The current administration has worked to systematically limit access to asylum at the border. Prior to COVID, we witnessed first the practice of metering lists at ports of entry along the Southern border that required asylum seekers to put their names on long waiting lists before being able to enter the U.S. to formally being their asylum process. Then came the implementation of Migration Protection Protocol, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” forcing asylum seekers to wait for months in Mexico for the U.S. asylum hearings facing danger and instability. More recently, the Administration has used COVID-19 as a pretext to completely halt access to asylum. With migrant communities unfairly under attack and facing increased marginalization and vulnerability, the need for solidarity has taken on a newfound sense of urgency. Additionally, it requires heightened creativity as our connectedness has changed in nature in the face of a global pandemic. We seek to highlight the solidarity among and with migrants that has been displayed in the times of COVID so that it may inspire us to be more committed advocates.
Standing Together In Detention & Beyond
Immigrants who have been held in detention centers report a lack of agency and control as their days are decided for them–when they wake, eat, sleep, work, or have the ability to make a phone call to a loved one, lawyer, or advocate. This sudden loss of liberty and choice often follows journeys wrought with compounded anxiety that is a product of violence, uncertainty, family separation, extortion, and beyond. This commonality of those who are detained, although each migrant’s story is uniquely distinct, fosters a sense of care, solidarity, and support among them. Examples of this bond and unity could include anything from English-speaking detainees helping those who don’t speak English decipher and understand their court documents to helping others acquire things like snacks, stamps, or envelopes from the commissary, a small store within detention facilities with basic staple items. Following their release, they remember those with whom they were detained with fondness and the acts of kindness displayed to them, however seemingly small they may have been.
As ICE downplayed the threat of COVID-19, cases surfaced and surged within detention centers, leaving detainees feeling exponentially more vulnerable. This has created a new level of solidarity among them going as far as organizing collective hunger strikes to protest their “imprisonment,” which ICE has full discretion to end by granting parole. Lucas, whose story was featured in last month’s newsletter shared about the strike that he and others organized in La Palma to draw attention to the facility and ICE’s failure to give detainees the tools to protect themselves and mitigate the spread of the virus. Apart from these hunger strikes, detainees have also self-organized along more specific lines, such as nationality, medical vulnerability, and/or sexual orientation, writing letters to affiliated advocacy groups or individuals as a way to elevate their concerns. In some cases, journalists, groups, family members of detainees, and previous detainees themselves have organized to use video chats and phone calls with detainees as sources to be released to news media outlets to draw attention to the poor conditions and sanitation. Such an effort was organized at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia where a video call was recorded with one spokesperson communicating the concerns for the collective mass of detainees while other detainees stood in the background with prepared signs in Spanish and English reading “We don’t have protection” and “There are sick people here.” This solidarity, first within detention centers and then linked to those outside of detention centers have helped shed light on the issue and given evidence for advocacy efforts on behalf of detainees.
Migrant Mutual Support through Professional Skills
Since Remain in Mexico began in 2019, many migrants have found themselves stranded in Mexico for uncertain and lengthy amounts of time. However, for those who arrived at the border during the pandemic, or following the Trump Administration’s mid-April suspension of access to asylum at the border, they live in even more uncertainty. With no sense of when or if they will be able to seek asylum in the United States, migrants are forced to find ways to sustain themselves in these moments of limbo, finding stability and refuge in shelters, encampments, or the other communities. As these migrant populations wait out the circumstances together, evidence of solidarity has surfaced among them.
In a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico–across the border from Brownsville, Texas–a group of migrants with medical backgrounds, many of whom are Cuban, offer their expertise to other asylum seekers. Funded by a medical nonprofit in Florida, this group of medical professionals manage and maintain a small clinic while keeping the virus at bay. In a piece with the Los Angeles Times, doctors and nurses spoke of this situation as more than using their profession, rather as a way to fulfill their vows to serve, heal, and incorporate dignity into their vocation. One doctor in particular was harassed by the Cuban government and prohibited from practicing medicine within his country, which ultimately led him to flee. Currently working in the clinic, he discusses his heightened awareness of the importance of treating patients with respect. A fellow camp doctor built on such sentiments, stating, “We are taught to help people regardless of nationality and politics…Other migrants know we are also migrants, the training we have, and the sacrifices we made.”
The global pandemic and recent shifts in the asylum-seeking process have created a lack of structure and opportunity for students at the border to continue their schooling during their indefinite wait. However, a variation of classrooms for children in migration has emerged at various Mexican border cities, including the Sidewalk School, also in Matamoros. The school was initially staffed by volunteers from outside the encampment, many of whom crossed from Texas to give lessons, teach art, sing, and provide meals. After several months of operating in this way, the leadership of the school transitioned to the hands of other asylum-seekers. Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, one of the initial volunteers stated, “This is their community. I don’t think, as an American, that I can come in and tell you, ‘This is what needs to happen. This is what needs to go on.’ And then I cross back and go home? How would I know what you need?” In that way, it has been both a logical and empowering transition of leadership into the hands of those whose reality, at least in some ways, mirrors those of their students
As asylum-seekers wait for increasingly long, if not indefinite, periods of time at the border, there has been an increase in methods of organizing structure and governance in migrant communities. A recent piece in the Washington Post titled “American Dream,” describes the vibrant, well-organized community that has taken shape within the Matamoros camp where the migrant community has “eke[ed] out some semblance of normalcy amid nearly unfathomable uncertainty.” Starting in late January, the camp established a representative democracy–representatives from each country of origin were elected to coordinate efforts in areas of communication, resource distribution, sanitation, and general civil response. A particularly essential function of the elected representatives is conveying accurate information to their constituents, and dispelling false information or rumors.
In Tijuana, a border town approximately 500 miles west of Nogales, a handful of asylum-seekers observed a need in their community and organized to meet it. Two Honduran migrants, Douglas Oviedo and Michael Rodriguez, have endured xenophobia, overcrowded shelters, and multiple challenges to seeking asylum while waiting in Tijuana. Through the support of donations from the U.S. in September of 2019, the two men established a shelter called “Casa del Hogar del Puente” for asylum seekers ‘Remaining in Mexico’ while they await their asylum hearings. The shelter has space for 30 women and children, a vegetable garden, a playground and recreational area, a chicken cooperative, and a piñata-building cooperative.
Accompaniment & Bearing Witness
An example of the solidarity that has existed along the border during a majority of the Trump presidency is that of the group “Witness at the Border,” which seeks to highlight the injustices and cruelty of our current immigration system. In their consistent presence and documentation of places like the Tornillo detention facility for minors in Texas and the Matamoros encampment, they seek to drive policy reform through observation, sharing information, and continued witness. Prior to COVID-19, the group held a daily vigil at the Brownsville, Texas airport simultaneous to the takeoff of ICE deportation flights. Though they have dispersed physically, the spirit of their presence remains as they track the flights, maintain statistics, and virtually witness the unjust practice of deportations without due process.
Expressions of solidarity take many forms at the border and beyond that are determined by varying capacities, skills, proximity, and resources. Accompaniment, distilled to the work of “walking with” or “being with” vulnerable people and communities, is a way of working and living that is guided by mutuality and listening to the needs of the communities one is working alongside or standing alongside in solidarity. The concept and spirit of accompaniment was tangibly and whole-heartedly demonstrated by Bishop Mark Seitz during the earlier phases of the implementation of Migration Protection Protocol by El Paso. In the summer of 2019, he physically walked across the border entering Mexico with asylum seekers being sent back to ‘remain in Mexico.’
Bishop Seitz described the Remain in Mexico policy as one of a “heart-sick government and society.” He stated, “In a day when we prefer to think that prejudice and intolerance are problems of the past, we have found a new acceptable group to treat as less than human, to look down upon and to fear. And should they speak another language or are brown or black, well, it is that much easier to stigmatize them.”
Solidarity at KBI
Living in the times of COVID, we cannot literally link arms with migrants like Bishop Seitz so symbolically did when he walked across the border with his migrant brothers and sisters. We now live in a time in which we are forced to distance ourselves, and as we physically do so, we are challenged to not let that distance make us disconnected, as much as the current administration attempts to divide us. By making asylum seekers put their names on metering lists at ports of entry, implementing the Remain in Mexico policy, approving rapid expulsions without due process, to now indefinitely eradicating asylum, the Trump Administration has tried to push migrant communities out of sight, out of mind. As advocates for more just migration, one of the most powerful things that we can do to stand in solidarity with migrant communities is to bring them back into sight–we can make them seen and make them heard. We can listen to their stories and take the time to understand their realities, their needs, and their struggles so that we can be better educated, equipped, and strategic in how we support them. As the needs of migrant communities shift, so should our modes of expressing solidarity.
This kind of alternative solidarity has been demonstrated within the Kino community. In February, we welcomed a group from Sacred Heart Preparatory School in Atherton, California. They were able to make it to visit the border and firsthand meet the migrants with whom we work before the surge of COVID cases. However, upon returning to California, they found themselves in the panic of an outbreak and stripped of traditional modes of presenting and sharing the stories they had heard. Instead of letting that stifle their voices and the voices of migrants, they decided to write and publish in their school newsletter specifically writing about the ways in which COVID was more harshly affecting marginalized communities, including migrants and undocumented workers.
As the world has gone even more virtual, we have seen the larger Jesuit network leverage online forums and presentations, providing spaces for learning, reflection, and staying up to date on shifting border dynamics. In an exemplary act of solidarity facilitated by Jesuits West province organizing, parishes in Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma hosted a prayer vigil for the immigrant community that was excluded from any sort of government relief in facing the pandemic. The vigil was the community’s way of showing their alignment with a letter previously published by the Jesuit Ministries that pressured the governor of Washington to include immigrant communities to receive COVID-relief. Reflecting on this letter and the further marginalization of immigrant communities, the vigil challenged its attendees and online followers to reflect on what calls us to stand in solidarity with vulnerable populations. Fr. Tom Lamanna S.J., of St. Aloysius in Spokane, stated “Throughout our scriptures is the idea that justice is measured by how we treat those who have no means for self-sufficiency because they have no social or legal standing.” His message and sentiments were echoed and embodied by Washington resident Miguel, who is part of the immigrant community. He openly shared about his own economic and personal contributions to a community that has painfully disregarded him in challenging, unprecedented times. He shared, “…who gets cared for is defined not by who contributed to the community, but by who has the right numbers to put on the forms. We are proud to have contributed to this country, but now when we need support, we need to be treated like brothers, like equals.” The messaging of the vigil generated a spirit of continued witness and solidarity, encouraging its attendees and beyond to continue pressuring for immigrant populations to be more included in the face of a pandemic.
Solidarity Across Borders
The urgency of persistent action and solidarity has increased as the pandemic rages on and immigrants and asylum seekers continue to be further targeted and marginalized. The Kino Border Initiative, along with other Jesuit organizations and entities across the Americas, is facilitating a 3-month long online campaign fittingly called “Solidarity Across Borders.” This campaign seeks to lift up the testimonies of migrant communities and the additional difficulties they encounter in the face of a pandemic. The vision of the campaign is to help advocates better grasp their struggles so that we can be more informed and dedicated agents of change. Through the campaign, the sharing of these testimonies will be coupled with suggested calls to action and modes of expressing solidarity with migrant communities that bring about tangible change. Please follow the Solidarity Across Borders campaign which serves as a reminder that “we are a community and only in community can we move forward, without leaving anyone behind.”