Columban missionaries have been accompanying communities along the US/MX border for over 25 years. Every day we see how border communities are models of hospitality and creative cross-cultural encounter.
But we also see how inhumane immigration enforcement and extreme militarization sow fear, distrust, and trauma in our communities.
While every presidential administration over the past forty years has employed an enforcement-heavy approach to border policy, Trump’s administration has expanded and intensified it. This strategy has had brutal consequences for our migrant sisters and brothers, including deep psychology trauma and death.
As the President’s first term comes to a close, we want to review four of his major border policies: construction of a border wall, family separation, restricting access to asylum, and extreme militarization.
In this article, we will look at restricting access to asylum.
Often when we think of people migrating to the US/MX border, we don’t think about why they're migrating in the first place. Like us, most migrants don’t want to leave their home. They decide to migrant only when staying becomes more dangerous than leaving.
As Warsan Shire, a British-Somali poet and refugee, wrote in her famous poem "Conversations about Home: "no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
As people of faith, we believe that human life is sacred. When human life is under attack from war, violence, or persecution, our faith calls to welcome them into the safety of our own homes.
Fr. Timothy Mulroy, Society Leader of the Missionary Society of St. Columban, reminds us that “Christian churches have always been places of refuge.”
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the United States and Europe created the refugee system in order to relocate people living in war, violence, and/or persecution to safety. Asylum is a similar form of protection, but for people who are already in a country or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.”
By signing the 1967 Protocol and by passing various immigration laws in the decades after, the United States has a legal obligation to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees or asylum-seekers.
Under President Trump, however, the US government has implemented numerous policies and procedural hurdles that make it practically impossible for asylum-seekers to receive the protection they desperately need. These include policies such as ‘metering’ at ports of entry and forcing asylum seeker to remain in Mexico while their case is processed.
Though metering was used occasionally by the Obama administration, Trump's administration has made the practice a key feature of its border enforcement arsenal since April 2018.
Metering is process used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to limit the number of people who can request asylum at a port of entry each day. On the US/MX border, ports of entry are foot and vehicle bridges people must cross over to get from one country to the other.
James Fredrick, a border reporter for NPR, explains how metering works:
"Anyone who steps foot in the US has the ability to request asylum. So what CBP is doing is stationing a guard at border crossings. Asylum-seekers that show up there, and CBP officers tell them they have to turn around and go put their name on a waitlist in Mexico and wait for their turn to request asylum. These lists are getting very long and people are waiting weeks or sometimes months for their opportunity to request asylum."
Columbans living and working in Ciudad Juárez, the sister city of El Paso, TX, regularly accompany migrants who are subjected to this policy. According to the migrants Columbans speak with, when they are denied an opportunity to request asylum, CBP officers will make excuses like “there is no room to process you today” or “we can only process xxx number of people today.” Some days, CBP won't let any migrants request asylum and will close the bridge to them for as long as two weeks.
These excuses are exactly that – excuses. There is no legitimate reason why CBP cannot efficiently process a migrant’s asylum claim.
This policy is creating a bottleneck at ports of entry along the border, often forcing people to undertake more dangerous, and in some cases deadly, crossings between ports of entry. This is exactly what happened to Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 2-year-old daughter when they drowned in the Rio Grande River in June 2019.
Those that decide not to cross usually don't have enough money to afford a hotel, so they live in makeshift camps at the foot of bridges or nearby parks. Most of these camps do not have bathrooms, running water, or regular access to food. Children do not have the opportunity to get an education or receive medical care.
The US government should immediately end metering at all ports of entry. Instead of these dangerous and immoral policies, we can:
These change will ensure humane, just, and orderly treatment of all asylum seekers, migrants, and people seeking safety.
In January 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Under the policy, the US government forces non-Mexican asylum seekers – including families and children – to wait in Mexico while their immigration court proceedings move forward in the United States. This process can take several months!
Whereas “metering” primarily affects Mexican asylum-seekers, “Remain in Mexico” affects non-Mexicans. These two policies together ensure that a miniscule number of people can successfully apply for asylum.
As of publication, the US government is denying an estimated 60,000 people access to due process, safety, and community support under this policy.
According to the Hope Border Institute, “access to counsel is severely limited for migrants waiting in Mexico. The government is not obligated to provide counsel for migrants in immigration proceedings; it is up to individuals to secure and pay for legal representation, which is compounded by being forced to remain in Mexico.”
Before both of these policies were put into place, asylum seekers were able to remain in the United States while they waited for their asylum cases to be resolved in court. This allowed them to reunite with their families and connect with service providers like lawyers and doctors. Along the border on the US side, a robust network of volunteer shelters provided overnight accomdations, foods, and help with travel. Now these shelters are nearly empty.
Limiting people’s ability to cross the border at ports of entry by only taking a certain number of people per day (or none), and forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their case is processed, is incredibly dangerous. Many migrants waiting in Mexico – especially women – have been kidnapped, trafficked, extorted, and sexual assaulted. Migrants are especially vulnerable to human traffickers.
Even the United States government admits that these Mexican border cities are unsafe, issuing travel warnings for these areas.
However, the president’s administration is not solely responsible for these policies. Each policy requires funding from Congress for the federal agencies that implements them, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Both agencies report to DHS.
DHS’s budget has ballooned since 2016: CPB’s budget increased from $13.3 billion to $18.4 billion and ICE’s budget increased from $6.2 billion to $8.1 billion.
Congress is responsible for these increases because each year they continue to appropriate these agencies more money, often with little to no oversight and transpency. But DHS has also diverted money from other agencies to pay for more bloated immigration enforcement.
While the government abandons its moral duty to care for our vulnerable sisters and brothers, Columbans and other people of faith living in Mexico are working non-stop with many volunteers to address this manufactured humanitarian crisis. They are coordinating safe shelters, transportation to hearings, and livelihood projects for migrants. They are also providing emotional and spiritual support to families as they navigate a volatile and uncertain future.
If you would like to support our migrant sisters and brothers on the border, please consider making a donation. Every gift helps us provide them with food, clothes, educational materials, seed money for livelihood projects, and other expenses. Please be sure to indicate in the comment box that your gift is intended for our "US/MX border migrant ministry." Thank you for your generosity.
The Catholic Church recognizes that people have the right to migrate to build a better life for them and their families if they cannot do so in their country of origin. The migrant’s story reminds us of a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching: that the goods of the earth belong to all people. It is never God’s will that some of God’s children live in luxury while others have nothing (cf. Caritas in Veritate, #21).
The United States should uphold, not restrict, access to asylum in a manner that offers a genuine humanitarian response and upholds US and international law. We should end the “Remain in Mexico” and metering policies and instead invest in legal representation initiatives to ensure all asylum seekers have the resources they need to meaningfully seek protection at the earliest stages of the process.
*Editor's Note: Download our Border Solidarity Toolkit for a curated list of resources and activities that will help you learn more about US/MX border communities and how you can support them through prayer, education, and action.
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.