“Thank you for not forgetting us.” This is what a small, quiet mother in a hillside shelter in Juarez, Mexico said to me as she hugged her toddler close to her as I walked through her small, makeshift living quarters.
After traveling to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico to witness first hand what is happening along our border since the institution of the Migration Protections Protocol Program (MPP) or what is more commonly known as the Remain in Mexico Policy. Why the word protection is in this title escapes me because there was no evidence of protection anywhere to be seen.
As I began this essay, I read that the United Nations released a statement declaring the more than 55,000 people stuck on the Mexican/USA border one of the largest refugee camps in the world. On the doorstep of the richest, most powerful nation on Earth are refugee camps. And winter has arrived there.
When I think about what stood out to me I think of the people I saw and met. They were scared, cold, and hungry. They have fled violence and intense poverty. They were kind, shy, and appreciative. They were not “bad hombres” as our president has referred to them. If we take the time to research Central America’s history with the United States we learn that our policies over the past one hundred years have caused the destabilization that led to this humanitarian crisis. Beginning with the taking of land in Central America to grow fruit for the United Fruit Company, to the removal of democratically elected officials who wanted to return land to the Indigenous populations (thus thwarting natural resources away from United States companies), to our addiction to drugs, to the consequences of NAFTA, and to our contribution to climate change. We learn that these vulnerable people are pawns in this unjust history.
The next thing that stood out to me was the cruelty in which they are treated by the United States Homeland Security including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Border Patrol (BP). Non of these agencies existed twenty years ago. Story after story included the reasons they fled and the violence they encountered along the way. But their stories, sadly, also included the cruelty they met once they reached our border. In particular, something that is known as Las Hieleras, or the Ice Box. We’ve seen photos of these cells with many people huddled together with crispy, thin Mylar blankets trying to stay warm. But what we have not heard is how very cold these cells are and how often people are put in them. One mother, through tears, told us about her son and how he struggled in the cell. When she called him over to us we could see the damage to the entire left side of his face from frost bite. Frost bite from being in the Las Hieleras. Another story we heard was how mothers and fathers didn’t want to go to their asylum hearings because they didn’t want their children back in the Ice Box. They explained how every time they come back across the US border they are put in an Ice Box. Sometimes for hours; sometimes for days. I struggle to believe there are any Americans who think it is OK to put anyone including women and children in such places. We need to be clear that this is torture. Our government is conducting torture on our border in the name of Homeland Security. The Geneva Convention, written after World War II states that countries cannot torture prisoners of war using sleep deprivation. Yet, the coldness of these rooms, the fact that overhead florescent lights are turned on all through the day and night, is exactly what is being done to those legally seeking asylum and they are not even prisoners of war.
In Juarez alone there are over 17,000 asylum seekers without adequate shelter, water, food, or medicine who are living indefinitely, waiting their time for their asylum hearings. This is not how our immigration system has worked in the past. This is new under this administration and it’s clear that cruelty and deterrence are the reasons. Jeff Sessions, when he was Attorney General, said this clearly on national TV. But they continue to come because what they are leaving behind is worse. And yet, this is how we greet them. This goes against all religious teachings of all faiths.
Please call our representatives. Tell them to demand we restore humanity back into our immigration policies by ending the MPP program and the use of ice boxes. We must not look away and we must speak up.
May we work for peace and humanity along our southern border,