It’s weird where our eyes will wander when we’re forced to recount our trauma.
I arrived in El Paso, Texas, and connected with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Services. HIAS has been working with migrants and refugee populations in the US and Latin America, and I was volunteering on their Border Response Team for two weeks.
Every day, I woke and drove thirty minutes to the border. I met my colleague, an anthropology professor, at a cafe to answer emails. Then the HIAS volunteer coordinator picked us up and took us to the northern bridge.
The bridge itself was an interesting microcosm of its own. A fifty cent toll was all it took to get into Mexico—no guards, no passports, nothing. Just walk across. In the middle of the rise, El Paso and Juarez swelled around you. One, peppered with tall buildings and snaking overpasses, and the other, a massive sea of hazy structures tingling with life. Underneath were strips of fence, barbs, a cement gully for the Rio Grande, barbs, and fence again.
I stood, chatting with my colleague, as clouds plumed from our mouths in the cold air. I looked around at the scattered folks waiting to receive commuters. Family and friends waited with hands in their pockets or perhaps they were scouting cartel “hawks”—cousins of the “coyotes” who prowled the border. I never could tell, and I’ll admit my judgments needed to be kept in check.
Our lead lawyer arrived and accompanied us to the center a mere three blocks away. Our path lead through an IDP camp.
IDP stands for Internally Displaced Persons. Mexican citizens, forced to flee from violence, were gathered in this green alleyway, and had erected a tent city out of tarps, blankets, and trashbags. The theory was that as the US persuaded the Mexican government to move their forces south to intercept “caravans”, it left a power vacuum in the middle of the country. In fall 2019, cartel violence increased dramatically in Guerrero, Michoacan, and Zacatecas. The IDPs I was seeing in the alley had arrived in December. They were waiting at the bridge for whatever “opportunity” they’d sought out. There was nowhere else to go.
At the end of my first week, the police arrived to forcibly displace them again. I nearly stumbled into a cameramen as news anchors stood before homeless families stripping their homes. Kids sat dazed and confused in orange and white BETA pickups (Mexican Customs and Border Patrol). By the next morning, the green walls were barren and a smattering of cookstoves and vendors had returned to the alleyway.
The reason for their removal? Obrador, the president of Mexico, was coming to town for a photo-op at the federal shelter. Mexican IDPs were a bad PR problem, so they were stuffed out of sight or sent back to their ravaged towns.
My mission was not to serve them, though–there was nothing I could do. So, I pressed towards the center.
My job was to do intakes. When the Trump administration passed the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), and pushed Spanish-speaking migrants back into Juarez, they put up a huge barrier for immigration lawyers trying to help. I’d known a few people who’d been legal volunteers at detention centers, but now there was no access to the population. It was too dangerous and time consuming for lawyers to cross into Juarez to screen potential clients—enter me.
The intakes were designed to answer two questions: Why did you flee your country? And why can’t you stay in Mexico? Completing the paperwork took an hour and a half per person. The first page was for personal data—names, dates, permit numbers—the next three pages were for stories. That’s when I noticed the changes. It’s weird where our eyes wander when we’re forced to recount our trauma.
Their eyes fell to the table. They pinched things between their fingers, and fiddled with papers, jacket zippers, and strings. And as their tales unfolded, no matter how removed I thought I could be, it was like the air was heavy on our heads. That was when some of my past experience came in handy and the trauma training, given to us by HIAS, kicked in. I kept my radar on for lies, and the average came out to the exact same I’ve experienced over the years: I could feel that only about one in ten had fabricated a portion of their story. My colleagues agreed as our collective sixth-senses went off.
(For the record, I held no decision making power; I was strictly documenting and always gave the benefit of the doubt.)
The rest of the stories were real beyond mercy, and showed just how strong the human will could be.
Appointments ranged from kids who’d simply left a bad neighborhood to seek their US families, to people being actively pursued in Juarez the night before. I interviewed Honduran teenagers, Venezuelan opposition party officials, El Salvadoran farmers, Cuban teachers and carpenters, and Guatemalan mothers. Lots of mothers.
Mothers with their children by their sides, and mothers without. Mothers who pulled their jackets tighter, and mothers who showed me their scars—scars of rape, imprisonment, kidnapping, and torcher. Their children stared at the table too, and I could make out the screams echoing in their memories.
Please hear me loud and clear: sending these migrants back into border towns is wrong. It’s nothing short of refoulement. “Migrant Protection” doesn’t mean ordering vulnerable peoples back into areas with the same State Department security status as Yemen and Afghanistan. In most cases, I play my politics close to the center and close to the vest, but this is not one of them. The Trump administration is being cruel, in-humane, and unAmerican in border policy. I love my country, right or wrong, and right now, we’re Wrong.
So, in an odd twist of irony, my goal as a volunteer was to get people detained, because they were safer in US holding cells than in Juarez. The long-shot plan went like this: the local lawyer screened out half the intakes before sending them to the US. HIAS had three immigration lawyers on staff, all of whom had been learning on the job. They picked out the intakes who had a chance. Then came court dates and a test of credible fear, not directly through a judge, but through a border patrol office of interpreters. If they made it through all that, they were removed from MPP and sent to a detention center in the US. From there, they could apply for asylum.
About one in six of our cases would be removed from MPP.
Then the barriers got higher. Texas was still rejecting 96 percent of asylum claims, and while I was there, the governor moved to block all refugee resettlement. Arizona and New Mexico were in similar moods. If you’re rejected, you’re deported, and not necessarily to your own country. (The Trump administration started quietly sending a small number of Mexicans to Guatemala in late fall.) Migrants who had family in New York and Chicago stood a better chance. They could take their cases North where rejection rates were closer to fifty-fifty.
Chances for actual asylum with our help? More like one in thirty.
Why? Because the US holds a high bar for credible fear. You must have taken flight from “persecution”, which means you have to demonstrate your state government was targeting you OR could not protect you within their territory. That’s extremely hard to prove. You need copies of police reports, both from your country and from Mexican authorities, even if they were the ones coming after you. (Don’t put it past an officer in a corrupt system not to kidnap or extort you.)
We in the US went from accepting 110,000 refugees under Obama to 18,000 under Trump, and what’s left of our legal system has been a joke. The problem is that most people leaving the Northern Triangle weren’t fleeing their state, they were fleeing what the states couldn’t control: gangs, vigilante groups, and organized criminal circuits.
One lawyer told me that the five immigration judges in El Paso salivated to hear the words “domestic violence” and “gang-violence”, because it meant they could throw out that case and be done with it. It didn’t qualify as “persecution” by the state unless that person was part of a marginalized or vulnerable group (ethnic, LGBT, etc). For this reason, the few cases this lawyer had succeeded with were Cubans and Venezuelans fleeing their governments, even though they only made up 18 percent of migrant flows.
I had a phone screening with an Ecuadorian woman hiding in a border town with her husband and two kids. An ex-husband, turned child rapist, was pursuing their children across international lines. She’d sued for police protection and restraining orders in every location, but I had to explain that her case fit the profile for “domestic violence” and would struggle in court. Before I hung up and passed her paperwork to the lawyer, she asked for a parting thought. My beleaguered mind could only come up with one piece of encouragement:
“Keep running,” I said. The US didn’t want her.
When I left the center each afternoon, I walked back to the bridge. Usually, my head and heart were heaving. Of the estimated 30,000 migrants overwhelming the ad-hoc shelter network in Juarez, my team screened about 50 in two weeks. I interviewed 18. The percentages for each case calculated in my mind like a paper tape calculator.
The waiting line to cross into El Paso started as soon as we stepped onto the bridge. From the far side you could see the silhouette of a mass of people queuing. It could take up to two hours to pass the Mexican military patrol, CBP checkpoint, and customs kiosks, giving us plenty of time to contemplate (unless you owned a sentri or global entry pass, which I was fortunate enough to have.)
My time on the border was short. The winter weather drove people into crowded spaces, creating a water and sanitation hazard. The center was a hub for communicable diseases, and before long, I’d caught the flu. It only put me out for 24 hours, but unlike me, the crises didn’t take a day off. It still hasn’t since I’ve departed.
There’s more to discuss in the realm of geo-politics and humanitarian intervention, and MPP 2.0 is already being beta-tested in El Paso under the names HARP and PACR so some migrants have as little as 30 minutes to get a hold of a lawyer or they’re out. Over 500 people have already been deported in this way. And I didn’t even begin to cover the metering program or IOM’s voluntary return program. But all that’s beyond the scope of this account, and what’s important for you to know is this: these events are still happening, and they are happening on our watch.
Where will our eyes wander, when we’re forced to recount the trauma we’ve left unattended on the US-Mexico border?
What a sobering and beautifully written first-hand account, Jeff. Thank you so much for being there and for taking us with you.