An Easter COVID-19 wish: human solidarity with refugees at the border

Third of three articles

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

On the morning of Good Friday, photos started coming in to the WhatsApp chats of our team, Bay Area Border Relief (BABR), showing an unknown female’s body floating at the edge of the Rio Grande at the Matamoros Border. There was little information about her story until calls came in later that day. “I just spoke to her the other day,” refugee leader Miguel said. “She was desperate, alone, tired and in anguish, she wanted to find a way to have a life. It was the last time I saw her until today when she is dead.” Today, the camp is grieving, knowing that the same water they have been forced to bathe in, the same water that separates them from freedom, is the same water in which she drowned in her despair for survival.

The camp of asylum seekers in Matamoros was overwhelmed by the heartbreak of seeing the desperation and sadness that punctuated the end of this woman’s life in her futile attempt to cross. Her death was a reminder of their fight for life and the risks refugees take every day just to survive, living in difficult and complicated conditions that are worsening.

The Trump administration began by forcing the separation of children from parents at the U.S. border, into growing concentration camps. Now with his cruel and inhumane “Remain in Mexico” policy (officially called Migrant Protection Protocol MPP), he is using terror tactics to keep asylum-seeking families frightened, confused, stressed and alone as they are forced to wait in Mexico for an asylum that is rarely forthcoming. The wall has never seemed bigger than under MPP where the cruelest of tactics are being used to dominate and humiliate humanity.

Death, hunger, illness and separation of families weaken these refugees and put them in danger. At the same time, it binds families from different countries into a strong community of solidarity. Their will to live strengthens as they push against forces that have dehumanized, criminalized and psychologically poisoned them. They are warriors fighting for survival with an unquenchable hope to achieve asylum. The reality of death that awaits them in their home countries fuels their determination to keep going. While most decisions are out of their control, their intrinsic strengths keep them organized to support one another and find ways to get themselves through day by day. Camp life is a grueling discourse of survival that is never predictable. Every day there are new twists and turns in the cruelty of MPP. But what no one, including those in camp, could predict was COVID-19.

As the death toll rises in the United States, so does the fear that has gripped our country. In many ways, this escalated fear is akin to what asylum-seeking families have been experiencing for months at our borders. Since COVID-19 began, the situation for the families at the Matamoros camp has worsened as the restrictions have made it much more difficult for allies to enter Matamoros. U.S. volunteers who have been a lifeline to the asylum-seekers have been restricted from crossing over the border to lend support as they had done in the past. No longer is the camp bustling with U.S. allies offering resources, advocacy and in many ways protection. This disconnection from volunteers who provide their daily bread has limited their resources, increasing hunger and insecurities for the families. Children have told us that they are not eating as much. One mother shared a recent hospital photo with our team on WhatsApp showing that she has lost significant weight over the past month, weighing in at 90 pounds.

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We have now learned that Mexican officials, under the guise of confronting COVID-19, are forcing these families to move four miles away from the border, further into Matamoros, leaving them vulnerable to violence and cartels that prey on them. This has sent emotional shock waves of panic through the camp over the Easter holiday. Miguel shared their anxiety, “Where they want to move us, in the middle of Matamoros, puts us in a situation where we cannot get to our court hearings, where we are extremely vulnerable to cartel violence and where we are even further isolated. Right now, we are a little safer here, but going there would put us in a very dangerous situation.” Children who are already suffering from dangerous experiences will be further removed from the support of the solidarity workers who now cross the border.

Reporters and other United States officials have been warned to not enter Matamoros for fear of death or the violence that grips this community. The limited media and absence of a US political presence leaves the horrific experiences of suffering far from the eyes of the US public. What once was an issue the country rallied around has become a nightmare just when it has been forgotten by the news. The movement deeper into Matamoros means their voices are pushed further away. Moving will equate to worse living conditions. As the people in the camp look for ways to have their voices heard and their worsening predicament made public, they are choked by the political laws of the new Migrant Protection Protocol policy.

The hashtag #freethemall has been circulating on social media pages these past few weeks.. The hashtag is a collaboration of immigrant rights organizations from across the country calling for the release of immigrants in detention in the United States. This movement is powerful because it exposes the results of years of failed immigration policies which have left our immigrant communities at risk. Because a pandemic attacks all communities, it also highlights the dangers that threaten all of society.

Just as the movement to end detention within the United States is needed at this time, we must also move our gaze to our southern border in support of the communities waiting in camps due to the “remain in Mexico” (MPP) policy. While the Trump Administration’s decrees are not unique, they are especially cruel as they are the culmination of violent policies against those from Latin America. We could go back a hundred years or more to deeply understand the role of the United States in Central America, however, let’s just start here with the 1980’s. The list of atrocities committed by the US is long, from training and sending troops to support violent dictatorships and death squads under the Reagan administration, to the trade policies of NAFTA and CAFTA under Clinton, to the continued pushing of neoliberal policies that export resources critically needed in Latin America to the US, to the 2009 coup in Honduras and proliferation of gang violence. Their land is taken, the price of food has skyrocketed, and governments enforce austerity plans to defund the public infrastructure. It is because of this, because of US aggression causing immiseration, that communities in Central America are forced to leave. These factors, summed up too briefly here, point to the root causes of the growth of the number of refugees as we ask you to pay attention to those held at the border.

MPP has always been an especially cruel and dangerous policy inflicted on those fleeing violence. Under the Trump administration, prior to this policy, when asylum seekers arrived in the United States, most were put into detention. Our group, Bay Area Border Relief at the University of San Francisco (USF), worked with many families as they were released from detention in the summer of 2019. Families were tired and traumatized from their journeys and from detention. Many shared fear and frustration but also relief that they were finally able to reunite with families across the United States.

After spending anywhere between 3–21 days in border patrol detention facilities, they were able to shower, have a hot meal, call family and make travel arrangements to be reunited with loved ones. We thought conditions could not get worse but now we look back on these moments of relief with nostalgia, as such relief is never offered today for the families waiting on the Mexican side of the border, 58,000 or more stuck at a number of ports of entry. Families and asylum seekers are making horrific journeys from their homes and when they arrive at the border, there is not one moment of relief. They arrive to make their asylum claim and are immediately sent back to Mexico. At Matamoros, the port of entry across the border from Brownsville, Texas, there are 3,000 people waiting in a crowded tent encampment. There is no moment for a hot shower, for a change of clean clothes, for the relief of knowing that in a few days, there would be a connection with family. This seems trivial but in this time of Covid-19, it is actually something that can be the difference between life and death.

As we now know, stress, exhaustion, and poor diet can negatively impact our immune systems. Some of the recommendations from the World Health Organization are to shelter in place, sleep well, try and minimize stress, exercise and eat well. Those who are waiting in Matamoros, living in tents with no means for social distancing, are hugely at-risk due not only to the physical situation but also the buildup of months of unhealthy living conditions. Living in a camp has deep detrimental impacts on one’s mental and physical health, which in times of COVID-19 become deadly. And, as all of the public health literature shows, any local flare-up of an infectious disease only strengthens the virus and its ability to quickly spread. This is why each person’s health and survival is dependent on everyone’s protection.

As the world fights COVID-19, the camp is rapidly spiraling into another traumatic crisis. During this time that our allegedly Christian country celebrates Jesus’ life, we continue to crucify the most vulnerable at our borders. Our Bay Area Border Relief and USF team is calling for an end to the MPP policy and the further loss of life that will continue to occur with a forced move deeper into the dark shadows of trauma.

To the many who fight for the protection of life from COVID-19, we call on the same protection to be extended to those children and families who are fighting for their lives at our borders. Let’s act now. You can support the work of Bay Area Border Relief by donating to www.bayareaborderrelief.org

Photo credit: Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters

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

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