An Appeal to Humanity — Close the Camps

First of three articles

[I can only post this under one name but this is actually by Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga <>, Dr. Amy Argenal <>, and Dr. Rick Ayers <>, University of San Francisco.]

One child

Marisita is eight years old, wears t-shirts that say things like “Make my Day” and “Too Cute.” She is obsessed with birds and often does her best to draw pictures of them. Generally shy, she has recently pushed herself to make friends and has actually become a leader of her posse of girls. They invent games, often ones that involve movement and rhythm, such as leapfrog and a hand slapping song. She has recently had a growth spurt so her pants are all a bit short at her ankles. When in school, she focuses closely on the teacher’s words and works hard on the assignments. She has dreams.

This description could fit any number of girls in the US, those in wealthy suburban districts as well as students in rural or inner-city schools. But Marisita is different from any of these girls because she resides a hundred feet from the Rio Grande river in southern Texas, confined to a refugee camp that is the result of the US government’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “remain in Mexico.” This new rule has slammed the door on asylum seekers, forcing them to scratch out an existence on the edge of disaster with no end in sight.

Marisita is human, you see, fully human and deserving her life. We have to say that because something about the cruel camp she resides in with 3000 others living in a random collection of tents, suggests that too many people, policymakers and enforcers and even regular citizens, must regard her as less-than, as unworthy, in order to ignore Marisita and her family. There are more than 60,000 asylum seekers strung along the southern border of the US. Millions of people in the US can apparently gaze with unfeeling eyes at the camp where Marisita and her family suffer and may well die.

Some things about Marisita that I did not include above: she is at an age where her body is changing, as the poet Sharon Olds said, “She cannot be not beautiful.” She has a long light brown face. Her hair is regularly washed and brushed and tied back at the neck, but still it has little flecks of dust and twigs from the wind that blows around at the camp. Two months ago there was a lice infestation at the camp and she has kept them away but has to be careful. Marisita is not starving but she is significantly underweight. She has school for one hour a week, on Sunday mornings when a volunteer group comes into the camp and sets up English language classes. For the rest of the time, she hangs out with friends, wanders and explores, draws birds (when she can get some paper and markers), or just gazes at the river and the wall beyond it.

But there is more in Marisita’s life. She fled with her father and baby brother (who is often hiked up on her hip as she walks around) from Honduras. Her grandfather was involved in helping people leave the MS13 gang, which made them a target; in fact her uncle was murdered. Her mother, who had diabetes, who faced high stress and no medical treatment for her condition, died. So the three of them headed north, hoping to find some safety.

They are facing a border that is closed. And when asylum-seekers do get a hearing in a court (immigration courts are set up right across the border in large tents) 99% of the asylum claims are currently being denied. Refugees pile up at the border with no financial support from the US government and only minimal support from the Mexican government. The tent cities there are slowly getting more organized, thanks to Catholic activists, one NGO, and various solidarity groups — such as Angry Tias and Abuelos, Team Brownsville and Brownsville Cares from just across the border. While conditions have slightly improved, refugees are living in these tents, for month after month, with no clear way forward.

But conditions cannot improve in relation to the danger from Mexican gangs (which are referred to simply as The Cartel) — those who have moved from the drug trade to preying on the weakest, such as refugees. Robbery, rape, and kidnapping are experiences that the people in the tent city of Matamoros have to contend with every day and night.

Over the past ten months we have created a project called Bay Area Border Relief to help in whatever ways we can. We have been in contact since this summer with families who have been living a grueling life in Matamoros. And now the precarious health status of people in the camps is intensified by the threat of the coronavirus.

Psychological Trauma

The mental health of asylum seekers is spiraling down and intensifying with each passing day they are forced to live in the camp. US border policies are expanding the psychological trauma that began with the vicious separation of children from parents that we witnessed in 2018. Today we see the emotional fallout of MPP, families “thrown out onto the dirt” of Matamoros, forced to live steps from our border — treated as animals by our administration while a handful of volunteers work desperately to care for them.

They are enduring mental anguish as they weather the elements of the cold, the rain, the heat — all under a flimsy tent that does little to protect them from the cartel, danger and daily fear they are living with. Increasingly the refugees report depression, anxiety, stress and an increase in panic attacks. One late evening we received a call from the camp, reporting an increase in suicidal ideation by several we met. Nightmares, hyperarousal, panic, extreme fear, hopelessness and desperation are frequent symptoms of the asylum seekers at the border. Keeping MPP in place flagrantly neglects the posttraumatic stress and chronic trauma that individuals have fled with only to now face additional life-threatening trauma.

The longer time passes, the more intense the mental health symptoms are becoming, including those for children. The most vulnerable of the population are the little ones, who are fighting for another day with their families. Their hope is safety, the safety they did not have in their home country and certainly do not have at the border. The “Remain in Mexico” policy has forced parents to make the difficult decision to separate from their children, sending them to the United States to live with relatives on their own. The emotional crisis this is causing has heightened feelings of suicide, psychosis and a deep desperation that can only be understood from the experience of the asylum seeker. We have seen mothers crying with a deep pain that their hearts cannot contain. Symptoms of grief, depression, guilt and loss are consuming the spirits of these warriors who are hoping for a future of safety, a basic need for all humanity.

The border is void of mental health services. Occasional volunteer clinicians like those of us from our University of San Francisco counseling team make their way to the border, but our limited efforts do not address the psychological crisis that the majority of the camp is living with. We have collected extensive evidence of the crisis but confidentiality requirements prevent us from detailing each one.

The abundance of trauma research indicates that this policy is perpetuating a grave psychological crisis on asylum seekers. One dad shared, “We have a heart, feelings, we are not made of wood, we are human beings. A human being shouldn’t go through torture, exhaustion, because we are psychologically affected by all this. It’s the mental exhaustion, all the bad things that my family has gone through and now how we are being treated here, that is in my mind.”

The United States must take responsibility to offer humane care for those arriving at our borders. Cages, separation, deaths, maltreatment, hunger, cold and forcing them into the most dangerous conditions of living in an empty field are psychological warfare tactics that are difficult to imagine. There is not time to wait. The health of a community of asylum seekers is depending on our Supreme Court to make the right choice and rescind this shameful policy. Hear the voice of the children, “danos un oportunidad”

Through heroic efforts, mostly by Mexican and American volunteers, the asylum seekers now have access to bathrooms (port-a-potties), and showers, some medical clinics and schooling. But the notion of the camp as permanent, with no way out month after month, is a horror that is difficult to imagine. The camp itself, while more organized than before, is cold, dusty, hot and wet. While there are bathrooms and showers, they are not private and when someone tries to set up their own shower, it can be taken down in a moment by the authorities. Mexican military men in tanks patrol the street in front of the camp.

What next?

One of the most profound experiences of the Bay Area Border Relief was to see how families step up to contribute and support every activity that was planned. No one there wants to wait idly — families want their children in school, they want to work. Indeed, the contributions they want to make in the US through work, culture, and faith would only be a benefit to US society. Besides the extensive research that has demonstrated the value these immigrants bring to the economy, we must acknowledge that they are fleeing not because they want American consumer products; they are fleeing because of untenable living conditions that have been partially caused by a US foreign policy that maximizes extraction of wealth and undermines viable democratic institutions. The “Remain in Mexico” policy violates the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which requires nations to accept refugees fleeing persecution.

When camps become permanent, we must question what they are for. These are concentration camps, forcing asylum seeker families, those fighting for their lives, to remain stuck. The camps declare that “you don’t belong, you must live apart.” By the creation of camps, stereotypes are reinforced, a self-fulfilling prophecy. They frame asylum seekers, not as the strengths of their families, those brave enough to take the risk to save their children, but as helpless lost souls stuck in camps, asking for handouts. This only reinforces the public’s negative opinion of those seeking asylum.

We were witness to asylum seekers credible fear interviews translated incorrectly on their forms, labeled criminals and told that they don’t have fear when in fact they are begging to not be sent back because relatives have already been executed. Families are here waiting to cross together. Yet many are desperate enough to consider having their children cross without them for the hope of safety for them.

We saw MPP ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court only to be allowed to continue as the question makes its way to the Supreme Court. We saw the desperation in the eyes of families as they got the news that only just hours before were filled with excitement that now might be the time.

Overall, we saw the mental health of family after family deteriorate out of desperation. Families are tired, they have made long journeys and have been waiting even longer, in a camp which is not home, not warm, without access to work or a way to earn a living, with no opportunities to study in school. They are fleeing for their safety, and have arrived at purgatory. There is no place for them to go, they look so closely at the US from across the river. It is up to us — up to our moral, civic, and human values — to end this nightmare and to allow Marisita and her fellow refugees to find freedom.

Please join us in demanding human rights and fair treatment for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. You can support the work of Bay Area Border Relief by donating to

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.