Here’s a hard truth: it’s distressingly easy to see how a seven-year-old could die in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). We know, because of what we’ve witnessed.
In December, we participated in a delegation of immigration attorneys, volunteers and Members of Congress organized by Al Otro Lado, Families Belong Together, and IMUMI, who traveled to the Otay Mesa port-of-entry in southern California to compel our government to follow through on its legal obligations and allow a group of asylum seekers to officially present themselves at a port of entry and formally request asylum. We shivered in the cold, penned into a small concrete enclosure, as we witnessed the system at work: CBP officers dressed in full combat gear threatened and denigrated asylum seekers, calling them “dirty” and “dangerous,” alleging that they were coming to the United States to rob and kill – all in the presence of children as young as three. We asked ourselves: if this is what they say in front of attorneys and Members of Congress, what is happening when no one is watching?
It is worth underscoring that these asylum seekers, like many who have come before, were on U.S. soil requesting asylum as consistent with U.S law and international legal obligations. CBP maintains that capacity issues prohibit the timely processing of would-be asylees, yet when U.S. Representative Nanette Barragan and U.S. Representative Jimmy Gomez sought to examine the situation for themselves at Otay Mesa, their efforts were repeatedly rebuffed. Tellingly, when our delegation made clear that we did not plan to leave until each of the 20 asylum seekers we accompanied were permitted to exercise their right under U.S. law to request asylum, CBP had no problem processing the requests. But not before we – along with two Members of Congress — spent 17 cold hours waiting, huddled on a sidewalk with children lacking basic necessities as the temperature dipped below 50 degrees.
Despite the reality that asylum seekers are routinely denied, just days after what we witnessed at the Otay Mesa port of entry, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that it was U.S. policy for asylum seekers to present themselves at a port of entry. Um, no. Based on our own experiences in Tijuana, presenting oneself at a border of entry is practically impossible, due to collaboration between the U.S. and Mexican governments to control who has access to ports of entry. The goal of the Trump administration, as tweeted by President Trump, and as explained by Secretary Nielsen, is for asylum seekers to remain in Mexico. They limit access to ports of entry and then aim to punish those who cross without permission. It’s a Catch-22.
These policies are not only illegal – they endanger the most vulnerable. We received reports while on the ground in Tijuana of Mexican police and cartel members threatening asylum seekers who are waiting in the refugee camps around the city. We spoke with people who, while waiting for access to the U.S. asylum process, have been targeted and/or found in Mexico by the same groups that prompted their flight from Central America in the first place. Some have been threatened with death and physical violence and most have little to no access to Mexican law enforcement assistance. Two unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the United States were murdered in Tijuana recently.
The collaboration between governments to terrorize asylum seekers was evident when CBP agents called Mexican officials and allowed the Mexican government – on U.S. soil – to photograph and intimidate these vulnerable asylum seekers in an effort to try and persuade them to return to Mexico, demonstrating a blatant disregard for their safety. Mexican immigration agents even crossed into the United States to pressure Reps. Barragan and Gomez to hand the children in our group — including children who had been tear-gassed by U.S. forces — over to the Mexican government.
Without a doubt, there is a crisis at our border. However, it is a crisis caused by the Trump administration’s complete disregard for the rule of law. As CBP officers laughed in the faces of Members of Congress, one thought gave us continued hope: if the people of the United States knew what was happening at our southern border they would not stand for it.
You can help – there are resources for AILA members and others who want to volunteer. If you can’t volunteer yourself, you can donate to groups helping the asylum seekers at the border. And, no matter who you are, you can reach out to your members of Congress and tell them that a government deliberately violating U.S. law is a danger to all we stand for as a country. It’s past time for Congress to hold the executive branch, in particular CBP, accountable. That’s the role of Congress under our Constitution. We the people need to remind them of their job!