The Trump administration has never hidden its animosity toward asylum seekers.
Trump’s zero-tolerance policy is a recent example of this, one that set off a ripple effect that continues today. On October 23, months after the court had ordered the reunification of families, Immigration Custom Enforcement (ICE) curtailed all reviews of post-release plans for family units who have been processed by the immigration authorities. As a result, asylum-seeking families have been released onto the streets of U.S. border towns without food, instructions, or means to contact sponsors.
Immigration authorities released 1,500 asylum seekers in El Paso in one week alone, according to USA Today. Immigration rights volunteers in other border towns such as San Diego have been experiencing a similar trend.
Kate Clark, director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, a partner of the San Diego Rapid Response Network, told Rewire.News, “Vulnerable [asylum-seeking migrant] families have no local support or resources, and no idea what to do next—other than appear at their ICE check-in and court hearing to continue their asylum claims process.”
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An ICE spokesperson told Rewire.News in an email, “Due to the recent uptick in family units presenting themselves along the Southwest border, ICE no longer has the capacity to conduct these reviews.”
This new policy has resulted in unnecessary hardship for many vulnerable families, such as 42-year-old Honduran asylum seeker Maria and her son, Javi. On December 11, the mother and son were processed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the San Ysidro border crossing and released on the street in San Diego with no instructions, no place to stay, and nowhere to go. Javi suffers from a heart condition. He also has Down syndrome. At the time of their release, Maria was ill with bronchitis.
Lindsay Toczylowski, the executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, is handling Maria and Javi’s asylum case. She has advised against disclosing their full names or the specifics of their asylum claim for their personal safety.
“I was so scared,” Maria told Rewire.News through a translator. After being released, she made her way to a nearby fast-food restaurant and waited, growing more anxious as hours went by. The mother and son had only the thin t-shirts on their backs, since they were released without their jackets. CBP had fitted Maria with an electronic monitoring device, which now bit into her ankle. “Javi was crying. He passed out twice,” Maria said. She propped Javi up in a booth, stroking his head and crying with him. People circled them, asking her questions, but Maria doesn’t speak English.
Javi and Maria had fled from violence in early October, walking the better part of the 2,500-mile journey from Honduras as part of an asylum seeker caravan that arrived in Tijuana mid-November. Their health made the journey more arduous. Maria had been sick with bronchitis for over a month, and by the time she arrived in Tijuana’s sports arena, she was coughing up blood.
Maria and Javi’s journey was difficult, but they had been lucky. Immigration advocates found them and helped. On December 4, when Mark Lane, CEO of Minority Humanitarian Foundation, came across the pair at the Barretal shelter in Tijuana, he became concerned about Maria’s health. “When we met them, Javi was putting vapor rub underneath [Maria’s] nose,” Lane told Rewire.News. The shelter doctors had prescribed Maria two rounds of antibiotics, but she was still sick. “When she was talking to me and she started crying, Javi started rubbing her cheek. I started crying right there.”
The mother and son stayed in Tijuana shelters for three weeks before CBP agents processed their asylum claim. They were in CBP custody at the San Ysidro border for three days; then Maria and Javi, along with 15 other people, were released onto the street. They exited through a door and found themselves on the sidewalk wearing only thin t-shirts in the winter weather with few possessions.
Because of the change in ICE’s post-release policy, immigration authorities hadn’t informed anyone about Maria and Javi’s release: neither their attorney, their legal advocates, nor volunteer organizations like San Diego Rapid Response Network had any idea where they were.
Lane finally reconnected with them on December 11 after a series of desperate phone calls. By the time he arrived, Maria and Javi had been at the restaurant for five hours.
“I walked into the [restaurant] and Javi came over to give me a hug.” Lane said. A pregnant woman at the restaurant told Lane she’d waited with them for two hours and had bought Javi and Maria food with her EBT card (also known as food stamps); other people gave them jackets to keep warm. The pregnant woman understood their pain; she was on her way to Tijuana to visit her husband, who had recently been deported.
Since then, Javi and Maria have found their own sponsor and are taking steps to become integrated into their new world, but many other families weren’t as lucky. One young couple slept on the sidewalk with their 2-year-old, as no one came for them all night, according to Lane.
In response to releasing vulnerable immigrants onto the street, the ICE spokesperson said, “The safety of those in ICE’s custody remains the agency’s highest priority, with special attention paid to vulnerable populations.”
But Shane Parmely, who volunteers with Minority Humanitarian Foundation, believes what happened to Javi will have serious long-term mental and physical health consequences.
“As a mother and a teacher it’s infuriating to hear that government employees dumped a mother and her special needs child on the streets in winter with no jackets, no money, no phone call to her lawyer, and no notice to one of the many volunteer organizations here in San Diego who are helping asylum seekers,” Parmely said in an email to Rewire.News. “Teachers and counselors and school nurses will be trying to mend the damage maliciously being inflicted on children. If any other adult treated a child this way, I would be required as a mandated reporter to call Child Protective Services.”
Activists Mobilize: “We’ve Learned by Stumbling”
To respond to this crisis, activists are becoming more resourceful and organizations have begun coordinating their efforts.
“[T]he thing I see most [in asylum seekers], after being in detention for 3 to 14 days, is fear,” Jeane Wong, a volunteer with Bridge of Love Across the Border, a group of activists in San Diego supporting asylum seekers, told Rewire.News. “Fear of the unknown, fear of who to trust, fear of being in a place with no one to call, no money, no food. Bridge of Love has been trying to organize to alleviate some of that fear and anxiety.”
Volunteers from Bridge of Love, who frequently take donations to Tijuana, are now distributing flyers to asylum seekers to inform them about their rights, as well as what to expect when in detention and what to do when they are released. With the help of Immigrant Justice Now, they’re also providing migrants with thermals in anticipation of the notoriously cold holding facilities, which are nicknamed “hieleras,” Spanish for ice boxes.
“Backpacks and belongings are not allowed in detention centers,” Wong explained. Since detainees can’t bring paperwork with them, Bridge of Love brings markers to Tijuana shelters. “We tell them before they go in, write at least one phone number on their person,” Wong said. “We tell them to use a marker so [the phone number] wouldn’t be taken away from you.”
Volunteers picking up asylum seekers who were released onto the street after being processed at the CBP detention center now stock their vehicles with backpacks, sanitary napkins, diapers, cash, shoelaces, and stuffed animals. “Since [women who have been released] don’t have sanitary napkins, they wash them and reuse them,” Wong said. “Kids have no diapers at all. They release them with a baby onto the street without a single diaper in their hands .… And we have stuffed animals to calm the kids. A lot of the parents are traumatized and scared, and their biggest comfort is their kids feeling safe.”
Bridge of Love volunteers have also made arrangements with restaurants near the border. “We talk to the security at the restaurant and give them our number,” Wong said. “In exchange for them allowing people [with ankle bracelets] to sit and keep warm and calling us to come get them, we buy food from the establishment and it works out for everybody.”
The founder of Bridge of Love, Birdie Gutierrez, began buying food for the newly released migrants after noticing they were often hungry. “The children were at our feet, begging for food. They were crying. Some were very sick from being in freezing cells,” Gutierrez told Rewire.News. “We had to feed them since we didn’t know how long Rapid Response was going to take” to arrive and bring them to shelters.
Volunteers have learned to get to know asylum seekers while in Tijuana. That way migrants see familiar faces and people they trust when they cross the border. Volunteers also wait with the asylum seekers and coordinate with Rapid Response as accommodations become available.
“We’ve learned by stumbling,” Wong said. “There [are] a lot of different organizations that are trying to help. It’s not always perfect but we’re always trying to love across the border.”
Now, volunteers and legal advocates fear yet another possible policy change that will be detrimental to vulnerable asylum-seeking families: Instead of waiting with their U.S. sponsors, families will be forced to remain in Mexico until their asylum case is adjudicated. “That causes a continued hardship and a further risk for children and expecting moms specifically,” Wong said. “The kids I have met are missing a home, daily school, and the shelters were never set up for long-term stay.”
But volunteers remain undeterred. “They’ll build a higher wall and we’ll build a higher bridge,” Wong said.