If you believe the rhetoric, the U.S.-Mexico border is a repugnant and dangerous place roiling with unseemly people sneaking into our country, smuggling drugs and escaping law enforcement. When I recently visited the border crossing between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, at the Las Americas Bridge over the Rio Grande, I saw a wholly different reality: two communities so integrated that port-of-entry commuter traffic rivaled Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway, and dozens of students chatted warmly as they walked from their high school on the U.S. side to their family homes in Juarez.
The idea that we need to build a wall to protect ourselves is mocked by the reality of border communities that have been more together than apart for generations. In fact, the people who need protection are the migrants and refugees who are seeking safe haven here, as documented in a recent report called “Sealing the Border: Criminalization of Asylum Seekers in the Trump Era.”
The report, published by the Catholic social justice organization Hope Border Institute in El Paso (www.hopeborder.org), focused on troubling violations of human rights and due process, such as: punitive customs actions including the forced separation of young children from their parents; harsh and inhumane conditions in the detention centers; severely delayed proceedings conducted without the right to counsel or translation for indigenous Central Americans; and federal immigration judges who virtually never rule in favor of the asylum applicant.
Data indicate that El Paso is one of the hardest places to receive justice in the immigration courts, where judges rule against Mexican and Central American asylum seekers nearly 100 percent of the time. But justice is hardly more forthcoming elsewhere on the border: a nationwide backlog of more than 650,000 cases and a denial rate above 70 percent, triple the rate for Asian and African asylum applicants.
The so-called “Iron Triangle of Deterrence” of border patrol, detention and the courts, ultimately forces migrants to choose between two harsh choices: deportation and forced return to a dangerous homeland, or extended detention that may last months or years, often separated from their children.
In two visits this past year, the Support Center for Child Advocates’ training institute, the Center for Excellence in Advocacy, was invited to El Paso to train more than 200 lawyers, judges and case workers who work with migrants and refugees. We explored ways to find the compassion, energy and sanity to work with clients in crisis. Our colleague-students shared the stories of their clients: sexual assault, gangs targeting family members, children separated from parents and the despair of having no safe place to go. Vicarious trauma is a real concern for these dedicated front-line workers who feel the pain and suffering in countless tragic stories, and who often feel burnout and compassion fatigue as their trauma-response. We teach a curriculum of “self-care” so that these workers can continue to serve their clients and remain healthy themselves.
The challenge for border workers is to continue the fight for justice, when cases number in the tens of thousands and the outlook for success seems so bleak. One can imagine that the U.S. government’s own workforce, from border police and customs officers to judges and detention center staff, must be feeling similarly strained. The cost is born by these workers, by their clients and by our sense of justice itself.
Asylum is a long-standing protection offered by U.S. law for those who “have a reasonable fear of persecution” in their home country. Many applicants present themselves, voluntarily and in compliance with our laws, to tell their horrifying tales of murder, rape, kidnapping and extortion.
In response, they are vilified and the border is portrayed as our only protection against them— invaders who threaten our safety and take our jobs. This warped view diminishes the inherent value of other peoples and the immeasurable contributions that immigrants have made in the modern world.
Our country has a long and impressive history of welcoming, that we should not diminish with fear-mongering or justice misapplied. Lady Liberty invites the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Rather than feeling threatened or burdened, why not find fulfillment and pride in a more humane treatment of immigrants?
Frank P. Cervone is executive director of Support Center for Child Advocates. Contact him at fcervone@SCCALaw.org.