The Real Border Crisis: Authorities Physically Blocking Children From Reaching Crossing Points

While Trump begs for his wall, children are fighting for their lives.

Jenny Villegas

A boy carries his belongings while police officers look on, as migrants staying at a shelter in downtown Tijuana are relocated to other shelters in the city in Baja California state, Mexico, on January 4, 2019. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Glen­da wrapped her arm around mine and pulled me clos­er. I was part of a group of attor­neys and legal observers who, in mid-Novem­ber, were accom­pa­ny­ing Glen­da and six oth­er chil­dren from Tijua­na to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which leads to San Diego. As we walked, I racked my brain for mun­dane con­ver­sa­tion top­ics to dis­tract us both. I could tell from her tight grip that she was ner­vous. What’s your favorite food? Your favorite col­or? What super­pow­er would you have? The ques­tions went on.

It’s going to take a movement that will transform our immigration system and dismantle immigrant prisons and enforcement.

As we reached the entrance to the bridge, she turned to me and said, God works in many ways, and I hope one day we see each oth­er again.”

We will,” I reas­sured her. And when I see you 20 years from now in the Unit­ed States, what will be of your life?”

She gazed down the long bridge that would lead us to the port of entry where she would seek asy­lum and respond­ed in a qui­et voice, I’m going to be some­one who helps oth­er peo­ple, an immi­gra­tion lawyer for chil­dren. And one day I’m going to have the resources to help those peo­ple I left behind in my country.”

Glen­da, 13 years old, left her home in Hon­duras and trav­eled with the Migrant Exo­dus alone.

She was forced to flee after her father, who she says phys­i­cal­ly and sex­u­al­ly abused her for years and near­ly killed her, was released from prison. Accord­ing to Glen­da, her father threat­ened to search land and sea to get his vengeance on her for get­ting him locked up.

Glenda’s sto­ry is not unique. Chil­dren arrive at the bor­der every year after hav­ing walked more than 2,500 miles — alone, tired and scared. Many of these chil­dren have been forced to flee their homes and leave their fam­i­lies behind after hav­ing wit­nessed and expe­ri­enced unspeak­able atroc­i­ties. Dur­ing the course of their treach­er­ous routes through Mex­i­co, they often fall vic­tim to kid­nap­pers, human traf­fick­ers and rob­bers — and are threat­ened with depor­ta­tion from Mex­i­can immi­gra­tion authorities.

Glen­da and the six oth­er unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren had sur­vived that jour­ney and were a few feet away from arriv­ing at the U.S. port of entry to ask for asy­lum pro­tec­tions that night. As a staff mem­ber of the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Resource Cen­ter — Los Ange­les, I was part of a team of U.S.-based legal observers. We were present because we know that refugees have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly turned away by Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CBP) offi­cers when seek­ing asy­lum. We were there to wit­ness the U.S. government’s non-stop efforts to lim­it the legal right to seek pro­tec­tion from violence. 

As we neared the end of the bridge we heard a man yelling at us to stop walk­ing. I turned around and saw Mex­i­can immi­gra­tion offi­cials run­ning towards us. As they con­tin­ued to shout, we walked faster, hop­ing to reach the port of entry before they got to us, know­ing that once we were there CBP offi­cers under fed­er­al and inter­na­tion­al law would have to process the chil­dren and pro­vide them pro­tec­tion. When we reached the port of entry, three dis­grun­tled CBP offi­cers told us we had to go away.

The chil­dren approached the offi­cers telling them they were there to seek asy­lum, and after a few min­utes attor­ney and legal observers were told to leave. We turned around and start­ed walk­ing back, and when we reached the top of the bridge we looked across the bridge at the port of entry and saw that the chil­dren were being processed and allowed into the Unit­ed States. These are minors who trav­eled alone escap­ing vio­lence and ter­ri­ble con­di­tions. Being allowed to seek refuge in the Unit­ed States will help keep them safe. We walked back to Tijua­na relieved, because a small vic­to­ry had been won.

Not all chil­dren have reached the point of entry. Reports in Tijua­na have informed us that Mex­i­can immi­gra­tion author­i­ties are pro­fil­ing Cen­tral Amer­i­can migrant youth for deten­tion and depor­ta­tion, regard­less of their asy­lum claims. On Decem­ber 5, a group of attor­neys and legal observers, led by Al Otro Lado, an immi­grant rights advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion at the bor­der, accom­pa­nied a group of 7 Hon­duran teens. That team of informed us that the teenagers were sim­i­lar­ly blocked by CBP upon reach­ing the port of entry to ask for asy­lum pro­tec­tions. As CBP pre­vent­ed them from exer­cis­ing their rights under inter­na­tion­al law, Mex­i­can author­i­ties cor­nered the chil­dren and detained them, our sources informed us.

Ille­gal by U.S. and inter­na­tion­al law, it has become a com­mon prac­tice for CBP offi­cials to stand out­side the port of entry and pro­hib­it peo­ple from being able to enter the offi­cial port of entry. Even Con­gress­mem­bers Nanette Bar­ragán (D‑Calif.) and Jim­my Gomez (D‑Calif). have faced tremen­dous obsta­cles when approach­ing the bor­der with asy­lum seek­ers. While there is ongo­ing lit­i­ga­tion chal­leng­ing CBP’s unlaw­ful prac­tice of depriv­ing asy­lum seek­ers access to the U.S. asy­lum process—Al Otro Lado, Inc. v. John F. Kel­ly—there is absolute­ly no over­sight or accountability.

U.S. immi­gra­tion author­i­ties con­tin­ue to cre­ate a cul­ture of vio­lence, abuse and com­plete dis­re­gard of human rights — and con­tin­ues to impede the right of refugees to seek asy­lum. Amer­i­can author­i­ties have shot tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets at fam­i­lies across the U.S.-Mexico bor­der, and they’ve mur­dered sev­er­al chil­dren, includ­ing sev­en-year-old Jake­lin Amei Rose­mary Caal, who recent­ly died while in CBP cus­tody after being deprived of nec­es­sary food, water and med­ical atten­tion. Clau­dia Patri­cia Gomez Gon­za­lez, 20 years old, was shot by CBP offi­cers ear­li­er this year.

The count­less chil­dren who have been forced to flee their homes — and those who have lost their lives on their jour­ney to safe­ty, at the bor­der, or in deten­tion — are vic­tims of inhu­mane poli­cies and prac­tices pro­mot­ed by every sin­gle U.S. admin­is­tra­tion. These poli­cies did not begin under Don­ald Trump: The turn­ing away of unac­com­pa­nied minors was ram­pant under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, and it will take more than elect­ing well-mean­ing lib­er­als to office to bring about real sys­temic change. In his Bor­der Wall” address last night, Trump esca­lat­ed the vile, racist rhetoric that has defined his presidency.

It’s going to take a move­ment that will trans­form our immi­gra­tion sys­tem and dis­man­tle immi­grant pris­ons and enforce­ment. How can we work towards a world where chil­dren like Glen­da don’t have to trav­el across coun­tries by them­selves to stay alive, where chil­dren like Clau­dia aren’t killed by U.S. law enforce­ment, and where chil­dren like Jake­line don’t die inside of cages?

Jen­ny Vil­le­gas is an Orga­niz­er at the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Resource Cen­ter in Los Ange­les (CARE­CEN-LA).
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