Report from El Chaparral
by Kim Redigan
Part of MPT’s third-party nonviolence intervention work includes human rights monitoring. On most of the days that the MPT Border Team was in Tijuana, we were asked to work at El Chaparral, the small plaza that is just outside Ped West, the busy pedestrian point of entry between the U.S. and Mexico. This is the place where two groups of people - all asylum seekers - gather early each morning. The first group waits in line to receive a six-digit number on a tiny piece of paper from two young women who record names, numbers, and country or origin into a worn composition book. The U.S. and Mexico have abdicated responsibility for this “metering” process, placing the responsibility on asylum seekers themselves who hope that accepting this task will expedite their own journey through this absurd system. This process is not only inefficient and backward, it is illegal under international and domestic law, which allows anyone to appear at a port of entry and make an asylum claim, whether or not that person has documentation. Yet, minors and those without paperwork are not allowed to have their names entered in the book. This is probably why the process has been delegated to those awaiting asylum. The second group gathers in the hope that the number they received weeks earlier will be called that day. Many travel hours to get there each morning, hauling suitcases and children. Each day, approximately 40 names are called, although the number may range from 0 - 100. The daily quota is determined by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in coordination with the orange-vested Groupos Beta, who are part of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration. Those whose numbers are called will line up to board a bus that will take them to Ped East where they will be taken to an underground holding area and then placed in hieleras, the notorious “ice boxes” that have been written about in the news. At this point, families are often separated, and clothing is taken, with the exception of the single layer of clothing that touches the skin. Part of MPT's work each morning at El Chaparral involved human rights monitoring near the small tent where the numbers are both given and called. The team witnessed asylum seekers from around the globe, especially Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador, line up each day for the coveted number that is seen as a passport to the future. MPT observed large families, single men, pregnant women, and many babies and children gathered on the plaza. It was bitterly cold on the mornings our team was in Tijuana. We observed children wrapped in layers of clothing yet shivering and elderly women waiting in line with bare legs. On days when it appeared a family would be called to board the bus, we saw parents, dark magic markers in hand, hurriedly writing names and contact info on the arms of their children. While two MPT team members engaged in human rights monitoring at the site where the metering process was taking place, the other team members provided a peaceful presence at El Chaparral where the exhaustion, the fear, the hope, and the love was palpable. AOL volunteers distributed flyers inviting those on the plaza to afternoon charla, while others distributed warm clothes and held up blankets so those expecting to be called that day could have a moment of privacy as they swapped out tee shirts for fleeces that would make time in the hielera a bit more tolerable. As a peace team, MPT is aware that what we witnessed at the border is a manufactured humanitarian crisis, the inevitable result of war and the trauma-induced violence that follows in the wake arrmed conflict.
Below is a more personal reflection on the illegal metering process that takes place each morning at the border.
Border Reflection: As Cold As ice They come from Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador, Cameroon, Turkey, Russia, Mexico - everywhere. This is one of the busiest borders in the world. A little girl is weighed down by a pink backpack, while another hugs a stuffed animal half her size. Innocent of what lies ahead, they wrap tiny arms around the waists of exhausted mothers holding plastic envelopes containing wrinkled documents that have weathered journeys few could imagine. Weary-eyed fathers hold the hands of tired children. Young men looking resolute but scared. Babes swaddled tightly to fend off the cold morning air. I wonder where they slept last night. Desperation wrapped in paper-thin hope. I’ve never seen such courage. The scene at El Chaparral here in Tijuana is surreal. A ten-minute walk separates the U.S. from Mexico at the Ped West crossing that connects San Diego and Tijuana, but the distance between the horror of this system and anything human is incalculable. A small plastic tent sits in the square. It is here where life and death decisions are made each day through a process called metering. Today, two young women - asylum seekers themselves - are in charge of a composition book like the ones my students use in class. The book’s “list manager” is another young woman who is also hoping to be granted asylum. Groupos Beta, described by some as Mexico’s “humanitarian” ICE, yet an entity complicit in this illegal process, oversees the process, taking the book home each night. The book contains the names and assigned numbers of those who are here to turn themselves over to U.S. Custom and Border Protection on the slim chance that they will be given asylum. Those without documents are not allowed to get on the list. Neither are unaccompanied minors. This practice is illegal under international law. Those whose names are entered in the book are given numbers on slips of paper that are about the size of a piece of Trident gum that they must must carry with them on the streets and in shelters for the next several weeks. The next step involves packing up babies and bags and returning to El Chaparral early in the morning in the days and weeks that follow in order to be present when names and numbers are shouted out by the list managers. Some are staying in shelters three hours away. Those who are not present on the day when their numbers are called, must start the process over. Those who are the day’s “chosen” ones line up to board a vehicle which will then transport them to the notorious hieleras, the frigid “ice boxes” where they will be allowed only the layer of clothing that touches the skin. This cruel policy is mitigated by volunteers from Al Otro Lado who distribute warm clothing in the plaza. There are between 0 and 100 people per day - on average 40 - who turn themselves over to an unknown future that can go wrong in a million different ways. It is at this point that families are separated - perhaps for the last time. These are the so-called criminals, the dangerous horde, the ones we are told threaten national security. We need a wall and a harsh immigration policy to protect us from a little girl hugging a stuffed animal. Those who pass their credible fear interviews, which means they may go forward in the asylum process, are either incarcerated in immigration jails around the country or released with GPS-monitored tethers to await a process that can months . . . or years. The outcomes vary wildly from one jurisdiction to another. Recently, many who are waiting to make their case have been sent back across the border under Trump’s dangerous and reckless Remain in Mexico policy. For most, the prospect of success is minuscule. The process is arbitrary - a sort of cruel lottery, a desperate gamble that leaves human lives dangling as if they were disposable. In the eyes of many, they are. The trauma, the torture of a system that would rip a baby from her mother’s arms. That would send a teen about the age of my own students to his near-certain death in violence-torn countries - the legacy of US foreign policy paid for with your tax dollars and mine. The trauma and torture of a system that would allow little ones and pregnant women and old men to shiver in cells wrapped in foil blankets that reflect back the ugliness of our nation’s inhumane policies. The ugliness of the human heart. I look at the child with the little pink backpack as she and her family wait to board a bus bound for hell. Who knows what awaits her and so many others whose numbers have been called today. Who knows how she - and how we - will sleep tonight given the cold.