Friday, May 24, 2019

Asylum seekers who arrive with nothing are being asked for more

Guest blogger: Flavio Bravo, Masters in Migration Studies, graduate student, University of San Francisco

Encuentro en El Paso

In partnership with the Jesuit Migration Network, I recently visited the border community of El Paso/Ciudad Juarez through the Encuentro Project. While much of our week was dedicated to collaborating with leaders from Jesuit schools, advocacy groups, and parishes across the U.S., we also had the opportunity to visit a newly converted migration shelter in El Paso.

Local community leader, Ruben Garcia, has long assisted migrants in El Paso through his leadership with the Annunciation House which was founded in 1978. Yet, most recently, the number of asylum seekers arriving at the El Paso – Paso del Norte (PDN) port of entry, has increased so much that the organization had to acquire a warehouse the size of Costco. Before entering the warehouse converted shelter, itself, we were informed that the space could serve around 500-800 migrants at capacity, but that they were trying to expand to 1,000 or 1,500 as many asylum seekers needed more time before they could connect with their sponsoring families across the U.S.

As we entered the facility as a group of volunteers made up of educators, attorneys, advocates, and graduate students such as myself, many of us had never witnessed anything like it. The first thing that we noticed was the immense sense of heat in the facility (even hotter than the high 80’s outside) due to so many people crowded together either walking around or laying in cots. In the midst of the orderly chaos, some little kids could be found kicking soccer balls to each other while others were engaged in their coloring books.

After being divided into our respective volunteer stations which included a medical clinic and a room to prepare sandwiches and other meals, I was asked as a Spanish-speaker to assist with in-takes and to help coordinate communication with sponsoring families. Essentially, we had to call each and every person’s point of contact in the U.S. to confirm that it was time for their travel to be booked. Whether they were going to be traveling from El Paso via Greyhound bus or a Southwest airlines flight, volunteers assisting with phone calls had to inform the receiving families that they had to book travel by the next day between 10 A.M. and 10 P.M. as that was the only time that volunteers from the Annunciation House could provide transportation to the airport and bus station.

Reuniting with Families

Around the clock, while some volunteers were completing in-takes and conducting phone calls, other groups of previously arrived migrants were preparing to depart for either the airport or local bus station. As families lined up in the dedicated cafeteria area, volunteers handed them drawstring bags with varied amounts of food depending on how many hours or days they would be traveling from El Paso to their eventual U.S. destination. Repeatedly, I was asked by young mothers and fathers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras whether or not the food would be enough for their accompanying children. Many of us were also asked for advice on how to navigate plane transfers at U.S. airports given that so few families spoke English.

As visual images and stories spread across newspapers and the internet less than one year ago of families being separated into different cages in Tornillo, Texas, many of the parents who had arrived to El Paso expressed a great amount of fear whether or not they, too, would be separated from their children at any point.

Before we knew it, nine hours had passed from the time we initially arrived to the migrant shelter and it was close to 10:30 PM. As we departed, other volunteers from the Annunciation House were preparing to stay behind to serve as an immediate contact should the families need anything throughout the night. By our time of departure, I realized that what we had witnessed in one day has become the daily routine not only for volunteers from organizations across southern border communities, but also for the migrant families seeking asylum in the U.S.

A Greater Price to Pay

Bringing only enough clothing and necessities that can fit into a backpack, families are continuously uncertain if they will have enough as they migrate across new territories. If they are fortunate enough to pass through a migrant shelter (which are largely at capacity and under resourced), then they might have access to a meal, a shower, and basic medical services.

Despite these great humanitarian needs, during the same time that President Trump recently announced that he would be cutting U.S. aid to Central America, he also wrote a memorandum seeking to charge fees to migrants exercising their legal right to apply for asylum upon presenting themselves at a U.S. port of entry.

Currently, only two countries – Australia and Fiji – charge asylum seekers fees ($27 and $227 USD, respectively). This is because of our basic understanding that the most vulnerable human beings fleeing communities of violence and turmoil have already paid a cost and should not have to pay more to to have the opportunity to improve their situation.

Altogether, President Trump’s intentions could not be clearer: he wants fewer asylum seekers from Central America to present themselves at a U.S. port of entry, while also cutting U.S. aid that would invest in improving the infrastructure within Central America. By doing so, he is not only ignoring the U.S. government’s historic interventions which have contributed to Central America’s instability, but he is refusing to address the root causes of migration by withdrawing U.S. humanitarian aid.


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