Dispatches from the Border, Days 2+3

It has been a packed two days in Nogales on both sides of the border. On Tuesday morning we went to a women’s shelter run by the Kino Border Initiative, which houses women and their children who need special attention or special protection as they await the asylum process. We brought them pizza, had a piñata party, and played with the kids. Then we served the afternoon meal in the comedor and toured what will be KBI’s new facility across the street. Wednesday we were out in the field: a desert walk in the morning, metaphorically “accompanying” the migrants as they cross the desert, and then the afternoon in United States Federal Court in Tucson watching migrants pleading guilty to illegally crossing the border in a process known as Operation Streamline. 

Rather than go into a blow-by-blow account of our days (see the photos at the bottom of this post for visual representations of those moments), we thought it might be good to spend some time discussing the issues and giving examples.

Why do so many people coming from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala cross the border illegally? Because, as the judge explained to us after court yesterday, they have no legal recourse to request a work permit or a visa, even though the work they would perform — agriculture, dairy, construction, landscaping — is essential to the American economy. The costs are just too prohibitive for the visa application process, and they would have already spent most of their savings in their travel to flee their country and arrive at the border safely (unfortunately, many do not). Even if they have the money, the odds are still stacked against them — they must have a sponsor in the United States who is willing to vouch for them. 

If they are apprehended crossing the border, they are charged with a misdemeanor and then sent back to their home country. If they are Mexican, it is almost immediate. If they are from another country, they wait in detention until the government can fill a charter plane with enough migrants to return them. A large number of them will try again, and if they are apprehended a second time, they are charged with a felony; they inevitably plead down to a misdemeanor and receive a sentence from thirty to 180 days in prison. Then they are deported.

During the sentencing, they can ask for a credible fear hearing to request asylum, meaning if they are returned to their country they would face a credible fear of violence and death. That credible fear hearing happens after they have served their sentence, not during the process. The success rates for asylum seekers already in detention are horrific: 4%. Why? Because they do not have access to lawyers, volunteers and others who can guide them through the bureaucratic maze. 

In the comedor, most of the people we met are seeking asylum: they have a better chance of success because they are outside the detention system — about 25%. Right now Nogales is one of the calmer border crossings in terms of number of migrants and waiting for asylum, which can take up from 1-2 months. Who determines the order? A local NGO gives out numbers when migrants reach the border, and KBI and other organizations work with the migrants to let them know when their numbers are called. The cooperation between these organizations is essential and voluntary.

Here are some photos from day 2…more to come!

Written by Jackie Reich

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