When I got in a van Tuesday morning with an organization called This Is About Humanity, I thought we were going to visit a detention center at the border to offer support, but that’s not possible. We know there’s a need, and so many people who would love to meet it, but as far as I can tell you can’t get in. You can’t offer toothpaste and soap to people being held in unhygienic conditions. You can’t offer a blanket to the people forced into “ice boxes” until they agree to sign paperwork they can’t understand stripping away their right to seek asylum. There is no access from the outside world nor transparency about what’s going on inside.
Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that they plan to change the law so there is no limit to how long people can be detained. That’s people who have done nothing wrong, who are trying to escape persecution and danger in the places they’re coming from. The idea of putting people of a specific ethnic group into detention centers without any accountability, any transparency, any support or services, and having no plan for them to leave those detention centers? That’s not something I’ve ever experienced in my life as an American on our soil. It is so counter to what I have always thought to be our American Democracy, and carries with it terrifying ramifications. It’s creating a humanitarian crisis here and across the border when we send people away.
Once people have been turned away or deported, there’s nothing for them to do other than despair. They simply turn around. They end up in Tijuana, stuck, because they have no documentation, no options. That’s where I was actually headed on Tuesday: to the San Diego-Tijuana border to visit shelters that have been erected on the other side.
With American passports, we were able to simply walk across. The first thing we noticed is there’s a wall on the Mexican side. It stretches out fairly far into the ocean so you can’t swim around it. There’s all this conversation about, Oh we need a wall — there’s already a wall! And on the Mexican side, it’s beautifully decorated with murals.
The area is called Friendship Park, because in the past, it was a place of communion, and a place of joining of the two cultures. There’s actually a door there, called the Door of Hope, that they would open maybe once a year, and people could go across in both directions to see their families. And now, the Door of Hope doesn’t open anymore.
On one side is one country, and on the other is another country, and there’s so much turmoil and havoc going on around people trying to take one step over.
People have gone on these long journeys from so many different countries — Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — trying to get to a place that’s safe for their families. Several people told us their harrowing stories about being kidnapped, tortured, escaping murder threats and gang violence. The biggest thing that I took away from my visit was a much better understanding of who these people are. The people who are trying to seek asylum have been so vilified and wrongly labeled as criminals, and it’s just not true. Everyone we saw was in a family. Some children were alone, begging in the streets.
Even if they aren’t necessarily from Mexico, they end up there with no place to go, except for shelters. The first one I visited is run by an organization called Border Angels, and it’s literally just wood bunk beds, that’s it. It was a totally cramped space in the middle of a crumbling cement building. I saw a big bucket that may or may not have been used as a makeshift bathroom. There were maybe 25 beds, piled three high, but who knows how many people share them. This Is About Humanity is helping rebuild that shelter into something more hospitable.
The Movimiento Juventud Shelter is another place essentially providing a roof over people’s heads. It’s nothing more than a corrugated metal warehouse full of tents. They have helped over 4,000 families since 2016. The maximum capacity in that room of tents is 150 people at a time; there were 94 when I was there. People are constantly coming in and out of these places. Entire families each have their own tent, and that’s what they have. There was an excruciatingly hot kitchen, and This Is About Humanity had built a couple of bathrooms. The first thing that I saw was children playing in a small area of that room with all the tents in it, on the crumbling concrete floors. The beauty of it all is that children are children no matter what, and they’re always going to find a way to play. But they all had chicken pox. They have no medical care at all.
We went to a school run by Yes We Can, an organization started by a young woman who had emigrated to the United States as a child, which was traumatic for her at that time. That’s the thing I wish for people in our country to realize — the harrowing circumstances that so many people are going through, which drives them to take this kind of risk and make this kind of journey.
Yes We Can created this beautiful little school inside a refurbished school bus. It’s the first bilingual educational program for migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border, which is a huge deal. Otherwise the children are sitting idle, in a shelter or on the street, with nothing. These children are going through such transient and unsure circumstances, so for them to be granted the stability of any kind of education is so important. It is an amazing service to be able to contribute to.
And remember, all of this has all unfolded because the United States of America has been turning people away. This is all the byproduct of the brutal circumstances people are meeting when we are not even honoring the request to seek asylum, which is not a crime. It is not illegal. This idea of people being “illegal” — what does it even mean to be an illegal human being? It’s just a bizarre and cruel concept.
When I was seeing people in these dire circumstances, I couldn’t help but have this feeling of, At least you escaped what we’re going to put you through. Even as I’m seeing people who have no options and no support other than the kindness of someone at a shelter trying to help address their needs. All I could think was, Thank God you got out of there, because who knows?
I can’t say I came away with all the answers, but I have a much better understanding of what the problems are, and it feels to me that the way we are handling this as a country is not in any way righteous or representative of who we are.
As Americans and as concerned citizens, we keep saying, What can we do? Right now, this is what we can do: Educate ourselves as much as possible. Have the conversations and keep having the conversations and try to be aware about what is going on.
You can make donations to these organizations offering relief and support on the Mexico side of the border, and you can be assured you’re doing something. You can donate to Border Angels, This Is About Humanity, Yes We Can, and Caritas (which runs a shelter near the school). We also heard from women from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center and the Immigration Justice Project who explained that unlike in the United States Justice system, people are not given any kind of legal representation. It’s so sad to me that when they finally get here, those who are seeking asylum, or trying to protest deportation, are thrown into a legal system which requires them to find a lawyer and pay for it with their own money. You can help fund that fight. You can also donate to post bond for somebody who is detained. You can help.
I personally believe this is an assault on our culture as Americans. I feel like we’re in a really dangerous place when this is being allowed to happen, and I would encourage anyone who agrees to really explore how they can help give any kind of support to these families — and again, they are families just like we are.
The immigration question is a very difficult one. It has become a very political one, obviously, and it is not going to be solved overnight. But in the meantime, there are so many people who are suffering and in need, and being caught up in the chaos of this issue. And by the way, they are our neighbors.