Today during a text exchange with my mom, she asked me if I thought I was doing any good down here. Of course I know that bringing activities to families during their asylum process is doing good, but this question got me thinking; what are volunteers on the border really doing? So many of us are only here for a short amount of time, can we really be making an impact?
After 10 straight hours of painting, coloring, making friendship bracelets, throwing a ball, playing with bubbles, and attempting to communicate in a language I just started learning six months ago, the answer is yes.
Why? Because the border needs a welcoming committee. Hospitality is important.
Since I arrived, I’ve become acutely aware of the families first impressions of the US, which unfortunately aren’t usually welcoming or caring. While I understand that Border Protection Officers have an important job to do in keeping our country safe, their daily attitudes toward the migrants are less than desirable. I want to respect them, but they continue to make this task difficult. In fact, just a few days ago one of the Russian families overheard an officer say “those fucking Russians”, assuming that none of them understood English. I broke into pieces when the young woman relayed this story to me. Those words are not the country I know, and it’s certainly not the country I want these families to know.
For the first time, today I was able to actually speak to a border field agent. At first, the conversation seemed to be going well. He was complaining that not enough Congressional Representatives or Senators have been to the border, something I agreed with because how can you fix a problem you’ve never seen? Unfortunately, just a few sentences later this officer was saying things like “it’s not like these people are Australian or Austrian” and “it’s not our problem, it’s Mexicos”. Since I did not feel like being arrested I kept my mouth shut, but inside I was screaming the following:
While there are certainly a lot of policy changes that can be made to help the situation, my fear is that nothing will change if these are the prevailing attitudes in the US. It also makes my head spin that often times the same people draping themselves in American Pride are the same people unwilling to acknowledge that it IS America’s greatness that motivates so many people to make long, dangerous journeys just for a chance at it.
We can’t always assert ourselves as the best country in the world, but also be surprised when these claims draw in those searching for a better life.
If I ever had any doubt about the legitimacy of asylum claims, La Cueva has washed them away. The aptly nicknamed structure sits on the sidewalk, bound to The Wall with rope, and is just steps away from the port of entry into the United States. It’s covered with tarps, and was built a few months ago when migrant families approached the shelter (CAME) in search of a solution. You see, the shelter is about a 10 minute walk from the port of entry, which is nice, but of no use when trying to cross legally. When there's capacity at the border to assess a new asylum claim, a Customs and Border Protection Officer takes one step outside of the gate and announces the number of spots available at that time, so if you are not within a few feet, you will never get your chance.
Hence, La Cueva.
The case workers at the shelter keep a list of the families in their care, and create a non-linear wait list. For example, families with very small children and infants usually are put toward the top, which unfortunately means that individuals and couples without children keep getting pushed back. Once families or individuals appear toward the top of the list, they are moved to La Cueva, where they may have to wait for up to one week before being called to cross.
La Cueva probably only takes up about 200 sf, but typically holds 15-20 people at a time. The inside is lined with mattresses which have been placed on plastic risers, leaving only about six inches of space between the foot of the mattress and the “outside wall”. Four times a day volunteers walk in pairs from the nearby resource center to pick up anyone wanting the restroom, shower, water, or simply a break inside with air conditioning. For the last two days I’ve been struck by the terrible odor that wafts out beyond the tarp when I stick my head to ask if anyone wants to come. Keep in mind, the average temperature this time of year is 100 degrees.
Heat + 20 people in a small space + trash = We have to do better
The resource center is a small, two-story building only 1.5 blocks from La Cueva. It is surrounded by a tall, locked gate for protection; it is not uncommon for migrants to tell me about being harassed or robbed at points along their journey. For those living in the tent, if it even deserves to be called that, the resource center is a few hours each day where their lives can be just a little bit better. Each time I have to walk them back to La Cueva I feel a little less human.
No one should ever have to live in these conditions.
But sometimes there is still a little brightness. Today when I took a group back to La Cueva after about an hour at the resource center, we were greeted by three locals, one of whom owns a restaurant. They had decided to bring dinner to those in the tent: homemade fried chicken, roasted potatoes, rice, and soda. The man told me he would like to start coming once a week.
La Frontera is neither Mexico nor the United States, but rather a space of its own filled with contradictions; a place where one day can drag on forever for the families trying to reach a new life. For those of us privileged enough to help them (even just for a few days), and willing enough to live uncomfortably in the grayness of their situation, it’s an opportunity to better understand the realities of seeking for something better without really knowing what you’re seeking for.
In just the first three days, I’ve witnessed a young family reach their “promised land”, yet I know that the drawn out process of being granted asylum may at times feel harder than the situations they leave behind. I’ve been welcomed each morning at the migrant shelter with smiling faces, even though they have every reason to give up. And I’ve watched countless Americans and Mexicans cross the border freely on a daily basis as if there is no border, meanwhile a migrant family sits in the 100 degree heat for days hoping for a chance to do the same.
If you think you understand the border, think again. I am quickly learning that the complexities of the issues for both the migrants and the United States are beyond the capacity of any news organization to explain accurately. I am witnessing the consequences of decades of failed policies and promises by my government to find a workable solution. I am meeting courageous families who are willing to endure almost anything for an American Dream that on many days I no longer believe exists. But most of all, I am worried that most Americans will never take the time to appreciate this always changing 1,000 piece puzzle.
Today I spoke to a mother with a 10 year old son who enjoys coming to my arts and crafts time each morning. They are from a part of Mexico that has recently experienced a dramatic increase in cartel violence. She told me that two months ago cartels entered their town and have made it so unsafe that schools have closed; her son no longer has any opportunities and the government has not been able to successfully intervene. You may at first wonder why this family just can’t move elsewhere in Mexico, I certainly have, but the reality is that most of us will never experience true systemic violence on this level. Luckily, most of us will never fear for our safety in a way that makes us feel the need to cross a border into an unknown world in hopes of finding peace.
One of the best parts about basing ourselves in Mexico City is the unending amount of weekend and day trips available to us. There are countless colonial towns, Pueblos Magicos, and natural wonders to discover within a 3 hour radius. A few weeks ago we once again took advantage with a quick trip to Taxco, a beautiful colonial town nestled inside one of the greenest mountain ranges I've ever seen. If you are wondering why the town of Taxco sounds familiar, you aren't alone. This tiny pueblo is known around the world for it's silver production. Although the mines have now dried up, it's still the best place to find silver jewelry at incredibly low prices.
You read that right, it says UNPLANNED, which is so not my nature, but when a classmate suggested a last minute trip to Oaxaca City during our week break from school I of course said yes! Since this was her one and only time to explore the colonial capital of the State of Oaxaca (David and I will be going back), I left a lot of the last minute decision making to her. Our minimal planning took us through beautiful cobblestoned streets, delicious food markets, and jaw-dropping nature. If you find yourself passing through Oaxaca City, please take some of these suggestions into consideration. Although I'm now learning that a little "unplanning" can be a good thing.
Walking enthusiast, and kitchen experimenter currently living out my dream in Mexico City, Mexico.
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