Letter to Editor: Inhumane system

To the Editor:

We just returned from volunteering in Tijuana, Mexico with a group whose mission is to educate people who are seeking asylum in the USA about the process ahead. We were appalled to learn how the thousands of individuals and families fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere are being criminalized by our government.

Over and over we heard heartbreaking stories from people who arrive severely traumatized and in need of protection, medical attention, food, clothing and shelter. They arrive in Tijuana hoping to get asylum in the USA and to start rebuilding their lives. There they encounter our administration’s illegal policy of limiting the number of asylum seekers admitted each day. In a city whose shelters are filled to capacity and where there is gang as well as organized crime activity, thousands must wait weeks or usually months before their numbers are called. While we were there, only a few dozen were let in each day.

When they are finally allowed to cross the border, their belongings, their documents and their cell phones are removed. Their outer clothing is taken, and they are put with dozens of others into cell-like concrete rooms known as “hieleras” or “iceboxes,” since they are kept at uncomfortably cold temperatures. Families are separated. Men are placed in one “hielera” while women and children are put in another. Typically they are detained there for three to four days, but we heard of some being held for up to week. For many this is just the beginning of a long imprisonment in the USA while their cases are processed.

At some point they are granted a “credible fear interview.” If they pass this stage and are allowed to defend their cases, they are either held in detention in the United States, returned to Mexico to await their hearings or, in the best of cases, released into the U.S. Many of those who are released are let in (like convicts) with heavy and uncomfortable ankle monitors. They will then await — without knowing their final status — an asylum hearing months or years away.

Here is one of many stories we heard. A family of 13 — mother, father, three sons, two daughters-in-law and five small children clinging to their parents — had just arrived from a village in another part of Mexico with all they could bring in plastic bags and two suitcases. A few weeks prior, their 16-year-old son, an uncle and two friends had been murdered by a local extortion gang and their decapitated bodies left in a ditch. The father then received a call in the middle of the night threatening the rest of them with death, and he made the decision to pack up his family and flee. They arrived in Tijuana severely traumatized, knowing that due to the broad reach of the gangs, they would not be safe anywhere in Mexico.

One of the great injustices of our immigration system is that for many of these people the violence they are fleeing will not be considered grounds for asylum, and after the long journey they’ve risked, they will be flown back to their countries of origin. There they will face the same threats or worse than those from which they fled. The system is painfully capricious; your chance of being granted asylum varies dramatically depending on where your case is finally heard.

We returned filled with grief, but with immense respect for all those who are challenging the system and working to change it. This is a terrible wrong and we can do better.

Dee Homans

Anna Davis

Bar Harbor

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