Two weeks ago an iACT team embarked on a learning trip to three different Mexican border towns - Reynosa, Matamoros, and Mexicali - where thousands of men, women, and children from Haiti, Central America, and South America wait to be legally allowed into the US for an opportunity to seek *asylum. What we witnessed and experienced on this trip solidified our organization’s strategic focus and desire to support refugee and asylum seekers at the border. Here's why.
*People who flee their countries because they fear persecution based on one of the five protected grounds (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion).
The people we met at the border fled their homes and countries for various reasons: conflict, violence, poverty, oppression, and lack of freedom to exercise their human rights. They all made the difficult decision to uproot their lives as they knew them and embark on a treacherous journey north with just hope and a few belongings. Some families we spoke with came through the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous dense jungle that separates North and South America and can take 10 or more days to traverse. UNICEF estimates that half of the children who crossed the Darien Gap in 2021 were under five years old. Along the way and while waiting at the border, it’s common that kids have seen their parents assaulted or been the victim of violence themselves. The stories we heard were horrific.
Upon arriving at the border, depending on the town, people try to find space in shelters hosted by local volunteers, organizations, and churches. Shelters prioritize space for women and children, and their conditions vary. While most offer some private rooms for families, the majority of adults and children share floor space or bunk beds in large open rooms. When shelters are full, people stay in tent encampments in the streets and parks where they are even more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Again, the stories we heard were horrific.
For weeks and months, people and families live in precarious conditions and with few possessions or opportunities beyond waiting. A lack of information, communication, and misinformation and changes in the immigration process compound their stress.
On the first day of President Biden’s new immigration process known as CBP One, a crowd formed outside one of the shelters in Reynosa, Mexico. There was confusion, anger, and desperation in the air. Frustration was growing in the asylum seeking community as they felt they were hearing something different every day about how they might legally cross the border. This new process of signing up through a cell phone app seemed like just one more barrier between them and the safety and opportunity they hope for in the US.
Depending on the town, very few education or structured programs are offered for children. In Mexicali, Save the Children and Fútbol Más offer one hour of education and play for children and some therapy. In Matamoros, the Sidewalk School is resuming some education activities. In Reynosa, volunteers attend shelters sporadically to read or offer art activities.
When people ask iACT, “Why focus your efforts at the border?” our answer is simple:
It’s because of what these people have fled and endured in displacement, it’s because of our shared humanity, it’s because education and play get lost in the immigration process, and it’s because few other organizations are there to help.
The slogan "Humanity Before Politics" resonated deeply for me during our visit. One cannot ignore that the presence of people at our border is a highly politicized issue. However, when I walked through shelters and encampments last week, all I felt was our shared humanity. I saw innocent children who craved moments of play and attention. I met parents with immense amounts of courage and perseverance. I observed people from all walks of life and countries coming together to organize shelter, food, and care. As a humanitarian, I wondered, where are all the organizations? Why are we not urgently responding to this humanitarian crisis? As a mother, I understood that I too would do anything to achieve a safer and more peaceful life for my child so she could have all the opportunities to thrive and reach her potential.