Protest may get the media attention, and direct action at detention sites is crucial in provoking policy change. But more hidden from view are the myriad ways that Americans in the El Paso / Las Cruces area are working to resist and assist the refugees despite the byzantine array of obstacles posed by the United States Government. And an important kind of activism in all this is first understanding and then exposing that atrocity-industrial-complex.
Some of those working on this are students, funded by an National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant, shared by New Mexico State University, University of Texas-El Paso and a consortium of other universities. My former comparative politics professor from my days as a Masters’ student, Neil Harvey, supervises a team of these students.
I caught up with Harvey and his students across the river in Juarez, Mexico, in between a Comparative Politics conference and a benefit fundraiser they were conducting for refugees in a migrant shelter. Over breakfast, the students – some from as far away as Vassar College, John Jay College, and Duke University – described the work they were doing through internships with the Hope Border Institute, which does advocacy research, ACLU-New Mexico, which monitors asylum hearings and conducts “Know Your Rights” trainings, and New Mexico CAFe, a faith-based community organization that assists migrants.
Originally their week had included a scheduled tour of a migrant shelter here in Juarez but it had fallen through, because, as I was told, “this group has too many people to accommodate today.” (Sometimes a bunch of untrained, non-bilingual volunteers showing up at a shelter can be more in-the-way than useful, for the local staff.)
Instead they had toured a facility run on the Mexican side of the port of entry, where refugees had to wait to take a number to get across. “Picture the DMV,” research assistant Angeline Sunday told me. “DMV hell, basically – only, on steroids.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “If I’m a migrant coming up from the south, the first thing that will happen is I’m going to a registration center like this and take a number. Then I’m going to wait for – how long to get my hearing?”
“It can take months,” said Daniel Avitai, a UTEP Philosophy and Inter-American Border Studies major. “They only take 20 people a day. There are like 12,000 refugees right now waiting.”
“Months, wow,” I said. “So if I’m that refugee who took my number then I’m just sitting in a shelter for maybe three, six months, and then what happens, a customs agent will come pick me up and like 20 other people that day, tell us our number came up and then I get my hearing?”
“No, no,” said my student-teacher patiently. “You have to go to the center. You have to be there when they call your number. If you’re not there when your number gets called that’s it. Take a new number.”
“What?” I said, incredulously, thinking back to the frustration of visits to the DMZ with my son to get his license, when nothing more than his ability to drive was at stake. “Do you know what day your number will be called?”
“No,” chimed in Candy Aca, from John Jay College. “You have to guess, or go every day and just wait hoping. And some days – like, yesterday, we went, you’ll see a lot of people in these centers, and yesterday, they just decided they weren’t going to take anybody in that day. There was a huge mass of people waiting, lots of children and they were very angry, because this was the second day in a row that they didn’t take anybody.”
“We’re feeling very tempted to conclude that literally every step of the process is a form of deterrence,” Daniel said.
The lucky persons whose number comes up might get a hearing where they get an opportunity to describe whether they have a credible fear of persecution or violence – consistent with the International Refugee Convention. But, according to these students, even if they pass that interview they still must return to the Mexican refugee shelter and wait for several more interviews until they get across.
Very vulnerable people – pregnant women, people with cognitive disabilities – are supposed to be exempt from what the Trump Administration calls the “Migrant Protection Policy,” which these students refer to instead as the “Remain in Mexico” policy because, as they pointed out, “It doesn’t protect migrants to keep them in Juarez on the streets where they are vulnerable to robbery and sexual assault.” Even so, I was told, even people such as these were being turned back.
And even if you get across, chances are you’ll end up in a camp, according to a report from the Hope Border Institute, where many of these students intern. But that’s the big picture – if you listen to these students try to explain the system to you it’s a bewildering maze of bureaucratic kobayashi maru scenarios for the refugees. “Here,” said one, “Here’s a flow-chart of how the process works based on the research from my institute.”
So: even if these 12,000 refugees get their hearing, they are most likely to be thrown into a detention camp, or sent back to the Mexican side to await more hearings. On the US side, conditions were so bad while I was in New Mexico that detainees had begun a hunger strike at the site in Chapparal. On the Mexico side, refugees are hardly safe: twenty-one women had been murdered in Juarez in July alone. Back in December, two Honduran teens were murdered near a refugee shelter where they were staying, waiting to cross over.
“Does anyone ever get asylum off the bat, and just get released?” I asked.
“It’s very rare,” Duke University student Esperanza Hernandez told me. She referred me back to the Hope Border Institute report.
“Do you talk to the migrants, and do they sound like they would rather be here on the Mexican side or on the other side in the detention camps?”
“I don’t think they understand what they face on the other side. It’s one of the heartbreaking parts of it all. At the end of the day what they’re hoping for is to cross. But we know that if that happens they are most likely going to end up in a detention camp. But each of them believes that they are the one or two that will get released to their sponsor.”
One choke-point in the process appears to be whether or not an asylum-seeker has a sponsor. People who finally get their interview are more likely to be released than detained if they have a family member in the United States. “So if more Americans were willing to sponsor these refugee families is that going to be a helpful solution?” I asked, remembering an organization at a protest in Greenfield, MA who had been taking names of families willing to house a refugee in a guest bedroom.
“You have to show that you’re not a risk to the community or not a flight risk. I’ve seen judges deny asylum because the sponsor was not related to the asylum-seeker, because they don’t trust the sponsor to make sure that asylum-seeker shows up to their hearing,” one student said. Indeed, a few days after this conversation CBS reported that the Department of Homeland Security did not allow American families to sponsor even unaccompanied children in their homes. In some cases, according to these students who regularly sat in on immigration hearings, children were being separated from parents because, for example, the child’s claim was accepted but the parents’ was not. “So then they lose contact with each other – the child is in detention but the parent is back in the refugee camp.”
I left these conversations with lots of information to follow up on, but also with a better sense of what organizations in the region are doing and why it matters. Some are involved in relief work, legal trainings, pro bono legal work and advocacy. Others, like Hope Border Institute, are trying to track the bureaucratic machinery that has been constructed to snare refugees in a confusing, disorienting, web of legal traps designed to make it almost certain their asylum claims will be denied. Exposing that is an important step, and can help refugees navigate the web.
When I spoke the previous night over dinner with Professor Neil Harvey, I asked him whether he felt that the work these students were doing was going to make an impact. From his perspective, it’s not just about the service, but the learning. The experience, he said, would change these students’ lives and enable them to become better citizens and more engaged advocates for human rights and vulnerable people. I hope he’s right.