Those of us living in the Texas-Mexico border region have front-row seats to a rapidly intensifying Greek tragedy. Families fleeing deadly cartels, vigilante mobs and campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” are arriving at our gateways, hoping to find asylum here — or, at the very least, to save their children’s lives. Our laws and treaties are designed to protect them and forbid the forcible return of refugees to places where they face grave abuse or death. Yet, this is precisely what we are doing in our current national frenzy to bar unlawful economic immigrants. Yes, we are killing people — and, yes, it is illegal.
In recent weeks, several harsh and misdirected government deterrence policies have converged, bringing this humanitarian crisis to a flashpoint. The goal is to make life so unbearable here that asylum seekers give up and return to their deadly homelands. Federal agents now have a virtual carte blanche for gratuitous cruelty and excessive force. Three weeks ago, a tiny, unarmed, Mayan woman was shot through the head as she entered a border community. Ironically, her ancestors predate our own in this hemisphere by millennia. Parents who have gone through hell getting their families here alive are now having their children torn, screaming, from their arms and taken to undisclosed destinations. Just days ago, a U.S. senator trying to visit these children was denied entry to the shelter. When he persisted, the police were called.
Even people legally presenting themselves at U.S. ports of entry to request asylum are suffering abuse. Now, they are being told to “wait their turn” on the international bridge. Earlier this week, I counted 40 frightened people sitting on the cement sidewalk in the 100-degree heat. Some had been camped there for eight days. Many small children had been there over 24 hours. Mexican church volunteers were bringing them water and food.
U.S. officials justify this by claiming that their facilities are “full.” However, in the air-conditioned processing room, I saw that only one of five rows of chairs was full. The detention centers are of course full because nowadays refugees amply eligible for release on bond or parole are being indefinitely detained.
Our laws provide that refugees may legally apply for asylum by presenting themselves at a U.S. port of entry. If they pass their credible fear interviews — as a large percentage do — then they have the right to proceed in the immigration courts. Previously, such persons were routinely released on parole to relatives with lawful status, while their cases were processed. Under the Trump administration, no one is paroled. Asylum seekers can spend years in detention centers operating as de facto prisons.
Thus, people camped on the bridge also face prolonged detention once they enter. This is to press them leave “voluntarily.” Many do. Not long ago, a deeply religious 18-year-old man returned to Honduras, where both of his brothers had already been murdered by the cartels. He could not bear further confinement here. I cannot blame him. There were no partitions between the toilet bowls and the detainees are forbidden to touch one another, even to join hands in prayer. When a woman learned that her child was dead, her friends tried to embrace her, only to be warned to step back or face punishment.
Let’s be clear about who these people are. Despite official declarations that they are dangerous animals, most are arriving from areas in Mexico and Central America that boast some of the highest murder rates in the world. Many others are fleeing ethnic violence and political persecution in Africa. They can confirm their stories with scars and death certificates. The dangerous “animals” from the narco-networks have plenty of money for passports, airplanes, boats and bribes. They don’t need to send terrified families to beg for asylum here.
We are punishing the victims. Why?
Harbury, a human rights lawyer, has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for over 40 years.