Caution: Read this only if you really would like to know how are our immigration policies are affecting the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors.
Right now, in our world, there are more than 65 million people displaced from home, including 40 million people displaced by violence within their own countries, and 26 million refugees in UNHCR protection. The world will help resettle fewer than 80,000 this year. You can do the math. Most of the worlds refugees and displaced peoples will live their whole lives in the “in between,” with no way to go forward and no way to go back.
In the last 4 years I have had the opportunity to visit some of these refugees in more than a dozen countries, from the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, to Syrians and Iraqis in Jordan and Lebanon, to Venezuelans walking a thousand miles across Colombia to Equdaor and points further south in search of hope and the possibility of home. I have been encouraged by Christians offering radical hospitality in these places, just as I have had my spirit weighed down by the endless stories of suffering I hold in my heart.
But I keep coming back to our southern border, and to Tijuana, where I lived for 15 years, because of the current crisis playing out there, because it was my home, because it is on our doorstep, and because what happens to vulnerable asylum seekers who come to us for hope is our responsibility.
Cecilia’s story is one of thousands which I have been entrusted to carry. It is, in a sense, her prayer, which she offers up in hopes that God will hear her.
It was 4:00 am when Cecilia says her world ended. Her first sense that something was wrong was when she was awoken by the sounds of people moving outside her rural house. Before she knew it, her bedroom door was broken open and they were upon her. 6-8 men had forced their way into their home, pulled her to the floor, gagged and stripped her, and then raped her. As she tried to fight them off, she kept trying to turn her head to see around the room, hoping to see what was happening to her 3 young children who had been sleeping in the next room, or her husband, who had been sleeping beside her.
She didn’t see him again until they were done with her, when they turned her head to the other side of the room. The first thing she saw was the terror in her husbands eyes, as he laid bound and gagged. They had forced him to watch what they were doing to her. Now they were forcing her to watch what they would do to him. She helplessly watched as they tortured and executed him.
This was a warning, she knew, meant for the other families that could not pay the the extortion these “maras,” the gangs, demanded.
Cecilia says the next hours were a blur; she doesn’t remember anything about gathering her children and their belongings, or the first days on the journey to San Pedro Sula. She believes some survival instinct just took over, and before she knew it, the family was 50 miles away from home. They had talked about trying to leave before, but they just didn’t have money to pay for the food, or for the money the traffickers would demand. Now she found herself leaving in very different circumstances, all alone, traumatized and terrified.
By September last year, just as Cecilia was fleeing from her home, a movement of several thousand people began amassing near the town of San Pedro Sula. They were also fleeing the breakdown of law and order, the violence of the gangs. Cecilia found them just as this “caravan” was stating the journey northward, out of Honduras, across Guatemala and Mexico, and to the US border.
You probably heard about this group one year ago, as it gained quite a bit of attention in the US. You no doubt remember how it was characterized by some as a mass invasion, led by criminals, drug traffickers and gang members. Some even speculated that the caravan was infiltrated by Islamic terrorists. With such a large number of people coming together at once, people felt that something nefarious must have been taking place.
What they didn’t understand is that increasing numbers of Central Americans have been making this journey over the last decade, mostly in small groups and families. They didn’t know that these migrants have historically been preyed upon, kidnapped, and extorted by the traffickers which control the routes that migrants take. Thousands of migrants crossing Mexico have disappeared in the last decade. More than a third of the women attempting the trip have been raped.
The reason why the caravan came together was because violence was increasing throughout Central America, and a small group of desperate people who needed to flee decided to band together to try to find protection in their numbers. From there it just snowballed, as dozens became hundreds, and hundreds became 5 thousand.
It took several weeks of walking before Cecilia and the caravan reached Mexico. She felt safer being surrounded by other women like her. But, even so, she woke up every night at exactly 4:00, the darkest hour, shaking in terror. The darkest hour is just before…. But for Cecilia dawn seems as if it will never come. She kept her nightmares to herself; and she has never spoken with her children about what happened to her and her husband, but she knows they must have seen it too.
Once they crossed the border into Mexico, the caravan was able to travel more quickly, as Mexican truck drivers offered rides to many of the caravan members, moving them forward 50 to 100 kilometers at a time. They piled into the backs of these trucks with pigs, sheep, corn and fruit and with dozens of other migrants.
A Welcome Rest
After a long and grueling journey, Mexico City provided an amazing welcome that would not be equaled again. The city government took over a large sports complex and organized the city’s social service departments along with hundreds of civil service organizations in order to provide the migrants an amazing array of services, support, shelter, food, health, games and activities for children and trauma care. It was a beautiful expression of radical hospitality, and represented the best attempt to care for these neighbors that I have yet seen.
I had the opportunity to join a team organized by our Mexican Baptist partners to provide pastoral care in the camp. I spent a week moving through the large tents, each one housing several hundred migrants. I need to say that I did not meet any criminals there, but rather families with young children, humble campesinos, and a lot of desperation. I spoke with dozens of young men who shared that they had no options- either they could join the gangs, die or flee. They said they were with the caravan not because they were criminals, but because they didn’t want to become criminals.
I think some people were anxious to talk with me because, as a gringo, I represented the welcome they hoped to receive someday, and someday soon.
Although I remembered meeting Cecilia and her children in one of the large tents, she didn’t share her story with me at the time. She asked about the road ahead, and the possibility for asylum in the US. I didn’t make any promises. Truthfully, there was not much more I could offer to her or anybody. We prayed for the journey and for her children, and I wished them well.
A week after arriving in Mexico City, the caravan began their journey to Tijuana. There they were not met with welcome, but with a city divided about how to treat them.
Cecilia found space in a government shelter, sleeping in a tent on the infield of a baseball stadium. It was cold and rainy, and her daughters were sick most of the time. She had hoped to be able to apply for asylum as soon as they got there, but found instead that she needed to go first to the border and get a number.
There is a metering system in place that the US government had instituted with Mexican authorities. Although international and US laws state that asylum seekers must be given the opportunity to apply for asylum as soon as possible, this is a system where the US can control the number of people who are able to be processed each day.
Because her children were so sick, Cecilia was not able to get to the border with them until after most of the other caravan members. She received the number 745. Each number represents 10 people. When she received her number, the next numbers being processed were in the low 400’s, which meant that there were about 300 numbers before hers, which represents about 3000 people. It is impossible to know how many will be called on a given day, sometimes it’s 50 or more, somedays it’s zero. But when your number is coming, you better be there, or else you lose your turn, and must go to the back of the line. Over the last year, US immigration has averaged only about 25 asylum seekers per day, so in Cecilia’s case, she would need to wait for more than 4 months.
The city closed down the shelter she was staying at, and moved her to another about 90 minutes away by public transportation. As her number drew near, she would have to go to the border every day to make sure she didn’t miss her turn:
by 7:00 in the morning.
Her youngest daughter became pretty ill when her number approached, in March, and they missed their number. She would have to sign their names in the book once again, get a number, and wait.
For another 3-6 months.
Crossing the Border, Welcome to the United States of America
Instead, because her desperation was too great, she found a spot where she could cross the primary fence, and enter what’s called the “enforcement zone, a buffer zone set up by border patrol between the two walls at the border. She relied on strangers to help lift her children over an 8 foot steel fence and then others to catch them as they dropped over, and then she did the same. There as they stood before the secondary 20 foot high steel wall, she turned herself in to the border patrol.
Family separation- if she had done this one year before, the no tolerance policy could have indicated that she be charged with human trafficking, for bringing her own children across the border. Just like 1500 other families, they might have been separated, and she may have been deported without them.
Instead, she received the standard treatment that every single asylum seeker receieves. She was taken to the Ice box- and spent three days in a concrete room, with a concrete floor, kept at 50-55 degrees. ICE takes all of your belongings, and you need to strip down to your innermost layer of clothing, no sweaters, no jackets or coats, whatever you innermost layer is is what you keep. They give you an emergency blanket- you know those foil blankets you might have in an emergency roadside kit.
The lights are kept on 24/7, but Cecilia says she she still woke up each morning, shivering from fear and from the cold at 4:00 am. She sat there with her babies in her arms and she cried for hours on that floor. Alone in a room crowded with other women equally as afraid. Even with the lights on, it was still the darkest hour.
And they were kept there for three days.
If you’ve entered into the US, by air or land, you’ve seen the signs- Welcome to the United States- we promise to ……
Cecilia didn’t get to see any signs. The icebox is the first welcome that every asylum seeker receives.
The morning of the third day, she was brought before a US Customs and Immigration officer who would make the credible fear determination. She shared her story, and was granted permission to enter the asylum process. This is not a final determination, only an acknowledgement that you may have a credible fear of persecution if you were to be returned to your country of origin. This determination allows that you will be able to proceed with your case.
Migrant Protection Protocol
Next, an Immigration and Custom Enforcement determines if you have a credible reason to fear harm if you were to be returned to Mexico while you await your asylum process. This is the policy called Migrant Protection Protocol, MPP, aka “remain in Mexico” and which the administration began last January. Under MPP, unless you can show that you are in danger in Mexico, or that you have a particular physical disability or illness, you will have to “remain in Mexico” while your asylum petition runs its course. This process could be several years- during which you will not be able to work, or even legally rent an apartment. You will need to be dependent upon the network of shelters that are doing the best they can with limited resources to care for thousands of migrants. There are 30 such shelters in Tijuana, with space for about 4000 asylum seekers. There are more than 30,000 asylum seekers huddled throughout the city. You can do the math. The rest need to find a way to fend for themselves.
Cecilia’s ICE officer determined that she had no credible fear to be returned to Mexico, and so later that same day, she was returned to the streets of Tijuana once again with a notice to appear at her first hearing a month later.
It is important to note that the single most important factor in being granted asylum is having good legal counsel. It is almost impossible to find an immigration lawyer for an asylum seeker who under this program remains in Mexico, because of the time, cost and concerns for safety for these attorneys.
There is also a lot of miscommunication/miscoordination between ICE and Mexican immigration authorities. Each asylum seeker has to appear at the border at 4:00 in the morning for their court appointments, and from there the Mexican immigration authorities escort them to the US ICE officials. ICE agents then transport them to their court appearances. We are witness to dozens of instances in which the Mexican officials have not allowed asylum seekers to go through to their scheduled appointments because their names are not listed or didn’t match perfectly the lists they received from US authorities.
If an asylum seeker misses one appointment, for any reason, they will lose their asylum case in absentia. What’s more, they will not be able to apply again for 10 years.
Meeting Ceclilia Again
I met Cecilia for the second time at a shelter operating in the sanctuary of one of our Baptist partners. Imagine that, a church using its sanctuary as an actual sanctuary! Dozens of churches in Mexico have been doing this, sometimes to the consternation of church members who are concerned about using this “sacred” space for something other than worship services. Nonetheless, these are brave congregations which can teach us what the true meaning of sanctuary us.
It was in this sanctuary that I learned the rest of Cecilia’s story- everything that I have shared with you now.
As I encountered her once again, she explained that she still wakes up most nights at 4:00, before the dawn, when it’s always darkest
I often hear people say, I am pro-immigration as long as people do it legally.
For the poor, abused, traumatized people of this world, this is the legal way, the only legal way.
Are you for this? Is this the system that you want?
On Cecilia’s third appointment, the Mexican authorities didn’t have her name listed correctly on their registry. She pleaded with them to let her pass through to her appointment, but to no avail. Her children’s names were on the list, but that was not enough. She was turned away.
Because she didn’t appear when scheduled, she learned that she was automatically found inadmissible in absentia. It does not matter the reason why. She will not be able to try again for 10 years.
Cecilia gave up her hopes and went back to Honduras, through a program of the International Organization for Migration, which is partially funded by the US gov’t. It seems we give much more priority to sending people back to their desperation than we do for providing hope for a better future. She said that there is nothing for her in Mexico, no way to survive, and she would most likely die here along with her kids. She feels that there is also a significant risk for her in Honduras that she will be killed. As Cecilia said to me, “if I am going to die anyway, it will be better to die where there will be somebody to bury me.” I have heard this said already, too many times.
It’s 4:00 am, and thought the darkest hour of the night is always right before the dawn, it seems as if for Cecilia and so many others, dawn is not coming.
There are 11,000 migrants in Tijuana with a number, waiting for their initial credible fear interview. Overall, there are 30,000 migrants at the southern border in Tijuana. They are from all over the world, Haitians, Africans, Central Americans, Mexicans and many more. I have personally met people from 30 different countries in this city, waiting and hoping against all hope.
There are more than 50,000 people in the MPP program who have been returned to Mexican cities along the whole length of the border, where they are also waiting and hoping.
As I write this, 2,000 cases of those in the Migrant Protection Protocol have received final determinations. 12 people in this program have been granted admission.
12, and only 12.
This dismal figure reveals the lie, the audacity of the program name MPP. This regimen has nothing to do with protection, and calling this program by this name is a sick and twisted cruelty which only adds to that which has already befallen these most vulnerable people who had mistakenly looked to us for help.
It’s 4:00 am, the darkest hour, and we are waiting for someone to shine the light.
Every category of legal immigration is being curtailed, and the desperate are rejected.
We are left waiting for someone to come and shine the light.
What else can we do?
Through International Ministries, we are supporting the work of several shelters in TJ, along with a number of ministries that provide legal aid, health care, trauma care and educational opportunities.
They are doing the best they can to shine the light, and there remains the hope that this light will indeed shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
But right now, it is still 4 am.