Photo: Mother and son holding hands at the shelter for the Migrant Caravan in November 2018.
Amnesty International Canada Secretary General Alex Neve is currently part of a delegation of senior Amnesty leadership who are visiting the Mexico/USA border to witness the impacts of US policy on migrants and asylum seekers.
The polarizing and politicized discourse about refugees, migrant and border policy in the United States revolves around ugly chants and a long list of terms and agencies that are at once sinister and incomprehensible: #BuildTheWall, Migration Protection Protocols, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Customs and Border Patrol, pushbacks and zero-tolerance.
But what is truly at stake and so lost in the swirling toxic debate are peoples’ hopes, lives and rights.
Valquiria and her 7-year-old son Abel, fleeing death threats from criminal gangs in Brazil, came to the US border at El Paso, Texas on 16 March 2018 to make a claim for asylum. They were taken into detention; as is usual, almost automatic. The next day, without explanation, Valquiria was forcibly separated from Abel. She has not seen him since, more than 10 months later. She remains locked up. Abel was released and is now living with his father, who has also made a claim for asylum, in Boston.
Our Amnesty International delegation visited with Valquiria in detention this morning. Her case was included in our report last year, USA: ‘You don’t have any rights here’ and has been featured as an Urgent Action and appeal case in Canada and around the world.
There is absolutely no justification for how Valquiria and Abel have been treated. Their asylum claims were made together. There is no doubt about their family relationship. Their papers are in order. An asylum officer has found that her fear is credible but concluded that because her persecutors are criminals and not the state and that there are other places she could live in Brazil, her asylum claim would not be accepted. That ruling is being appealed.
Meanwhile, Valquiria and Abel remain apart. It seems clear this is part of the Trump Administration’s mean-spirited and punitive assault on the rights of refugees and migrants; striking at the heart of the love between parents and their children in an attempt to shut down the border, wall or no wall.
Valquiria’s emotions during our visit were wrenching. Between sobs she talked of how painful it is to be apart from Abel, who doesn’t understand why his mother is not with him and why he is in jail. She described how difficult and lonely it is to be the only person in the detention centre who speaks only Portuguese. She remains bewildered at how she is being treated.
All that anguish, yet she was also so strong. She never wavered from her conviction that publicizing her ordeal was the right thing to do, necessary not only to right the wrongs done to her and Abel, but to help others suffering similar cruel treatment in the US immigration and asylum system.
She shared her gratitude for all the letters and petitions that have been signed and sent on her behalf and welcomed ongoing pressure. “I’m waiting for a miracle,” she told us; a miracle that will come from continuing to insist that her right to freedom and Abel’s right to be with his mother are upheld.
Valquiria is one of the fortunate few in immigration custody. She has a dedicated lawyer, Eduardo Beckett, exploring all possible options to win her freedom. Most asylum seekers do not have legal counsel and must navigate this labyrinth of injustice alone.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump tweets and headlines and newscasts repeat his belligerent rhetoric that there is a grave security crisis – even a national emergency – along the US/Mexico border. And that the only fix is to build the infamous border wall he has repeatedly promised.
Not so. The only emergency along this border is contempt and disregard for human rights. Tearing apart a mother and her young son, for absolutely no valid reason; that is where the true crisis lies.
We will continue to push for Valquiria to be released on humanitarian grounds and reunited with Abel.
And to make it clear. This border does not need a wall. It most certainly does not need more cruelty. It needs compassion. And for human rights to prevail.