Like so many Americans, I was deeply troubled by the inhumane treatment of refugees arriving at our southern border seeking only to share in the promise that is America. Under the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" policy, the use of detention centers and the separation of families is reminiscent of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the "Red Scare" of the 1950s and other less noble times in our history. At the root of all these tragic episodes is a cabal of fear mongers demonizing and decrying "others" as the source of all our problems. In doing so, they blind us, temporarily, to our true values and inherent decency.
As a descendent of undocumented refugees who fled religious persecution, I felt an obligation to help. So, joining other attorneys from across the country, I went to south Texas earlier this month to volunteer. The plan was to help mostly Hispanic detainees prepare for their "credible fear interviews" and subsequent appeals. These interviews are a critical element in the asylum process, requiring applicants to demonstrate why returning to their nations of origin will result in significant harm. But my plans changed quickly. When I arrived, I learned that U.S. immigration policy had gone from bad to worse, from callous to cruel.
In response to widespread, worldwide criticism, earlier this year the Trump administration replaced it’s "zero tolerance" policy with Migrant Protection Protocols, the so-called "Remain in Mexico" program. Under this program, asylum applicants present themselves at a border crossing and request asylum. In turn, they are handed an I-598 application form and instructed to wait indefinitely — in Mexico — for a hearing notice. So, they go back to the mean streets of Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo or Matamoros where they wait for months in over-crowded, under-supplied and understaffed shelters.
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There the asylum seekers struggle to complete their applications — English only — and keep themselves and their children safe from criminals who regularly assault, repeatedly rape and routinely kidnap entire families in order to extort ransom payments from loved ones in the U.S. and elsewhere. They live in paralyzing fear without help or hope. Lawyers based in the United States, like me, try to assist with paperwork through text and telephone. But it’s much more complicated than the face-to-face meetings that occurred in the U.S.-based detention centers.
I tried to visit one center in Nuevo Laredo in-person. However, I was informed that the director himself had been kidnapped for refusing to surrender a Venezuelan family his kidnappers demanded. I then spoke with a Catholic priest about working in-person with families staying at another shelter. However, he asked me not to come because it would only draw the attention of local criminals and further jeopardize the residents. So, I worked remotely with families to help ensure their understanding and compliance with the legal process. Mostly Cuban and Venezuelan, these were individuals and families fleeing political persecution. Their stories were horrific, and they wanted nothing more than to work hard, care for their families, and live in peace. After all, gun-runners, drug dealers and human traffickers rarely apply for asylum with border control authorities.
Under international law, "asylum" is defined as protection granted by one nation to the citizens or subjects of another state. In general terms, asylum seekers are the victims of persecution by their own governments or by others at the behest, indifference or incapacity of their own governments. Until recently, America has had a long — and glorious — history of providing refuge to those who need our protection. Indeed, this generosity of spirit and compassion elevates America among the nations of the world and validates our claims of "American exceptionalism."
Whatever our government does is done in our names. Therefore, the Remain in Mexico program makes us all complicit in the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Our failed immigration policy diminishes our moral authority in a world desperate for leadership. It needs to change — now. And, as if all this isn’t disturbing enough, we now learn that Scott Warren of Arizona is being prosecuted by federal authorities for leaving water in the desert for those desperate enough to try crossing on foot.
Ken Croken is a Scott County Supervisor.