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— On the morning of New Year’s Eve, a woman named Angela stood ankle-deep in
the Rio Grande, washing clothes — or as they call it on this side of the border,
the Rio Bravo. Bravo means fierce in this context: A few paces from where
Angela, a Salvadoran asylum seeker, was doing the day’s laundry, the current had
swept a father and his infant daughter to
their deaths last June. The river, I soon realized, was the perfect
metaphor for the refugee camp that has sprung up along its banks. Peaceful on
the surface, with terrifying currents underneath.
Angela was one of the
nearly 60,000 asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait for months for their
hearings in this notoriously dangerous cartel zone stretching from Matamoros in the east to Tijuana
in the west. And as the president trumpets his success in ending what he calls “catch and
release” — the time-honored practice of allowing carefully vetted asylum
seekers to remain with their sponsors in the US as they wait for their hearings
— I reflect on 17 days in January that I spent with women like Angela, and some
of the other victims of his “Remain in Mexico” policy, the so-called Migrant
I interviewed many
of those families, along with some of the doctors, teachers, lawyers, religious
sisters and other volunteers who’d crossed the border to serve them. I was
there to report on the issue for several publications, and I wanted to know what
it was like there in Matamoros, and why they’d made the decision to come — the
volunteers, as well as those they served.
In Matamoros alone, between 2,500 and 3,000 individuals now live in a tent camp on the riverbank. Most are families with children. Similar encampments have appeared in other crime-ridden cities across the border. MPP returnees have reported at least 201 cases of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of children and at least 816 reports of violence, including murder, torture, rape and kidnapping.
the street from the tent camp, an abandoned tourism kiosk flutters with the
posters of missing people, and the words of their loved ones desperate to find
play in the camp’s corridors, their parents gathering firewood, washing clothes,
hanging them to dry on flowering bougainvillea bushes. Cooking on the elaborate
ovens they’ve fashioned from the mud; picking up trash, sweeping packed dirt
corridors between tents.
Leonora, 11 and 12, told me with startling clarity of the brutal crimes that
drove their families from their homes. One saw a cousin hacked to pieces with a
machete. The other narrowly escaped death when extortionists burned her
family’s house down for not paying their protection payment. (I use pseudonyms here
because girls and young women are at particular risk from cartels.)
I talked to José
Inocente and his wife Esperanza (last names withheld). José had a welding shop
in El Salvador until gangsters demanded exorbitant protection payments. When he
protested, they said they’d be coming for his two sons. He grabbed his family
Jenny, a single
mother from Honduras, was terrified when her 13-year-old son Evan came home
with his face bloodied and bruised. The gangs told him he had two choices: join
them, or die. She packed what she could carry, loaded Evan and his little
brother on a bus and headed north. I would have done the same.
The stories go on
and on. I heard dozens. Not from the violent criminals Trump likes to reference;
but rather, their victims.
But why should we in
the United States be responsible for their problems?
There are some
strong reasons, and they go back generations. A review of U.S. policy in Latin
America going back to my great-grandparents’ time reveals decision after
decision at the highest levels of Democratic as well as Republican
administrations that relentlessly brewed corruption, violence and chaos
throughout the region.
Fast forward to
the early ’90s, when my daughter was Estela’s age. The children of those very
same undocumented Salvadorans who had been denied asylum were easy prey for the
terrifying Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, who got their start in Los Angeles
and recruited them heavily. U.S. law enforcement agencies’ efforts to break up
the gangs by deporting its leaders ended up backfiring, spreading them like a plague across
Central America — and back into the US.
Today my daughter
is grown, with children of her own. I am a grandmother. And as I sat with these
new asylum seekers, many of them the age of my daughter, I heard their pleas
for a chance at a life for their children, far from the modern death squads who
stalk their homes. And I realized: The violent thugs Trump is so fond of
referencing are the children of our own neglect —and they are preying on
thousands of families, including those now stranded at the border.
questions that haunt me: What would have happened to the boys recruited by
Maras if their families had received asylum? If instead of living in the shadows
as undocumented immigrants, their parents had had a real chance at the American
Dream they risked so much to achieve?
And what will
happen to Evan, and to Estela and Leonora, if their families are denied asylum
– which, under the current system, is likely? Just 187 of the 59,241 — or fewer than three-tenths of one percent — of the asylum seekers sent back
under the MPP program had been approved as of the end of December, according to
data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse
Before passage of
the MPP, most of these families would have awaited their hearings in relatives’
homes in the US. We know that nearly all would have followed the legal process
meticulously. According to TRAC, 9 out of 10 asylum seekers on the
U.S. side attend 100 percent of their hearings. Among those with legal
representation, it’s 99 percent.
That rate drops to half among those sent back to Mexico,
reflecting the challenges they face: lack of legal representation; high violent
victimization rates; and a failure to receive court notices are a few of the
reasons cited. Their cases are closed in absentia.
My last day in
Matamoros I saw Estela, who ran and embraced me, whispering into my ear: “Take
me home with you. Then I could live in a house, and go to school.”
If we are truly concerned about the threat of violence from abroad, let’s look at its root causes. Let’s consider the cradle of violence that we are creating by offering a city-sized serving of red meat to the cartel sharks circling the asylum seeker camps along the border. If we don’t provide these families with the safety that is their right as asylum seekers, our own children, as well as theirs, will have to live with a more dangerous world.
Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the founding editor of The Esperanza Project. A version of this article appeared in the Houston Chronicle.