by Mark Redwine
Almost everything has changed for asylum seekers since I last posted to KRL… and not for the better. The largest change has been the implementation of MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols), AKA the “Return to Mexico” policy, which made its way to Brownsville in July of this year.
Some things have not changed. One is that what people tend to understand about asylum seeking and immigration is mostly inaccurate. And, that the issues surrounding asylum seeking and immigration are extremely emotionally, passionately charged and highly volatile.
One thing that has not changed is that immigration and asylum seeking are two separate processes. Immigration can be done from your home country at an American Embassy. It takes a long time and a lot of money. In asylum seeking, you are running from danger, in fear of your life, from your home country. Asylum seeking is legal under U.S. law and international conventions that we have signed on to. All one needs to do to claim asylum is to set foot on the country of choice and ask for asylum. The asylum process can also be lengthy and expensive.
Understanding criminality in immigration and asylum seeking is confusing, conflicting and inaccurate. Many people tend to see asylum seekers as illegal immigrants.
Criminality in asylum seeking has to do with entering the USA. If you enter at a Port of Entry and present yourself to the authorities for asylum, you have gained authorized (legal) entry to the USA. If you enter the country between Ports of Entry, you have unauthorized (illegal) entry. If you enter without authorization, the first thing you do is surrender yourself to a Border agent and ask for asylum. Unauthorized entry is a civil misdemeanor. The penalty is the same as a traffic ticket.
In illegal immigration, you sneak in to the States to avoid Border agents at all costs because you don’t want to be caught. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are fleeing violence or simply attempting to have a chance at a better life. However, there are a small percentage who want to do us harm, like drug smugglers or human traffickers.
The government and the press want to identify asylum seekers as the worst of the worst.
After surrendering to authorities, asylum seekers are taken to a processing center. Then, one of three things that can happen. One, they can be removed from the country. Two, they may be allowed to pass to the U.S. to pursue their asylum case. Three, they may be sent to an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center to pursue their asylum case from behind bars. In detention, there is no difference between legal and illegal asylum seekers. All are treated worse than hardened felons. Not just the adult males, but women, pregnant women, children, and babies.What has not changed is the belief by asylum seekers and immigrants that Americans are, fundamentally at our very core, good and fair people. They believe that this goodness and fairness is etched into the collective DNA of America and that they will have an opportunity to build a new life here. We are the only hope for them. We are their last hope in the world. These beliefs give them the determination to persist in their quest, willing to sacrifice all they have, even their lives, to make it here, to be allowed to pass into the USA.
They look at the people who provide care to them as living proof that America is what she always has been…The beacon of hope to the oppressed of the world.
Upon release from ICE, asylum seekers have a mandatory date to appear before an immigration court. Then, they are released from ICE detention to bus stations, airports, and respite centers. From there, they travel to where their cases will be heard.
It takes three trials before an asylum determination can be made by the court. The first is a credible fear hearing. The second is a hearing to see if the asylum seeker has enough documented proof to proceed to the third trial. The third is the determination hearing which decides if the asylum seeker is granted asylum or not.
The backlog of people waiting to see an immigration judge while living in the U.S. today is over one million people. Some court dates are two to three years out, and sometimes it takes two to three years to complete all three trials.
In early July, we were seeing 200 people a day at the bus station and 200 at the three respite centers in town. There is one respite center in McAllen, Texas, that regularly saw 500 a day, and on a heavy day would see 900. In mid-July, MPP went into effect in this sector of the Rio Grande Valley, and the flow of people suddenly stopped, like someone turned off a light switch. The asylum seekers were processed, given a date to appear for their first hearing, and the vast majority were returned to Mexico to try and prepare their asylum cases. Now, we only see a family or two a day being released to the USA.
Under MPP, they report to a huge tent at the Border Patrol station at the base of the U.S. side of the bridge ready for their first hearing. After that, if they are successful, they are sent back to wait for their second trial. Then sent back to wait for their third trial. The trials are held in that tent. The judges are on closed circuit TV and may be anywhere in the USA. Attorneys are only allowed to observe, not participate. Verbal translation is only between the judge and asylum seeker, not with relevant witnesses. Paper translation is expected to be done by the asylum seeker. If an asylum seeker cannot show up for trial, for any reason, immediate orders of removal are issued.
The first part of June, we had 300 people in the transient camp across the bridge in Matamoros who were waiting to legally cross into the U.S. to ask for asylum. When MPP started, the camp population rose to 600 almost overnight. The next week it was at 1,000. Then it rose to 2,000 and is holding steady at 2,000. Now, this camp will be home for the asylum seekers, possibly for years, while their cases work thru the system. The UNHCR visited the camp recently and said it was an unofficial refugee resettlement camp. The camp is now developing into a village.
The challenges created by the logistics of long term consistent care of 2,000 seemed overwhelming at first. But, the hope of the refugees, that goodness and fairness that defines us as American, rose to meet their needs. As new challenges develop, they are being met by humanitarian aid groups that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. They see a need and meet it.
The challenges included preparing and feeding two meals a day for 1,000 people. Providing potable water for 2,000. Providing sanitation. Making sure everyone has a tent to sleep in and a yoga mat to sleep on. Providing blankets and warm clothing, shoes, socks, belts, shoelaces, and under garments. Providing education for the kids. Providing medical care. Providing water for washing clothes and for showers. Providing legal help for the refugees. Providing basic hygiene products and providing psychological and spiritual care.
The needs are too large and too complex for one organization to do alone. I am just a small part of this. I represent the Church of the Nazarene’s effort to care for the refugees. The people, who in any way help the refugees, are their last great hope; their last thread of strength to hang on to, much like the woman who hung on to the hem of Jesus’s garment.
And, much like her, we know who the last greatest hope is for all the oppressed, marginalized, and suffering of the world. My prayer is that they will know that He is walking with them. That He has not abandoned them, that He sees them and knows them by name.
If you would like to know more about Mark and Marilyn’s work on the border, or how you can help, like their Facebook page or email Mark for more information at mtmasai@aol[dot]com. You can check out Mark’s previous articles about Cami (see photo above) in our Tales of Diversity section.
Editor’s note: I encourage you as we enter the week of Thanksgiving in the US, a time of being thankful for what we have, to consider sending a donation to help this work.