Time to show up for refugees and migrants

From October 22th to 26th, Amnesty Canada’s Alex Neve joined a global Amnesty delegation to monitor the impact of anti-asylum policies at the US-Mexico border. They met with the consul general of Mexico in San Diego, the National Commission of Human Rights in Tijuana, visited shelters in Tijuana and San Diego, met with NGOs and UN agencies on both sides of the border, and met with legal aid providers and toured a shelter for unaccompanied children in Brownsville, TX. On their last day, the group crossed the border into Matamoros, Mexico to speak with families and others who have been affected by the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy.

Matamoros, Mexico

“Some days we cry.  Some days we laugh.  And we are here to lift each other up when we are down.”

It is easy to walk through the makeshift “camp” of tents – home to 2,000 people, growing daily – that has sprung up on the Mexican side of one of the three bridges that link Matamoros with Brownsville, Texas and get lost in outrage about the myriad deliberate policies brought in by the Trump Administration to intentionally create the punitive injustice that now governs this border.

And we should. Terms like migrant protection protocols, the remain in Mexico policy, asylum ban, metering, tent courts, parole, bonds, credible fear, pro se hearings and arriving aliens describe a callous, calculating assault on the rights of refugees and migrants looking to the United States for protection and to reunite with family.

What is truly raw and agonizing is the human dimension that lies behind the legal fights, political debates and advocacy campaigns.

It was four strong women from El Salvador, Honduras and Cuba – Andrea, Xiomara, Yudelmis and Dina – who talked to us of tears, laughter and lifting each other up. Through separate, arduous journeys they reached the Matamoros camp, alone, where they have become each other’s strength.

Andrea (pictured, right) had made it from El Salvador to this border, travelling with her same-sex partner and her partner’s young daughter. US guards taunted them when they insisted they were a family. Her partner and daughter were allowed to cross over and lodge their asylum claims, but Andrea is trapped in the world of Donald Trump’s ‘remain in Mexico’ policy, not allowed to enter the United States until her claim is accepted, easily one year from now at best.  The ugly irony of having fled threats of violence as a lesbian couple in El Salvador only to face precisely that same discrimination at the US border is beyond cruel.

So many more stories. 

Indigenous families from Chiapas, forced to wait in Mexico for weeks because of the arbitrary process of ‘metering’, under which US border guards decide how many asylum claims they will register on any given day. They described to us the anxiety of waiting in the very country in which they fear persecution. A blatant violation of international law; one more violation in a long list, all disregarded by the Trump Administration.

Pregnant women are not to be returned to wait it out in Mexico. Yet many were until an egregious instance of a woman receiving an injection to stop her contractions, so that her return could go ahead, finally led Mexican officials to draw a line.

In San Diego, we spoke with a mother and her teenage son from El Salvador who face imminent return to remain in Mexico. They have endured so much already, including threats and hardship during their trip through Mexico to reach the border. Yet she remains strong, determined to face anything in the search for safety, rather than turn her son over to gangs back home.

Near Matamoros, two parents and their three young children from Honduras rushed across the border – the youngest in his father’s arms, the other two running hand in hand with their mother. When they were apprehended the father and son were slightly ahead of the others, and border guards refused to treat them as a family unit. Mum and the two children with her are now lost in the harsh world of the Matamoros border camp. Dad was deported because of an earlier immigration order. And the youngest child is on his own in US immigration foster care, apologetic in phone calls to his mother about not having been fast enough to run alongside her, so that they could still be together.

2,000 people (growing every day), in a makeshift camp with five portable toilets and one hand-washing station; reliant on a handful of volunteer doctors who come to diagnose respiratory ailments, diarrhea and high blood pressure.

A camp on the banks of the Rio Grande, living under constant threats from criminal cartels who see asylum-seekers, with relatives in the United States, as easy prey for violence and extortion. The river’s currents often carry decapitated bodies as a reminder of the dangers that lurk.

And every turn is designed to dehumanize. Tent courts are being piloted so that asylum-seekers will not even be in the same courtroom as the judges deciding their fate, the government officials opposing their claims, and the translators interpreting their words. We were excluded from those tent courts, where groups of asylum-seekers are brought forward to face “justice” and often dealt with en masse.

Lying on a pathway in the Matamoros camp, a small plastic bag from the US Department of Human Security, in which personal belongings were likely handed back to someone being returned to Mexico. Now empty and discarded in the dirt.  And hauntingly, no name appears. Instead, only a number, P 506, and a scannable bar code. This assault on rights and dignity so much relies on stripping away humanity.

There are bright spots.

On both sides of the border, people and communities are mobilizing with passion and solidarity. Migrant shelters in Mexico, run largely by faith communities, charities and volunteers and receiving next to no government support, dig deep in the struggle to meet the needs of an influx of returnees, forced to wait out the asylum process on the Mexican side of the border.

An impressive resource centre is coming together in Matamoros, led by the inspirational Gaby Zavala, identifying needs such as showers, clean water and schooling and finding solutions that are almost always volunteer-driven.

Team Brownsville volunteers cook daily meals for 1500 plus people. “Angry Tias and Abuelas” distribute duffle bags with notebooks, sanitary pad and toothbrushes. Volunteer lawyers step forward, from local communities and across the country, determined to do all that they can to give people a chance in a system that is determined to confuse and punish asylum-seekers with the singular goal that they will give up.

One lawyer moved across the country to Brownsville and has poured herself into the effort to shore up justice as the government dismantles basic principles of the rule of law at the border. As she described it, this is one of those times when you need to show up or face your conscience. And so many have indeed decided to show up.

Canada’s chance to show up lies in rejecting Donald Trump’s border vitriol and championing the rights of refugees and migrants. That means suspending the US/Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, which is based on the disgraceful illusion that the US refugee protection record meets international standards such that refugee claimants can be sent back from Canada into the US to pursue their claims there.

Amnesty International will be in Federal Court for five days, beginning November 4th, alongside the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canadian Council of Churches and eight courageous refugee claimants from El Salvador, Syria and Ethiopia, challenging the STCA. Until that agreement is suspended or overturned, Canada is complicit in Donald Trump’s assault on the rights of refugees and migrants.

Canada needs to restore regard for refugee rights at the northern border, so that we can call out what is happening on the southern border. It is time for Canada to show up.