The true US/Mexico border crisis: conscience, compassion and justice

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. 

Tijuana, Mexico

We began the day walking across the border between the United States and Mexico, separating San Ysidro, California and Tijuana. We ended the day back at that exact same border post, accompanying three courageous LGBTQ teens from Honduras as they sought, against considerable odds, to lodge their asylum claims with US officials.

In between we had ample occasion to see and hear firsthand that despite Donald Trump’s toxic rhetoric, the only crisis that is playing out along this frontier is a politically-driven one that spreads distortions and fear on the backs of people – mainly, but not only, from Mexico and Central America – who are fleeing terrifying persecution, endemic violence and grinding poverty.

It is a crisis of conscience, compassion and justice.

Crossing into Mexico this morning, our first views were of the wall that already exists along this part of the border. We came back to that wall or saw it a distance several times during the day. It was a stark reminder that the border debate has come down to determination to erect obstacles and deepen divides when what is needed is a commitment to rights and justice that begins long before people make the wrenching decision to leave their homes and head north in the first place.

We met with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, the government body charged with border and immigration responsibility. We left with a picture of an agency whose resources and capabilities are overwhelmingly outstripped by a multiplicity of counterpart agencies on the other side of the border; and which struggles to in any way keep apace, let along stand up to the increasingly insidious practices of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol.

We spent time at the largely volunteer-operated Padre Chava shelter for migrants – those who have yet to make their asylum claims at the border and those who have been deported back from the United States and at the, again, impressively overwhelmingly volunteer-run Al Otro Lado initiative, which offers a range of legal, protection, food and health programs for migrants.

I came away from those two centres filled up with anguished personal accounts, revealing statistics and overviews of a wide range of programs that filled me with immense gratitude and respect for committed staff and a constant flow of volunteers; but also despair and outrage that it has come to this. Programs that rely on grit and benevolence in the face of billions of dollars devoted to enforcement devoid of compassion.

And so it was that what should have been a simple and straightforward matter became a tense and uncertain exercise. Three LGBTQ teens from Honduras, whose refugee claims are clearly strong and well-founded, needed more than 20 advocates from Amnesty International and three other organizations to accompany them to the border tonight, to ensure that their entirely lawful request for protection would be treated seriously and lawfully.

Because they are minors, their claims had to be accepted, exempted from all the unlawful excuses and bureaucracy that can keep other refugees waiting on the Mexican side of the border for months to file their asylum requests. Yet there was every reason to believe that they might be turned away and turned back instead to Mexico where they are certainly not safe. Activists on the ground here can quickly recite a sad, long list of such cases.

There were so many points along the way when it could have gone awry, including when Mexican officials might have forced them back, or private security contracted by the Mexican government might have intervened. We made it past those pitfalls and arrived at the turnstile which is the entry point into the United States.

Without documents the three teens were told they could not come through. When they made their asylum claims they were told they had to leave and add their names to the unofficial list that determines which individuals can come to the border on which day to make their claims. That was outright wrong, as it is US policy at the highest level that unaccompanied minors do not have to wait the weeks or months for their name to slowly climb to the top of “the list”.

We made it clear that these three teens were not going away, nor were we. We were told a supervisor was on the way. A Mexican immigration official was sent out to talk to us. We did not go away.

And they did relent, begrudgingly. Amnesty International USA’s Director Margaret Huang and a colleague from Amnesty International Mexico were eventually allowed to accompany the three boys through the turnstiles and into a back office where their claims were lodged and they were taken into custody.

How upside-down it is that we have come to see victory in three vulnerable refugees being taken into the cruelty of US immigration detention. But that is precisely what it has become.

Just for a moment, all in the same experience this evening: the heartlessness of US border policy; the brave determination of three young refugees; and the vitality of solidarity and support.

Those three teens, brave but afraid, are very much in my heart tonight.