There is a crisis at the border but not the one you have heard about.
We just spent a week representing women and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center, where asylum-seekers are detained after crossing the border. These families are on the frontlines of the so-called “border crisis,” which in December caused President Trump to shut down the government over the dispute about whether to fund a border wall. Over the course of the week, my students and I sat with dozens of women as they told us why they had left their countries so that we could prepare them for their credible fear interviews. If they pass their interviews, they are permitted to stay in the United States while they seek asylum. If they fail, they will most likely be deported back to the countries they fled.
These women and children are the face of the current migration across our Southern border. As many others have noted, illegal border crossings have seen a sharp decline in recent years. In 2000, more than 1.6 million people were apprehended crossing the border; in 2018, that number was just 400,000. What has changed is the demographics of the people crossing. In the early 2000s most crossing were young men from Mexico seeking work in the United States. Now, those crossing are much more likely to be women and children fleeing violence and persecution from Central America.
In the words of poet Warsan Shire, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” I heard about the many sharks these women were fleeing: criminal gangs, narco-traffickers, violent husbands, corrupt police. I heard stories of extortion, death threats, and kidnapping. Rape, forced prostitution, and beatings. As they talked, their children, some as young as two, sat next them listening. In one case, a woman recounted a brutal rape she had suffered as retaliation for a debt owed by her father to a notorious narco-trafficker. When it was over, the man told her that if she called the police, they would kill her 4-year-old son in front of her, then kill her. As she talked, the little boy dried the tears from his mother’s eyes, and said “don’t cry, mami.” There is no such thing as an innocent childhood in these places.
I also have small children, and when I returned home, they were waiting for me with hugs and kisses. I hadn’t worried about them while I was gone. I knew they would be safe. But if I had been a little less lucky in life, if I had been born in a place where I feared for my children’s lives, you had better believe I would have risked life and limb to deliver them to safety, even if it meant crossing borders that weren’t meant to be crossed. That could have been me.
That is what empathy is – the ability to see yourself in someone else’s pain. But empathy is what this Administration, with its anti-asylum policies, lacks. Over the past two years, the Trump Administration has systematically chipped away at the right to asylum. It has made it harder for victims of domestic violence and gang violence to win asylum. It has turned away asylum-seekers from ports of entry, and then banned them from seeking asylum if they try to cross between ports. It has implemented a “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting asylum-seekers; it has separated parents and children.
Most of these policies have been blocked by the courts, but not before they inflicted massive amounts of suffering on the most vulnerable among us. Even without all of these policies, we would be left with the cruel legacy of family detention that the Obama Administration left behind. We live in a country that puts children in detention camps, behind barbed wire. We have lived in this country for quite some time.
Still, the attacks continue. Two weeks ago, the Administration announced that it would require asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while they applied for asylum, denying them access to counsel and putting them at risk of further violence and harm. Even its recent “compromise” proposal to end the government shutdown included a provision that would have prohibited unaccompanied minors from Central America from applying for asylum at the border at all.
The people making these policies cannot see themselves in these women and children. They cannot imagine that it could have been them. The language they use to describe them betrays this sense of otherness: alien, invader, illegal, criminal. And unless we speak out forcefully, then we are all complicit in what is being done in our name. The real border crisis is that by denying their humanity, we risk losing our own.
At the airport in San Antonio on my way home from the border, I saw a group of women and children who had just been released from the detention center, having passed their credible fear interviews. They were still in their detention garb and had electronic monitors around their ankles, but they seemed happy. They had succeeded in finding safety for their children, at least for a little while.