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Notes from the Ground

CVT at the Southern Border

Published May 30, 2019

Andrea Cárcamo-Cavazos is CVT senior policy counsel

In mid-May, I had the opportunity to travel to El Paso, Texas, to meet with asylum seekers in detention. The following is a summary of my five-day visit.

Day One: I arrived and met with other visiting attorneys at our host organization, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. There I was briefed on the circumstances facing individuals at the detention center where I’d be working, and I visited Annunciation House, which houses individuals who lack community support due to their immigration status. The house was at capacity as they are currently taking in a record 1,000 people every day, but the rooms were filled with gratitude and hope.

Day Two: I visited the El Paso Processing Center, which houses both men and women. It was just like a prison. The detainees wear jumpsuits and have headcount three times a day. I could only speak to them on a phone through glass windows, or in a little room with no handles on the door. I had to knock for the guard to let me out. A woman I met told me she only receives $1 a day in wages for her kitchen work at the center. I also helped detainees prepare for their credible fear interview (CFI), which an individual can’t apply for asylum without passing. I was supposed to prepare over 10 detainees for their CFI, but the majority had already been transferred to other states. That’s probably good, since El Paso has one of the worse asylum grant rates in the nation.

Day Three: Back to the El Paso Processing Center. I began to notice that the detainees wore different colored jumpsuits. When I asked why, a guard informed me that the colors correspond to the offenses committed by the wearers. I saw one man in a red jumpsuit, and after speaking with him, learned he had committed a felony. Most of the detainees from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) who’d entered between points of entry wore orange jumpsuits, which likely means they were charged with a misdemeanor. I also saw one man in a blue jump suit, who came to request asylum through the Bridge of the Americas, an international point of entry that connects El Paso with Ciudad Juarez. Although he had a very convincing asylum case, he had to wait in El Paso for several months because of a process called “metering,” which is essentially a list to receive a credible fear interview. Most individuals from the Northern Triangle are returned to Mexico through the “Remain in Mexico” policies implemented by the Trump Administration in January, unless they can prove that they are more likely than not to face harm in Mexico. A man from Honduras, however, told me he had not been returned to Ciudad Juarez because of the risk he faced for being gay. Even though he had been spared, he told me he feared discrimination by other detainees here. He kept repeating, “I didn’t ask to be born this way” while grabbing his shirt, as if trying to rip off this aspect of his identity.

Day Four: Another day at the El Paso Processing Center, helping an asylum seeker work on representing himself before an immigration judge. In El Paso, it’s extremely difficult to win an asylum case, even with an immigration attorney. Commonly, a “win” for attorneys is obtaining bond for asylum seekers, which allows them to meet with family or friends in another jurisdiction where they’re more likely to receive a fair trial. Ultimately, though, there’s just so much need and so little representation in El Paso that many organizations can help individuals to prepare for their cases – like I did in this instance with another attorney – but are unable to provide full representation.

Visit to Ciudad Juarez: I crossed the border to Ciudad Juarez with other volunteer attorneys. Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney working for Annunciation House in El Paso, guided us. We visited the most photographed section of the wall – the part that most commonly comes to mind – next to an impoverished neighborhood. When some children spotted us, they approached us to ask for money. Interestingly, the less photographed section of the wall gives a sense of being transparent, almost nonexistent, because you can barely see it when you are far away.

Crossing the bridge back to the U.S., we waited for over an hour—not long compared to other days. Taylor pointed toward the middle of the bridge, where asylum seekers are turned away by U.S. authorities, told they have to put their name on a list and wait – perhaps for months – until they are called. When another attorney asked Taylor if it was safe to be in Ciudad Juarez, Taylor replied that it was safe for us because we had the American passport. Sadly, it’s a different story for migrants who’ve been stripped of their rights by their own government, by Mexico and by the United States. Taylor once saw the cartel kidnap a family who had just been denied entry. She was powerless to help.

Day 5: Before I left, I helped detainees with asylum case preparation and I also visited the self-identified gay detainee, and informed him that someone from the Borderline Rainbow Center would visit him to conduct an evaluation that would be helpful in his case. LGBTQI individuals are considered vulnerable by the U.S., but often detained, usually for indefinite periods. I heard that at least one transgender woman was detained in the male section of a detention center outside El Paso. Disturbingly, these individuals are often detained with people who look like their former perpetrators.

I realized on this trip that the media isn’t paying enough attention to what’s happening at the border, or at least not the right kind of attention. If you aren’t willing to listen to individual stories, you won’t get the truth. And the truth is that asylum seekers at our southern border face egregious human rights violations daily—violations that continue to worsen with the Trump administration’s policies.

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