Written by James Rodriguez Daza
—-Tijuana, Mexico The road least traveled is usually the one that brings you closer to your destination. Traveling with a non-profit group to Tijuana, Mexico to help distribute much needed supplies to migrant families who were part of a caravan from Central America, the policy implications surrounding the issue of immigration reform and border security resonated throughout a trip I took to the border. Having spoken with immigration lawyers and human rights activists during the summer as the political crucible began to heat up over immigration, I felt I needed to go to the border to see first-hand what the situation was really like and if possible offer some level of assistance. What I saw for a single day had opened my eyes widely while producing a sense of sadness for the families who had traveled so far. Nevertheless, the trip had indeed strengthened my resolve toward furthering the call for a significant change in US immigration reform and human rights advocacy.
Nearing the end of 2018 and as the holidays were reaching their conclusion, the subject of immigration and the migrant families affected by the US Zero-Tolerance Immigration Enforcement Policy (implemented in May of 2018) continued to linger. Reports of increasing numbers of migrant families being detained and unaccompanied children being transferred to US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facilities and/or camps kept circulating throughout political and media circles especially as conflict within Congress intensified as both Democrats and Republicans argued over budget appropriations for the New Year. US President Donald Trump’s insistence on a $5 billion price tag for a border wall that he had championed since his presidential campaign over 3 years ago have however continued to be the lynch pin derailing recent efforts to reach a bipartisan accord. The end result was another US government shutdown before Christmas, which is not expected to end until well into the new year.
Debate on the subject of migrant family separations and reunifications at the US Border spiraled into new territory as a recent caravan of migrants from Central America (primarily from Honduras) had reached the border inspiring heated, angry debates on both sides of the political spectrum over the next steps to deal with this latest cohort of arriving migrants—mostly comprised of women, children, LGBT, and temporary workers escaping acute gang/political violence and persecution from their home countries as others were seeking work and a better way of life in an attempt to escape extreme poverty. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 7,000+ migrants comprised this particular caravan that was making its way to cities along the US border. Some had returned home due to the extremely difficult and precarious journey. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimated over 2,000 children were among the caravan numbers. Both UN, government, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specializing in immigration law, human rights advocacy, crisis management, and humanitarian aid had dispatched representatives to address the matter as US military personnel were eventually ordered to the border for security purposes. Among the NGOs, Dancers Giving Back (DGB), a registered 501 (c)(3) non-profit had been directly distributing humanitarian aid to migrant families at the border in addition to other charitable pursuits in Los Angeles, CA that included feeding the homeless in Skid Row and distributing clothes, blankets, and supplies to other indigent pockets throughout the city. It was DGB whom I had accompanied to the border in mid-December of 2018.
DANCERS GIVING BACK
Founded and led by Jose Lopez, Dancers Giving Back had been operating for the past 3 years steadily growing support as their social media presence continued to grow and their collaboration with local charities like the Adopt-A-Meal program and local churches gained notoriety. A number of their donation drop-off locations have in fact popped up allowing contributors to leave needed clothes and toiletries for them to collect and distribute for their following trips. According to Lopez, the group’s humble beginnings really originated from a personal desire to engage his daughters in caring for their community. As a member of the Latin dance community in Los Angeles, Lopez soon realized and appreciated the potential neighboring social dance events had for congregating a large population of patrons. Appreciation soon turned to opportunity as Lopez gathered his fellow dancers and formed DGB hosting their own charity drives and social dance events throughout Los Angeles. Early in April of 2018, Lopez registered the group under the 501 (c)(3) non-profit tax code forming a board of directors and networking with local charities in order to solidify and increase their impact onto the community. Guided by members of the board, Lopez worked tirelessly to cement the group’s standing within the non-profit sector learning about the bureaucratic labyrinth and the political realities associated thereof.
On their third outing to the border, I had accompanied DGB trekking through Tijuana carrying 4 carloads of donations made up of clothing, shoes, toiletries, blankets, and non-perishable food to distribute directly to the migrants in the caravan. Zooming down the I-5 Freeway during the early Saturday morning hours, we had arrived at Lopez’s family home in Mexico where DGB members were already prepping some of the donations that we were about to distribute separating them by type and gender. Multiple bags of mostly women’s and children’s clothing were piled onto a towing trailer waiting to be hitched onto one of the trucks Lopez had prepared for the trip.
Curiosity spurred by the carloads of donations we had brought down to the border prompted my inquiry as to why larger trucks had not been acquired for the trip. After all, larger trucks meant more donations could be distributed and required less vehicles. Understandably, Lopez broke it down for me when describing their previous efforts to help out at the border:
The very first time that we did this, we didn’t know [about the import fees imposed at the Border]. So, we went from people who told us that ‘Yeah! It’s fine. Just go and take a letter that you’re going to an orphanage and they’re going to help you out.’ So, we did that, and we got fined [by Mexican officials]. It was for a Christmas [about a year and a half ago]. We had another truck that we brought full of donations along with another truck from a U-Haul. We managed to get a lot of sponsors for these kids at the orphanage. We were able to get about 5 sponsors per kid. So, we had a lot of gifts. They were wrapped really nice. The trucks were full. We figured we’d be cool. When we crossed over, we got pulled over. One truck we had to pay something close to $500 US. The next time we came to an orphanage. They did the same thing. We brought a trailer full of stuff. This time I figured I take my 501 (c)(3) letter and they’re going to let us cross the border. Nope. They taxed me another $500 US saying that they were giving me another break because if they were to weigh that, it was going to be over $1,000 US. So, I had to pay $500 bucks because if I didn’t agree to pay it they would’ve confiscated everything and something about registering or tacking the truck with some additional costs. In the end, I had to pay the $500 bucks. I had no choice. This time, I said we’re not going through this again. So, I decided to bring the [donations] in multiple cars.
Indeed, all of us (15 in total) packed our vehicles completely with donations and headed over to the Benito Juarez migrant refugee station making a short stop at a local area where homeless Mexican indigents were also camped out. The migrants by the Benito Juarez location were camped outside the initial station where all of the families were placed upon arriving in Tijuana. According to a migrant, Eduardo Avila, who had been there for 40 days after traveling from Honduras with the caravan, explained that when the rains occurred in early December, families were pushed out from the station because it had completely flooded the area forcing them to live out on the street in the cold. Since then, none had returned leaving a somber empty space with only tattered clothing and personal belongings spread throughout the area as a testament that they were once there. Many families were later shipped to neighboring shelters, churches, and other refugee stations dwindling the number of migrants seen in one given space.
According to Lopez, this time around was much better controlled compared to when he visited Tijuana as the caravan first arrived in late November. As he described it, multitudes of families were packed here. It looked like a “’war zone’…We didn’t get enough footage to show what it was really like for them then. We didn’t get footage of kids bathing in cold water or setting up their own tents wearing old clothes and shoes.” Organizing the donation distributions then was very challenging. For Lopez, the experience from that trip felt chaotic as many rushed their vehicles to grab what they could before they were left with nothing. People were desperate, and members of DGB empathized with their desperation and took steps to improve their coordination. This time around, they felt better organized and asked a couple of members in the caravan to help group families in lines separating the women and children from the men alongside opposite sides of their vehicles. Wearing surgical masks and gloves, we tried to quickly pass out shoes and clothing while leaving an open bag and box of toiletries and mixed supplies on the trucks and alongside the walls. Children as young as 3 were either holding on tightly to their mothers or were roaming around our vehicles playing while their parents asked us for shoes or blankets. As we came to learn, many men had asked for additional clothing and shoes directing our attention to their current clothes’ state of disrepair. Alas to our dismay, we were in short supply for them during this trip.
In cases of supplies and storage, allying with local churches or shelters would seem to prove useful in these situations. However, experience has taught DGB that some of these locations are unreliable having lost a full load of their donations from one trip.
[Having gone with my brother the first time before bringing the group], we went to a shelter in Tijuana with over 200 brand new shoes to donate. We also decided to bring cash and buy blankets there. When we came there on a Tuesday shopping, and…sometimes I get it. It’s hard for these people, and the blankets we’re getting over here in the US are super cheap wholesale [by comparison]. The blankets are 3 times more there. I mean the market was crazy. So, I ended up not buying the blankets. I just went to Downtown LA and bought them there and ended up bringing them down next time we came. By then, I had left about 200 shoes [at a shelter]. Now, I made the mistake of leaving them in a shelter. I don’t like to do that not even in LA or anywhere. I like to do the [distribution] ourselves with our group. Well, I made the mistake of leaving the shoes there because I didn’t want to take them back. So, I asked the shelter to hold them for me. The next week when we came back to pick them up, the shelter told me that they never saw me. They don’t know what we were talking about. So, they pretty much took the stuff. It sucks because when we left the shelter, one of the guys that…They had arrived at Tijuana from Honduras about 3 days later… had told us, ‘You know what guys. Sorry to say but the stuff you left here, you’ll never going to see it. He had said that that last week. When a few other families came, the shelter had charged us for the stuff we had left and kept the rest. So, the following day we tried to get some of the shoes back. We were able to get what little shoes we could get but not everything because the guy even told me that if ‘you go right now they’ll take everything from me and they’re not going to let me spend the night in the shelter. So, please don’t do that.’ And yeah! Sure enough, they did exactly what he had said they would do
Conditions in Benito Juarez are such that the migrant families from the caravan are sadly left to their own devices despite the presence of local shelters. Interestingly, some members of the caravan have had taken leadership roles among their group organizing the rest to coordinate with visiting NGOs or neighboring shelters when they arrive to offer help. Since some speak English, it was easier for them to rally the others in the caravan to follow them. Our guide, Eduardo escorted a DGB member and myself through the encampment of migrants camped out along the street just outside the Benito Juarez refugee station informing migrant families to meet with DGB staff around the corner for donations they were distributing. As we kept meeting other families, Eduardo explained how some shelters do not always pass out donations or have enough beds to offer for a night. Moreover, he stressed that some migrants at times do not even know where they’ll sleep the next evening. In some cases, neighboring shelters from other regions may drop by and offer food sometimes enticing some to join them. In fact, in an effort to lessen the optics of the caravan, arriving migrants have been at times rustled together (appx 200-500) and taken to different locations further reducing the number of migrants seen in one setting where they had congregated. When asked what the current status of asylum applicants were, he indicated that each were given a number and were called to present themselves. The average number of applicants called to present themselves by his count was approximately 60-80 applicants per day. He approximated that the number of applicants with assigned numbers thus far was around 2,668. The day we arrived, Eduardo told us that roughly 800 migrants were currently situated in this area around Benito Juarez. Of that, there were around 185 children.
Many tents throughout the area were seen erected where you can easily find a family or a group of indigents huddled together inside just idling as we pass them. Eduardo kept explaining the hardships he had witnessed as the caravan arrived and how the residents in Tijuana had responded to their presence. In fact, he had noted how a number of NGOs had dropped by to lend support albeit it was not always consistent. Medical assistance was one need he did point out describing a couple of incidents of the ill being shipped out by ambulances when their conditions were brought to the attention of Mexican authorities and aid workers. One girl was actually seen covered in chicken pox following her mother down the street as we passed by. Seeing each person in the encampment stare at us as we peruse the site, their eyes—better yet what one sees in their eyes—spoke volumes. The level of desperation even now after just a few weeks passed when the caravan first arrived is incomparable. Sadness and dread can be seen by many. Only the few smiles from playing children that circled our vehicles were able to lift one’s spirits if only momentarily. The more we spoke with Eduardo, the more we received a better picture of how the situation at the border is developing. There are no local bathrooms or enough food and water to go around. Surrounding shelters do not have enough beds, and migrants (especially children) are exposed to the elements increasing their risk of illness. Some local residents in Tijuana have at times offered migrants the use of their bathrooms for as much as 20 pesos for showers and 5 pesos for the use of their restrooms. If they wanted to rent a room for the evening, migrants would have to pay 5-10 pesos per night. For many who ventured on this journey with very little if anything at all, finding enough to pay for just the use of the restroom is difficult. Since there are no public restrooms or outhouses conveniently located nearby, many are forced to use gutters or anywhere else that may serve as a momentary substitute. A few feet away, we had passed a kitchen soup line where you could see a line form for food offered by neighboring NGOs. Piles of freshly laundered clothing were gathered in the middle of the street for onlookers and nearby scavengers to inspect and carry off should anyone so desired. Actually, I mistakenly thought the pile to be dirty laundry until Eduardo had corrected me to my surprise.
Here’s Eduardo’s first-hand account of his experience joining that caravan to the border for approximately 2.5 months:
To see this video with subtitles, go to the YouTube link below and click the closed caption button at the bottom of the window to activate the translator. Click on the settings (gear) icon. Click on Subtitles/cc. Then Select Auto-Translate to configure the preferred language.
Mexico’s response to the arrival of the caravan had been well documented by reporters highlighting the fact that the overwhelming numbers of migrants had strained local resources frustrating some residents and officials while prompting others to help as more migrants arrive. Resentment toward the caravan had in fact set in among some calling for their deportation. Although, the Mexican government, under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, had already instituted stricter immigration guidelines and have deported thousands arriving from Central America. According to the Mexican Interior Ministry, 84,000 were deported in 2017 alone. Considering recent NAFTA deliberations though, Mexico had been under considerable pressure by the Trump administration to further tighten their immigration processes and increase their border enforcement if they wanted to continue receiving US humanitarian aid—a vital financial source to the nation’s economic stability. As incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently took office this month, he had to balance the promises he made during his campaign of softening immigration policies while avoiding Trump’s ire and risk a complete cutoff of US aid. According to Professor Javier Urbano of the Ibero-American University in Mexico during an interview for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/09/migrant-caravan-mexico-response-rich-poor-supplies-complaints), Mexico’s recent tightening of its borders have ironically resulted in an increase in migrant caravans. Since Mexico’s borders are tighter with greater numbers of border security, migrants had opted to take more dangerous routes through the northern region forcing many to travel in groups for safety purposes resulting in the current migrant caravan situation. In one attempt to help alleviate the pressure along the border cities, President Obrador had even promised to offer migrants temporary work visas with healthcare and education benefits and help fund job creation programs angering many local Mexican citizens who are currently suffering rising unemployment and poverty rates. Moreover, evidence of such programs being developed are still up in the air as the new administration is trying to calm the citizenry along its borders. With respect to the temporary work visas, journalists have reported that some migrants from the caravan have been skeptical and feared that such offers were lures, a ruse to trick them into detention and eventual deportation prompting some to dismiss some offers out of fear; while, others have agreed to enter legally and presented themselves to a few shelters.
According to reports from some NGOs like Al Otro Lado and CHIRLA, many migrants who arrive at the border to apply for asylum do want to cross legally but both US and Mexican immigration officials have purposely stalled or have engendered processing obstacles delaying many to apply expeditiously forcing many to wait up to 45 days to a couple of months for some.
Here’s an interview by Rise to Reunite founder, Angeline Chen interviewing Erika Pinheiro from Al Otro Lado on the current obstacles facing asylum applicants at the border:
Frustration eventually sets in for many migrants, and they attempt to cross along other areas at the border forcing border agents to respond and arrest them. Videos and photographs of migrants taking extreme measures to cross borders have circulated during media outlets like the clips of migrants crossing the Suchiate River along the Guatemalan and Mexican border. Immigration rights attorneys and advocates have consistently stressed that such stalling acts are in direct violation of both US and international laws—specifically the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 along with US anti-human trafficking laws. According to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and the subsequent 1967 Protocol to the Status of Refugees, asylum seekers may not be turned down or sent back to their country of origin if sufficient evidence/cause is determined that such return would endanger the lives of the applicants. Among US anti-trafficking laws, the more commonly referenced by advocates is the US Victims on Human Trafficking and Violence Act of 2000. According to the law, victims who were victims of human trafficking can seek assistance if they admitted/presented evidence showing they were victims of human trafficking and are willing to prosecute their traffickers. Sadly, migrant families are at a greater risk of falling victim to human traffickers as they trek the perilous journey to the border, and they still face danger from them the longer they stay on the streets by the border. Reports of cartel kidnappings are well documented in federal DOJ reports and in academic journals like those archived in the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS).
Considering that less than 100 asylum cases are generally reviewed daily and the number of migrants in the caravan are numbered in the thousands, processing asylum requests have no doubt presented challenges for both US and Mexican officials as they try to manage an already beleaguered immigration system. With recent US immigration policies calling for either a postponement or a reduction of additional asylum petitions during and soon after the US mid-term elections back in November, migrant families have been left in limbo until US authorities review their petitions for consideration and adjudication effectively extending the wait time thus increasing pressure on Mexican officials to deal with these families at the border.
There is no doubt by either side of the immigration debate that the current political environment has placed a spotlight on the inadequacies and overall short-comings of immigration policies and enforcement. In the struggle to balance effective border enforcement and human rights advocacy as global economics, national security, and the rule of law along with international laws and treaties intersect throughout the discussion, the one group most affected are the people who risked everything and traveled thousands of miles through perilous conditions to find refuge from severe poverty and acute violence back home. Returning for most would mean certain death. As such, these families are left without a home and have effectively become less like human beings seeking help but instead political pawns subject to ridicule and xenophobia. As 2018 comes to a close and 2019 is welcomed with jubilation, policy makers and the judiciary in both the US and abroad should redirect their energy and political capital towards seriously finding multitudes of practical solutions if only to reduce the human casualty witnessed at the border. The rule of law should indeed be followed; however, when the laws have proven to operate in contrast to the spirit of the collective moral standards of human decency and utilitarianism, change is required.
Special thanks to Jose Lopez and the rest of the Dancers Giving Back (DGB) team for allowing me to join them and help distribute humanitarian aid to the migrants we encountered at Benito Juarez.
Also, special thanks to Eduardo Avila who helped us gather the families and speak about his experiences. Gracias Don Eduardo. Espero que llegues bien a tu país con salud y tranquilidad. Tus palabras serán escuchadas y se iluminará una luz en esta historia.
For additional information on Dancers Giving Back and how to donate along with upcoming scheduled events, they can be reached at:
DANCERS GIVING BACK
738 W 99th St
Los Angeles, CA 90044
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/dancersgivingbacklosangeles