucson from Jenn, Mary Jo, Alexa and Kathryn! We have begun a week of conversation, learning and solidarity with humanitarian workers and people of faith from the United States and Germany.

We started off with an inspiring gathering at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where we heard about the good work of the Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coaltion.

We were thinking of the amazing team of lawyers in the Federal Court of Canada this week challenging the Safe Third Country Agreement. If you wonder if the United States is a safe country for refugees, you simply need to hear the stories of the mandatory detention of anyone who makes a claim for asylum at an American Port-of-Entry. Imagine trying to prepare for your hearing with no access to counsel, inability to gather documents and the realities of living in the deplorable conditions of an immigration detention centre.

This is an important moment in our country as the court challenge is underway. This is the moment to stand up for the rights of refugees. This is the moment to live up to our international obligations. This is the moment not to be complicit with the human rights violations happening south of the Canadian border. This is the moment.

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People spend a lifetime fighting walls” – November 7, 2019

Our delegation in Tucson spent much of the day in Nogales, Mexico. We visited the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit run organization that provides food, medical aid and know-your-rights workshops to migrants and deportees. Nogales is the only border crossing that does not operate with the Remain in Mexico policy, a policy that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings. However, people are still forced to wait in Mexico for months before their appointment to even make an asylum claim at the US border. And they must prepare themselves for the reality that they will be detained while they undergo their asylum process. It could be months or even years. Even families with children might be detained in family detention centres.

The work of the Kino Border Initiative is so important in more ways than basic needs provision. We have included some photos of the recycling artwork competition that was done with the kids. As one of the Kino staff put it, “life isn’t really on hold while people are here, it is lived.”

We also visited the site of the murder of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a Mexican teenager who was shot 16 times by a border patrol officer through the wall in 2012. The officer made the absurd claim that he was acting in self defense against the youth on the other side of the fence. Jose Antonio’s family is still seeking justice for his death.

And finally, we spent the evening in discussion with Haidi Sadik of Sea Watch (Mediterranean) and Scott Warren of No More Deaths (Arizona). They shared their reflections of doing humanitarian aid in the borderlands. Grace St. Paul’s Church was packed full of people showing their support for Scott Warren. He is facing a criminal trial next week for his work in offering food and water, clean clothing and first aid to migrants in the desert. We stand with him and say that humanitarian aid is never a crime. And we hold his words closely as he reminds us that the people who carry the biggest risk of criminalization are the migrants who are simply hoping to find safety.

Our gathering this evening took place on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall–something very significant for the German folk in our delegation. Haidi Sadik from Sea Watch left us with these inspiring words: “People spend a lifetime fighting walls. Walls will inevitably come falling down. And that will be achieved by ordinary people.”

-Jenn, Mary Jo, Alexa and Kathryn

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In the weaponized Sonora desert – November 8, 2019

Our crew at the US-Mexico border spent the day in the desert, learning from people providing frontline humanitarian aid to migrants walking in search of life. It was shocking to hear about the militarization of the border, the oppressive presence of Border Patrol and the inhumane policy of Prevention Through Deterrence.

An estimated 300 people walk across the border south of Tucson every day and make their way through the desert under extremely harsh conditions. As Scott Warren said last night, the desert has been weaponized. Amazing humanitarian groups (Humane Borders, Samaritans and No More Deaths) have been working for more than a total of 20 years to try to eliminate deaths in the desert. But hundreds of human remains are recovered every year. People who put their hope in the North die because of a border control strategy that does not value human life. As stated on the wall in the humanitarian aid office in Arivaca: …killing people is NOT a legitimate form of immigration policy.

Tucson Artist Alvaro Enciso has placed over 900 crosses in the desert where bodies have been recovered. His work forces us to ackowledge that those who have died are not just numbers, but people with hopes, dreams and families.

The desert is a majestic place, but it has also become a threatening place to so many. We were welcomed into the camp of No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, where around the clock volunteers offer food, water and medical care to migrants passing through the desert. They have been harassed by Border Patrol, facing raids on their camp, arrests of their guests and most recently, the charging of Scott Warren with harbouring illegal migrants. But they remain committed to being a presence of hope and care in the desert. And they keep their focus on the people who are truly risking something to seek a better life. The regular water drops they make along with the Samaritans no doubt prevent death by dehydration for countless people.

Our time in the Tucson area has left us amazed at the power of community in this place and the incredible acts of civil initiative. We ended our day with a visit to Keep Tucson Together, a weekly legal clinic set up to de-mystify the law and to train people to provide their own legal defence. The goal is to prevent deportations and to keep people in Tucson who are beloved members of the community. It is run by volunteers who devote their time, skills and for many, their lives to doing this. That this city is a special place is not lost on us. It is full of people seeking to live lives that are full of meaning, who resist empire and who know what is right and good.

We will bid Tucson goodbye tomorrow morning and drive West to El Paso. More to come.

-Jenn, Mary Jo, Kathryn and Alexa

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El Paso: the testing ground for abusive policies – November 9, 2019

Greetings from El Paso, Texas. We are still on the US-Mexico border, but this is a very different place from where we have spent the past few days. The communities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico are indistinguishable from up high. It is the steel wall running between them that divides the lives of the inhabitants of these two cities which were once young.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Dylan Corbett of the Hope Border Institute. He made it clear that “the current situation is an echo of the past” as he swept through 400 years of El Paso’s history. This place has a deep legacy of racism as it was built on the “discriminatory subordination of migrants.” It is heavily militarized, with the presence of Border Patrol, the military, ICE and the police. El Paso is the home of Fort Bliss, the largest military base in the Western Hemisphere. This is the level of oppression that racialized people, migrants and asylum seekers live under.

El Paso is the testing ground for many of the fascist asylum policies that are enacted in the United States. Children were being separated from their parents before the crisis of 2018. Asylum seekers have been detained en masse here for a long time. We heard from Dylan that a journalist here has just discovered that there are people being kept in tents with their asylum hearings being expedited without ever having access to counsel.

The asylum grant rate of Mexican citizens in the United States is extremely low–we have heard the number 2% in a few places. It is in the political and economic interests of both the USA and Mexico to keep it that way. That means that human rights defenders and other asylum seekers are deported every day to extreme danger. Carlos Spector, immigration lawyer and founder of Mexicanos en Exilio has been fighting for protection of asylum seekers in El Paso for decades. He did not mince his words in describing the reality of fascism in the United States. To share a few of his reflections with you:

“In Mexico when they violate human rights, they ignore the law. In the United States when they violate human rights, they implement the law.”

“When powers of immigration judges are concentrated in the executive, that’s fascism! …we are a nation of people who have drunk the Kool-Aid. They have been fooled into believing we are a country with the Rule of Law.”

Today we are in Juarez, Mexico. You will hear more from us soon about the obvious human rights violations of the Remain in Mexico policies.

Until then,
Jenn, Mary Jo, Alexa and Kathryn

Ciudad Juarez: in the backyard of El Paso – November 10, 2019

Good morning from El Paso, the most heavily militarized city in the United States. We spent yesterday across the border in Juarez, Mexico. This reflection will be dedicated to realities the inhumane policies of the US government that we were witness to in Juarez. As one activist that we met said to us, the human consequences here on the ground for those who suffer under these policies are fatal.

Juarez has always been a town of migrants, seeing people moving North to the US and South following deportations. But it has generally been a place of transitory migration. All of that has changed in the past year.

In October of 2018, a formal policy of “metering” came into effect, although it has existed in practice for years. Metering prevents asylum seekers from setting foot on US soil to make a claim on the grounds that “there is no capacity to process them.” People are forced to wait on the Mexico side until their name rises to the top of a list maintained by Mexican officials. They wait in a place that is not their home, where they may not speak the language and where they have no rights. As one El Paso based advocate said to us, “metering” is essentially a substitute for the word “denial”.”

Mexican asylum seekers are in a different boat then people from Central America or other countries as they cannot be placed on lists maintained by their state of persecution. They have set up camps around the bridges to El Paso where they maintain self organized lists that determine who can attempt to cross the bridge and make a claim. In total, there are tens of thousands of people waiting in Juarez to simply declare their need for protection.

US Customs and Border Protection may allow as few as 5 people per day to cross the bridge. The lie of “capacity issues” leaves people extremely vulnerable, resulting in the tragic loss of life for some.

The other policy that is a clear violation of human rights is the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), more commonly referred to as Remain in Mexico. This is neither “protection” nor are there “protocols.” It is simply a mechanism for creating chaos and breaking the spirits of people who had placed their hope in the United States.

Under MPP, Spanish-speaking non-Mexican nationals who have succeeded in making an asylum claim are quickly returned to Mexico. There they are forced to remain, only returning to the USA for their asylum hearings. They are hosted by a country that does not provide the resources to help them navigate a complex asylum processing, further reducing their chances of success. For most people under MPP, Juarez is a very precarious place to be. Most children are not able to officially enroll in school, there is poor or discriminatory access to health care and migrants are targeted by organized crime rings.

The chaos and violence that asylum seekers face in Juarez because of metering and MPP force people to make impossible decisions. It leads people to seek irregular and dangerous entry to the US along other points on the border. It leads people to “voluntarily” return home, as for some it is “better to die at home than die waiting in Juarez.” It is clear that the goal of this administration is to create a system so dysfunctional that the only result is failure. As Mary Jo put it, we are trying to figure out how these changing asylum processes work, but the trouble is they are not supposed to work.

This post fails to capture even a fraction of the reality of human rights violations perpetuated by the US government at the border. This is just a beginning. We will elaborate in another post later today. And as we do so, we ask you all to consider what this summons us to in Canada. Just because these people are not presenting at our border (because of our own border externalization policies), we cannot ignore it.

In solidarity,

Jenn, Mary Jo, Alexa and Kathryn

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Reflection from Mary JoNovember 10, 2019

Dear Friends and members of the Romero House community,

For the last six days Jenn McIntrye and I have been travelling with an international group of 20 people who are engaged with refugees who struggle to survive in the dangerous inbetween places of borderlands.

We are visiting places and people along the border between Mexico and the USA. The Europeans in our group (mostly from Germany) know the dangerous inbetween place called the Mediterranean Sea.

For all of us on this journey we have been summoned to ponder the reality of borders in our world today. There are doubtless places where the border is a life size place of meeting and greeting, a place of growing and gathering.

However, there are also borders that are places of death and destruction. These places are largely invisible, places where human beings can disappear and take hope with them.

The good news is that there are angels in these places of sand and of water. One of them is an artist called Alvaro, a man who goes out every Tuesday to the Sonoran desert to plant crosses in the places where human remains have been found. He is a guardian of memory, refusing to forget that someone died here, a husband, a father, a person with nothing left but hope. He has planted 900 crosses. Drawing on information from the local medical examiner, he estimates that between 3000-8000 people have died in the part of the Sonoran desert.

In Nogales, Mexico, a group of twenty volunteers feed 250 people every morning and evening, providing clothing and, most importantly, information about places of safety. They are efficient, effective. In contrast, there are many border patrol officers in the ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) but they seem incapable of processing more than five people a day. This is the organized cruelty that drives people into hiding, into the desert, into death.

The good news is that the faith groups in these borderland areas are engaged with the reality of this suffering. There are many small volunteer groups that go out to the desert with water containers and food, picking up the sick and the dying and taking them to medical tents in the desert. Some have been arrested for this “Samaritan work”. The local bishop of El Paso has written what has been called “the strongest statement against racism”.

As we have travelled through the borderlands between Mexico and the USA, I have thought a lot about the border between Canada and the United States. What is happening at our borders and why?

Walls are built in our hearts and minds long before they are built with steel and mortar and wire.

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Scott Warren Trial – November 10, 2019

We highly recommend you watch this segment from PBS news. It documents the work of No More Deaths and the upcoming trial of Scott Warren. We had the honour of meeting with Scott, who has been charged with a felony for giving water and humanitarian aid to desperate migrants in the Arizona desert. Hear the powerful words of Reverend John Fife, our host in Tucson and the co-founder of No More Deaths.

The fabrication of an “invasion” – November 11, 2019

On our final day at the US-Mexico border, it was very clear that we were seeing the consequences of generations of the politics of fear and xenophobia. And we were seeing the devastating effects of a profit first mentality. We are grateful to the dedicated folk at the Hope Border Institute for opening our eyes to the context of this place. We made a promise that we would share with our community what we learned from them. It matters to us in Canada. It matters because we are neighbours. It matters because we are human.

Until the 1990s, the border between and around Juarez and El Paso was a porous boundary. People lived and one side while they worked, shopped and partied on the other. Then NAFTA came into effect. The wall went up almost overnight. It was predicated on the need for a cheap labour force IN Mexico. And cheap American corn flooding the market devastated Mexican farmers. Keep out the cheap labour force. Keep out the desperate farmer.

It is an understatement to say that the amount of investment that went into ramping border security in the early to mid 90s was overkill. And kill it did. It pushed people out to the desert, to the most dangerous places to cross. This is part of the ongoing border strategy of deterrence. But the high risk crossings and the rising death roll have done little to stop the flow of desperate people.

Border enforcement is big business. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) receive close to $23 billion annually. Think of all the jobs created. And how does the state justify it? By creating a national threat. By fabricating an “invasion.”

But there is no such invasion. At the end of the Obama administration the number of Mexican nationals crossing into the United States was the lowest it has been in nearly four decades. But in listening to the current president speak, the average American would not have that impression.

We were asked not to take any pictures of the Mexican families camped out at the border crossings in Juarez. We understood that we didn’t want to endanger the lives of anyone by revealing their whereabouts. And we wanted to respect their privacy. But our hosts gave us an additional reason. The metering policies that are forcing people to wait for months in Mexico are creating very convenient images for this administration; thousands of people camped out at the border. Well meaning media trying to expose the abuses of the US government simply offer it fuel.

On August 3rd, a man walked into a Walmart in El Paso and killed 22 people. He had written a manifesto, stating that he felt responsible to stop an “invasion.” We don’t need to wonder from where he gets that word.

The politics of xenophobia and fear is deadly. It is killing people in the desert. It is killing children in the custody of Customs and Border Protection. It is killing people on shopping trips with their families.

What now are we summoned to do? Certainly something. Dylan Corbett from the Hope Border Institute left us with these words: “Now everything at the border is on display to see. We can’t hide it or pretend it isn’t there. There is now more hope than ever because we have the opportunity to say NOT in my name!”

Follow-up to Remain in Mexico (November 21, 2019)

The Remain in Mexico/MPP policy in the the United States is clearly violating the human rights of refugees and migrants. Even the asylum decision makers in the United States are calling it out as an illegal policy, with some officers quitting and publicly calling out the regime. There are some powerful statements being made by Asylum Officers–it is so important that people whose job it is to carry out abusive policies refuse to do so and stand up for what is right!

Former Asylum Officer Doug Stephens tells us why he quit his job and spoke out about Remain in Mexico: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRmAuP3JAw4

This American Life episode about Remain in Mexico including very powerful interviews with three Asylum Officers. We HIGHLY recommend you listen to the whole thing: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/688/transcript

Asylum Officer’s Union Tells Congress Remain in Mexico is Illegal: https://www.whistleblower.org/…/newsy-asylum-officers-unio…/

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