A couple of weeks ago we posted a well-researched and well-written article which appeared on the front page of the Dallas Morning News reporting the plight of the asylum seekers stuck in Mexico because of MPP. We encourage you to read it and share it. Ms. Solis, the reporter, crossed over with us and we find her description of the camp to be accurate and consistent with our experience. We are grateful to members of the press who strive to keep the public informed and to raise awareness of the issue.
As a post scriptum to her article, we’d like to shift the focus ever so slightly from the condition of the camps and the plight of the asylum seeker to the resilience of the human spirit we find in these families and individuals. Despite the discomforts and temporary nature of the camp, we observed many were very much trying to make the best of the situation – there were clothes drying over dusty shrubs and bushes and along laundry lines stretched between trees throughout the camp. These doubled as support for tarps protecting tents from the rain. Women tended small fires burning in homemade mud stoves or pits built in front these makeshift homes. There were even a few sink-like mud structures and small counters. These humble kitchens had a few pots, some canned beans, oil and small packages of masa corn flour. While volunteer organizations provide the majority of the food in the camp, families are still trying to take care of as many of their own needs as they can. Mothers are still trying to cook for their families, parents are still hustling to buy enough food for their children. The community has organized “free stores” to effectively manage donations coming across the border. It was unclear how the system works, or even if it does, but we appreciated having an orderly way of giving so that those who had the greatest needs could receive. Please do not misunderstand. This is not an enjoyable weekend camping trip. I mention this only because I was impressed at the will of so many to persevere and to try to create some semblance of normalcy in a desperate circumstance. I wonder if I would have the same tenacity of spirit if the shoe were on the other foot.
We spoke with people who were making attempts to earn money to support their families. Many were discouraged to find they often do not get paid for their labor. They have no legal recourse, no enforceable rights in Mexico. They are vulnerable to abuse by employers and even if they are paid, they are then subject to extortion from criminal cartels. I was surprised to hear the casual tone in the voices of the people with whom we spoke as they described their problems. They experienced these issues in their home countries, in the countries through which they traveled to get to this point and they encounter these same issues in Mexico. Under the administration’s recent “third country policy”, Central Americans are expected to apply for asylum in Mexico before applying in the U.S., otherwise their claim will automatically be denied. This premise is deeply flawed in its application.
They are also tremendously vulnerable to assault, kidnapping and rape. The camp is dark at night and there is no protective fence. People who mean to harm these families and individuals can stroll in and out of the camp at their leisure and there is little being done to prevent children from disappearing or from gang members terrorizing asylum seekers as they wait for doors to open again. While we felt no threat in the camp, there was an uneasy calm. We were aware that we were only safe because the organized crime in the area allowed it – not because we were in control.
This is an odd sort of prison. There are no walls or bars but families here are stuck. They cannot move forward nor can they go back, though some do. If they stay, they find themselves in an uncomfortable, uncertain and untenable sort of limbo for an indeterminate length of time. They cannot build a life for themselves. They are not free to raise their children as their conscious dictates. With the unsanitary conditions and population density of this slum-like camp, many are ill. They cannot stay clean – their showers are makeshift privacy barriers of tarps and plastic garbage bags strung up between trees. They are not free to work for their families and must instead depend wholly on the generosity of volunteers and benevolent donors. They have little freedom to make any choice, really. They are truly a people being acted-upon. It’s a soul-crushing problem with which to contend and it is no wonder desperation and depression are chronic problems in the camp.
The people with whom we spoke shared different versions of the same sort of story. One couple from Chiapas, Mexico, had been in the camp for four months. They left their home after gang members broke into the wife’s parents’ home in the night and shot them. The immigration lawyer on our team just shakes his head in frustration when he hears the stories. Asylum Seekers know their chances are slim but they stay in the camp anyway. They hope. They are displaced in the same way refugees in war-torn nations are displaced. Their war is not official, but it is, nonetheless, a war with violence and instability and stories of mind-boggling loss. They are also not free to effectively deal with the emotional, physical and mental trauma of which most are suffering.
My mind is in backbends trying to understand why so many Americans are willing to go to war or to send their loved ones to “fight for freedom” in far-away countries where citizens suffocate under the oppressive governance of their leaders yet somehow have little drive to fight for the freedom of those knocking on our back door. We have become confused in our definition of the term and who is entitled to it. These are families who have, in vast majority, taken initiative to leave a bad situation, to seek opportunities to take better care of themselves and their own and they are doing so through legal avenues. Americans have a tradition of applauding this sort of fight. It’s in our blood. It’s the backbone of the nation we have created. We typically have such high praise for those who refuse to be victims and who pull themselves up from the mud to be successful. So why does this not apply to them? Of course, we need sound immigration laws but MPP condemns desperate families to live in squalid, dangerous and stressful conditions simply because we are at a loss as to what to do while we debate reform.
MPP is a policy which, upon first glance, seems to address the need we have to close the loopholes of our outdated system which this massive influx of Central American refugees is exposing in alarming fashion. However, when one takes more than a cursory look and learns the details of the conditions now required to qualify for asylum, they see it is hopelessly discouraging and it flies in the face of our long-standing tradition of receiving those in distress. One man from Honduras, exasperated, asked if he was really expected to interrupt the gang members assaulting him to ask them to please start over so he could properly record them as evidence to build his asylum case. The policy masquerades as a solution but it simply masks anti-immigrant sentiment which has become synonymous with our current administration. It is also a travesty of human rights. We must be very wary of being deceived by self-serving political propaganda especially when people are suffering because of it.
Whatever reform we implement, it must, at its core, be responsive to what normal people do. And these are normal people. They need to parent their children the way they see fit. They want to provide a healthy environment, some joy, an education and a future for them in the same way I do for mine – and mine are certainly no less deserving of that future than theirs are. Many also venture to hope for an easier life for themselves too, one free of violence and hardship. They’d like to be able to provide for themselves, to earn a living, to specialize in a trade, to improve and advance: to build a life. Whatever reform we implement must also come from a place of integrity and not of political posturing. It is amoral to turn this humanitarian crisis from being what it is into yet another political sparring ground. The people at the heart of this issue are dehumanized in grand form the moment we turned them into pawns.
As we left the camp, I spoke with another reporter who had been sitting and speaking with a woman outside her tent. She had just been served a simple breakfast prepared over campfire by her new asylum-seeking friend. We decided the camp and the people in it were like the little flowers or grass that finds a way to grow between cracks in cement sidewalks. They are trying to grow between the uninhabitability of their home countries and the wall that is MPP. They have nowhere to go but they cling to hope and faith and a rather fierce will to survive and thrive.
How very human of them.