SOA Watch & The Border Encuentro

As I write this, the Central American Migrant Exodus for Life–which includes over 13,000 asylum seekers–is fleeing political violence. In response, the United States government is deploying 15,000 soldiers to the US/Mexico border.

In 1990, School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch)–an advocacy organization founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois and a small group of supporters–protested the training of Latin American military officers by the Department of Defense at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Now, SOA Watch is tirelessly advocating for justice for oppressed persons across the Americas. They organize opposition to its training in torture, oppose the militarization at the US border, and support policies to assist refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to the United States.

For the third year, SOA Watch hosted a Border Encuentro on the Arizona-Mexico border on November 16-18, beginning with a vigil at a Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona. The participants marched to the beat of the May Day marching band, sang “No estan solos,” meaning, “You are not alone,” and could see the shadows of the detainees from afar in the windows of the buildings.

As the weekend progressed, other gatherings and workshops were held at the US/Mexico border in both cities named Nogales. This location was symbolic of the fact that no wall or border can deter the solidarity of people.

The meetings focused on the following principles:

  • An end to US economic, military, and political intervention in Latin America.
  • The closure of the School of Americas and Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
  • An end to Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity.**
  • Demilitarization and divestment of borders.
  • An end to the racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants, refugees, and communities of color.
  • Respect, dignity, justice, and the right to self-determination of communities.

The SOA Watch Border Encuentro gave me a sense of hope and renewed energy to resist the structures of oppression and injustice that threaten communities. It reminded me that the only power that will bring liberation is people’s power, people’s resilience, and people’s faith.

** Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity are both US policies that seek to further militarize Mexico and the northern region of Central America. The alleged goal is to confront the so-called drug war and contain mass displacement from the region. Rather, these policies have led to human rights violations.

Do Not Oppress a Foreigner

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9).

“Migrants seeking a better life in other countries must not be viewed with suspicion but rather defended and protected, no matter their status,” Pope Francis.

“Freedom of mobility is a human right. Migrants have their rights; they do not lose them when cross a border,” (Article 13 Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

These past few weeks, we have been overwhelmed by the media showing us multiple disturbing pictures of families divided, parents deported, children left behind, immigrant toddlers ordered to appear in court alone, fathers heartbroken and mothers in tears. In the midst of those images we cannot ignore the psychological trauma endured by these families fleeing violence in their countries and enduring the arduous journey with smugglers and criminals preying on them as these families to try to survive together.

Last year, a Syrian-American medical organization announced that the severity of PTSD suffered by migrant Syrian children surpassed the clinical definition and should be renamed “human devastation syndrome.” Children crossing our borders and separated from their families may also be suffering this type of PTSD.

An annual report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released this past week estimates that there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. This includes individuals who are fleeing violence, persecution, conflict, and now climate change. The global number of refugees grew by a record 2.9 million in 2017.

However, we cannot ignore that those who cross borders bring both challenges and opportunities for their new host countries.

“The cliché that international migration is associated with economic ‘burden’ can be dispelled,” wrote the scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Clermont-Auvergne and Paris-Nanterre University. The research analyzed data from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The research found that asylum seekers contributed most to a country’s gross domestic product after three to seven years in the country. They also lowered unemployment rates and had a near-zero impact on public finances.

Refugees’ Impact on the US

“The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, A Return to First Principles: How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen, and Revitalize the United States” was released June 20, 2018, the 18th anniversary of World Refugee Day.

The report looked at the 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the U.S. between 1987 and 2016 via the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Most of the refugees considered in the report moved quickly to self-sufficiency through gainful employment, English proficiency, and the attainment of college degrees and/or vocational training. The report stated that USRAP “has saved countless lives, put millions of impoverished persons on a path to work, self-sufficiency, and integration, and advanced U.S. standing in the world.”

It described some of their achievements and contributions, including:

  • 68 percent participate in the labor force (compared to 63 percent of the overall U.S. population);
  • 67 percent have naturalized;
  • 40 percent are married to U.S. citizens;
  • 10 percent are self-employed and have created jobs;
  • They achieved a median household income of $43,000.

The report was conceived and commissioned by Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Migration and Refugee Services. It was released at a symposium hosted by the Georgetown University Human Rights Institute in Washington, D.C. To read the full report, click here.

Hostility Fuels the Migrant Crisis in the US

Anti-migrant attitudes have little to do with migrants themselves. The crisis is rooted in the factors of: trust, social disengagement, and political disaffection. To solve any crisis, a good place to start is to consider the factors in the crisis and experience those factors to come to understanding of the others’ reality. An excellent example of trying to understand and diffuse hostility occurred last week in the Catholic community of St. Ignatius, a Jesuit Parish in Baltimore, that organized a refugee camp simulation.

Speechless. Devastated. Moved. These were some of the feelings parishioners expressed after leaving Camp Peace, the Refugee Camp Simulation hosted by the Immigration Subcommittee on June 24. About 60 individuals and families participated. It included stations of the various aspects of life in a refugee camp: entry process, shelter, water, food, health services, and education. There was also a Detention Center Station, to which parishioners were diverted with little explanation which many refugees experience when they arrive in a new country and on a detention camp.

22.5 Million Refugees Live in Refugee Camps Around the World

Over 65 million people in the world are currently displaced, and 22.5 million of these are refugees in other countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While some are relocated to new countries such as the United States, many must wait in various countries for long periods of time, expanding over decades and sometimes years, as I myself saw in Lebanon and Jordan.

Instead of the recommended 37 sq. ft. of space per person when camps become crowed, families of 4 sometimes live in spaces as cramped as 80 sq. ft. total. This means that they generally sleep sitting up, as there is not enough space for all family members to lie down on the blankets that are provided. Most camps are unable to provide the necessary 20 liters (5 gallons) of water per individual per day and refugees must carry this water themselves from the source to their dwellings in large buckets. These 5 gallons are used for consumption, cooking, cleaning and hygiene. By comparison, the average American uses approximately 300 gallons of water per day.

The migration of peoples is a reality that continues to grow and the challenges of migration are increasing. In order to respond to this globalization and to the magnitude of this phenomenon, it is essential to plan  responses that promote and show respect, charity, hospitality and generosity towards the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.

We must do more for migrants

“We are encouraged by the national outcry railing against the cruel splintering of families at the border. The president recently ended the practice, but there is no system or even governmental will to reunite these traumatized families. Furthermore, the dehumanization of people who are seeking safety continues. Our country has a long history of vicious disregard for family bonds–let us not be seduced by a ‘lesser evil,’ a ‘solution’ that is better than what was happening but that remains immoral. Let us demand more; we have an opportunity to move from a callous history of colonialism and individualism to a new vision of whom we can be as a country. Making room for, and welcoming with grace, those who need a safe place may impact our comfortable spaces, but it is what we must do, what we are called to do, not just as Christians, but simply as human beings,” (“Philadelphia Inquirer editor” – Sunday  July 1, 2018).

We can DO more day by day

  • Be choosing 2 or 3 credible sources to follow regularly to deepen your understanding of the changing realities of migrants and refugees;
  • By raising awareness of refugee and migrant realities both in the US and the world and sharing those through your use of social media;
  • By calling legislators’ offices and voicing your support for policies that change the situation of migrants and refugees in a positive way;
  • By taking action to defend the rights of refugees when we see those rights violated e.g. separating families;
  • By using a model like the Jesuit Catholic community in Baltimore to educate persons into the realities of migrants and refugees;

By joining in prayer as we contemplate the call of Jesus today to welcome the foreigner, “for just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for Me,” (Matthew 25: 40).

Climate Change Refugees

Floods. Droughts. Hurricanes. Tornados. Mudslides. Volcanic Eruptions. Tsunamis. These natural disasters seem to becoming more and more frequent and causing more and more harm to the towns, cities, states, and nations they affect.

Climate change. It’s a real issue. And it is a catalyst for more issues including migration.

It may be impossible to reverse climate change, however, failing to stop it will force tens of millions of people from their homes.

For example, the Middle East and Africa experienced the worst draught in 900 years. Many farmers lost their crops, their livestock, and the livelihood. Not all refugees from this area are fleeing from war, some are fleeing from climate change.

In contrast, the United States experienced many devastating hurricanes and floods this past year. Families lost their homes, businesses lost their offices, and people lost their loved ones.

Experts, statistics, and common sense are all in agreement–as the impacts of climate change increase, so too will the number of global refugees.

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term,” said US Military Corps Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.”

So what do we do?

The short answer–stop climate change. Much easier said than done. And can’t be done over night. In the meantime, countries have set up an initiative on climate risk insurance available in the most vulnerable areas of the world. This covers roughly 400 million individuals.

We continue to look for solutions to help end climate change and, therefore, limit climate change refugees.

You can read more about climate change refugees here.

Slavery Around the World

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again, modern slavery is an international issue! While some traffickers are working within the confines of a country, others are crossing borders every day. But, in one form of slavery or another (or, unfortunately, multiple forms), slavery is prevalent in every single country throughout the world.

Every year, the U.S. State Department investigates countries for its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. In 2017, 23 countries were classified as Tier 3 countries, meaning they “do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” What are these countries? Maybe not-surprisingly, they include Russia, China, Iran, Belarus, and Venezuela. You can read the report and access the full listing of countries here.

This classification does not imply that trafficking exists only in these countries. Additionally, there are different types of trafficking that are most prevalent in different areas of the world. For example, in India, forced marriage or becoming a “slave bride” is a main concern for young girls. This stems from sex-selective abortions in which male babies were preferred, creating one of the most severe gender imbalances in the world. Read more here.

In North Korea, workers are shipped to China to process seafood that will be shipped to and sold in American homes and restaurants. These workers have no privacy, no access to telephones or email, and cannot leave the compounds without permission. They receive a fraction of their owed salaries, and it is taken from them by the North Korean government. Read more here.

Similarly, girls from Eastern Asia are smuggled to Myanmar to work as maids (read more here) while African girls are fleeing from their home countries to be forced into sex slavery. Specifically, often into Chad where girls become “ghost girls” with no way out. Read more here.

Girls in South American countries don’t always have it any better. El Salvador, being riddled with gang violence, is seeing female-only gangs. Girls feel forced to enter a gang to protect themselves but instead, are stripped of all of their freedom. This is due in part by the high number of femicides (gender-motivated killing of women), most of which are never prosecuted. Read more here.

In Kyrgyzstan, domestic violence runs rampant. Due to the level of cultural acceptance of abuse of women, the country has an extremely high number of women in jail for murder, specifically for murder of their husbands. Read more here.

First-world countries are not exempt from these horrors. In Britain, labor slaves are tricked in to working 12+ hour days at hand carwashes. They end up trapped in debt bondage, unable to escape their captors. Read more here.

This is not an exhaustive list. Instead, it should be seen as evidence that modern slavery is everywhere and it manifests in different forms. Even in countries classified in the TIP report as Tier 1 countries, such as the United States, Israel, Colombia, Taiwan, and Belgium, there exists a level of modern slavery, despite laws to combat it. In fact, Britain is considered a Tier 1.

So, what must be done? We must work together, internationally, to create a safe place for migrants and victims of human trafficking. We must work together to create laws against human traffickers and smugglers. We must work together to end modern slavery for good.

Fleeing from the Northern Triangle

I’ve written before about my experience with those who are fleeing from the Northern Triangle. This trek is a question of life and death. It used to be that these people were coming to America to achieve the “American Dream.” Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Now, these people are coming to America to escape violence, gangs, cartels, and a cycle of poverty.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), in 2016 alone, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at the Mexican-American border stopped almost 47,000 unaccompanied minors and more than 70,000 family units fleeing from the Northern Triangle.

In order to serve this vulnerable population, we must be creative. Currently in San Antonio, when migrants are released from the Dilley and Karnes detention centers, Sister Denise LaRock, D.C., and others with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES accompany them to the bus station where they will begin their journey across the United States to join family members and/or sponsors. Bags with food, toiletries, blankets, and other necessities are given to these migrants to help them on their journey. However, the most important thing the refugees receive is a white piece of paper. That white piece of paper has a map of the United States on one side and their travel information on the other.

Click here to read more about the work being done to help these migrants

My Time in Palenque

During my time in Palenque, a city in the southern part of Mexico, I visited one of the shelters for migrants run by the Daughters of Charity of the Province of Mexico. The needs of the individuals they serve was immediately clear.

Palenque, located some miles from the Guatemalan border, is on the route for immigrants fleeing from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of these refugees are traveling with the goal of reaching the United States. To do so, they must ride on the notorious Mexican freight trains, collectively known as “La Bestia” or The Beast. These machines have taken the limbs and lives of countless hopeful migrants. While the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that some 60,000 adults and children have died or gone missing along this route in the past couple of years.

In addition to the physical risks of the journey, the Mexican government has placed dozens of temporary immigration checkpoints in the Southern State of Chiapas to complement the large permanent checkpoints and detention facilities of the area. In this way, the Mexican southern border resembles that of the United States.

The Daughters of Charity living in Palenque run “La Casa del Caminante” (which translates to the House of the Walker), a shelter that welcomes refugees along this path. The shelter welcomes an average of 120 migrants each day, many arriving via La Bestia. Others arrive on foot, seeking a place to rest while waiting to board La Bestia.

Each of these refugees is physically exhausted and in desperate need of rest, food, and often healthcare. Between riding on top of La Bestia and walking miles at a time, they have been traveling day and night, sometimes for weeks. Many have nothing but the clothes on their back and their feet are almost always covered in blood. Not only are they seeking food and a place to rest, but they are in need of medical care and shoes.

While the majority of those arriving at the shelter are many, the Sisters also see many young women. Often these women are pregnant after being raped earlier in their route. Just yesterday, a family of five arrived in need of food and care. They are the lucky ones who are still traveling together, yet to be separated.

After my visit with these Sisters and those they help, I realized more than ever before, the struggles of these migrants. Truly, my heart is still in Palenque with them.

Migration from Central America

How can we not be shocked after the tragedy that we have seen these past days in San Antonio?

An overheated trailer carrying many migrants–possibly from the border–was found in a Walmart parking lot. Ten men lost their lives and others are still in precarious conditions. Police believe it is a case of smuggling and/or human trafficking and are still investigating.

“This happens more often than we care to imagine,” Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director of RAICES, told USA Today. “We see it day in and day out in our offices.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons identifies a clear link between illegal migration and trafficking in persons. In fact, migration exacerbates trafficking.

However, in North America, some migration flows are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Presently, the majority of persons migrating to the United States are from Central America. They are particularly at risk because of their long trek through Mexico which is infamous for cartels and gangs preying on migrants.

These cartels and gangs have birthed a new reality for migrants. A reality of abduction of persons or groups of migrants, held in order to require from them–or their families–ransom in exchange for release. Human beings are being increasingly considered merchandise. Not only is anyone hoping to reach the U.S. border via Mexico expected to pay a “right of exit” imposed by the reigning local cartels, but, as migrants near the border, smugglers (also known as “coyotes”) must be paid to lead the immigrants across the border.

So where are these migrants coming from and why are they coming?

Over the past few years, the violence led by criminal gangs has created worse living conditions throughout Central American, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Territorial conflicts among the gangs have created a climate of violence, terror, and fear that has eroded the social fabric in communities. In desperation, men, women, and children have been fleeing their homelands seeking simply to survive and, hopefully, create a better life for their families. For many, migration is the only option.

In some regions of these countries, the law of the gang is absolute. Young people are extremely vulnerable of being recruited through intimidation and threats of violence against them or their families. They are under pressure to become drug dealers, thieves, or intimidators. Often, families prefer to see their sons and daughters flee their homeland rather than be killed or forced into a criminal lifestyle. As a result, many teens and children are encouraged, even begged, to leave their country, often times without a parent.

What do these migrants face on their way to a better life?

According to reports by migrants who have successfully made it across the U.S. border, violence continues throughout the entire migration route, particularly in Mexico. Most of these individuals are vulnerable due to their lack of legal documentation to allow them to cross Mexico safely. Many are frequently forced to pay traffickers working directly with organized crime networks to avoid being exploited into labor and sex trafficking.

These migrants also often face a systematic cycle of abuse. Public transportation drivers apply higher rates, corrupt police officers require them to pay to continue on their way, gangs claiming to be migrants infiltrate and assault them, organized crime groups inflict violence ranging from extortion to rape, torture, and kidnapping. Every penny is taken from the migrants whenever an opportunity arises. Sadly, many lose their lives.

Perhaps the starkest example of the commonality of brutality on the journey is that many women take contraceptives before their departure from Central America. They know the journey contains a high risk of sexual assault. Credible estimates are that 80% of women migrating through Mexico are raped.

Upon reaching the United States border, most Central Americans admit to their origins, seeking entrance as refugees fleeing from violence and death in their homeland. They are put through a process called “credible fear” so they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship while it is not safe to return to their country of origin.

Local churches in the United States provide a safe haven and passage for these migrants once they cross the border. These organizations aid them on the trips to their families or sponsors. Further, the USCCB coordinates a coalition to alert people and work against human trafficking.

As long as violence and poverty persist in their home country, nothing will discourage these migrants from taking the risk of the journey to the United States. It is not possible to take away their hopes of a better life, especially for their children. Any solution to this problem will require an analysis of every factor involved in the process of migration.

My recent experience of visiting our Sisters at their shelter for migrants at Reynosa on the Mexican border saddened me greatly. The majority of migrants had been deported. They had been taken from their families after working, paying taxes, leading a crime-free life for 20-25 years, only to be dumped in a highly dangerous, gang-infested area, the very atmosphere from which they had fled years prior. You could see the hopelessness, the sadness, the terror that they were now experiencing once again.