Thousands of asylum seekers remain in danger in Mexican Border Towns – Who will be their Moses?
Jun 28, 2022
by The Rev. Carol L. Kessler, MD, MDiv. FAPA, DFAACAP
In this season of Passover and Holy Week, many of us remember peoples’ liberation from bondage; people crossing the sea; people witnessing the crucifixion, and standing in the hope of resurrection. And in this season, we witness the plight of today’s refugees. Our screens are filled with images of Ukraine. I am heartened to speak with my aunt in Germany as she shares of neighbors opening their homes to welcome Ukrainian strangers and thereby greeting angels unawares.
Yet my soul is heavy with more than three decades of accompanying Central Americans fleeing violence yet not being granted asylum in the same country my German parents immigrated to after WWII – the United States. I carry the legacy of responsibility to see the concentration camps of my time and cry out to the world of their existence. And so, my ties to El Salvador began when I volunteered for a health project of the Salvadoran Archdiocese in 1987, in the conflict zone of Chalatenango at a time when the Salvadoran government’s slogan was “Be a patriot! Kill a priest!” At a time, when US health professionals were in demand, we were less likely to be targeted by dollar-backed bullets, for the US sent an average of one million dollars daily to support the Salvadoran military.
During twelve years of war, only one percent of Salvadorans were granted political asylum since the US considered El Salvador to be a democracy that it was supporting against the threat of communism. I recall the day in Long Island, New York when I accompanied an attorney from the Central American Refugee Committee to support a thirteen-year-old boy I had evaluated psychiatrically and determined to suffer from Acute Stress Disorder and Major Depression as he faced the threat of deportation at a time when the Salvadoran military routinely took boys from rural buses to convert them into child soldiers. Exasperated, the immigration judge shouted, “Do you want me to grant all Salvadoran boys political asylum?!” Peace accords were eventually signed in 1992 as the FMLN guerilla became a political party, and the military/death squads were disbanded. A civilian police force was then created to replace the National Police, who were accused of torture and disappearances. At this fragile time, the US opened prisons that housed thousands of members of MS13 and Calle 18 gangs—gangs formed by undocumented Salvadorans in L.A. who lacked a legal path forward as they confronted the gang-ridden L.A. streets. As a result, the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala has become a homicide capital of the world, where gangs reign supreme.
And so, for the past couple of decades, Central Americans primarily flee due to gang-related and domestic violence, risking their lives with the hope of crossing over to the United States, where they might find asylum/safety from extortion, kidnapping, rape, and murder. As a volunteer psychiatrist with Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum network, I have provided countless affidavits documenting the invisible psychic wounds inflicted by gangs, for the odds of being granted asylum increase tremendously with such expert documentation of harm.
Yet, the US has increasingly looked in horror at caravans of Central Americans arriving at the border, deeming them villains, and failing to acknowledge the harm that US intervention has caused their homelands. Most were horrified by Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy” in 2018, wherein parents’ and guardians’ children were taken from them as they were criminally prosecuted, while more than 2000 children were placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and sent to detention centers to await placement with a US-based family member or foster parent, or voluntary departure to their home country.
When I recently evaluated a woman in Guatemala who has been forcibly separated from her daughter for three years; she recalled the moment when she begged the Border Patrol Agent not to take her child and was met with the response: “I am following my President’s orders.” My documentation of her ongoing psychic trauma on behalf of a project of Physicians for Human Rights seeks to denounce harm inflicted by US policy and call for reparations. When I chose to work in a detention center for “unaccompanied” minors some time ago, I was morally compelled to leave rather than be complicit in medicating youth with psychoactive substances for symptoms caused by my country’s immigration policies.
While the “zero tolerance” policy has been phased out, the plight of children and families at the Mexican border remains a humanitarian disaster, supported by current US immigration policies — Title 42 and MPP/Remain in Mexico. Recent advocacy has led to the prospect of overturning Title 42—a policy that has prohibited the entry of asylum seekers based on the premise of preventing COVID transmission. Yet, opponents are finding ways to fight back against the dismantlement of Title 42 scheduled for the end of May.
Whether or not Title 42 is overturned, the Migrant Protection Protocols/“Remain in Mexico” which were enacted three years ago in January 2019, remain in place. In June 2021, MPP was briefly overturned as promised by the Biden administration during the elections, yet was reinstated in December 2021 following orders of a Texas federal judge. At that time, the restrictions of MPP were extended to all asylum seekers from the Western Hemisphere, not only those who are Spanish-speaking or Brazilian targeted during the Trump Administration. These protocols have been denounced by human rights groups since their inception as they violate international law, which prohibits returning asylum seekers to places where they may be persecuted.
MPP protocols target primarily people of color fleeing imminent threats in countries ravaged by US foreign policy. Those who flee have little hope of having their cases heard in a backlogged US immigration court. They have little hope of obtaining legal representation to inform them of their rights and advocate for a Community Psychiatrist Page 7 Spring 2022, Volume 36, Number 1 path to safety. Instead, they remain in dangerous border towns where they fall prey to omnipresent cartels and unsanitary living conditions. It is estimated that more than 71,000 asylum seekers were sent to Mexico, by the Trump administration, between January 2019 and January 2021. Many have been waiting months to years for their cases to be heard. Meanwhile, human rights groups have documented thousands of reports of kidnapping, extortion, and rape.
Most, if not all, asylum seekers are unaware of an exemption to MPP. Those with physical or mental health impairments that face significant vulnerability have the right to enter the United States where they might access appropriate medical care and prevent deterioration of pre-existing conditions. A review of affidavits by Physicians for Human Rights found that more than 10 percent of those who returned to Mexico were entitled to the humanitarian exemption. As a result, people with critical medical conditions and invisible psychic wounds are systematically sent to border towns where their disorders will be exacerbated and where they will have no access to care.
A positive outcome of the COVID pandemic has been the widespread adoption of telehealth. This has enabled physicians to partner with attorneys in documenting the health needs of asylum seekers languishing in Mexico so that they may be granted their right to cross a port of entry to the United States. A pioneer in this effort is Jenifer Wolf-Williams, who created the organization HOME (Humanitarian Outreach for Migrant Emotional Health) to be a voice for the voiceless. This effort is also shared by the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network, which has expanded its scope by training the network’s physicians to provide forensic evaluations that might lead to letters advocating for humanitarian parole.
By joining this process, I have met children with developmental and intellectual disabilities living in tents or single rooms for months to years without any professional support. I met a single mother of three young children who fled severe domestic violence only to remain confined to a room so as not to endure the common fate of kidnapping, rape, or extortion. She waits to see if my letter on her behalf will be effective in allowing her to cross and wait for an asylum hearing in the US, where she will hopefully have access to mental health services and respite from omnipresent cartels. I met a man who fled El Salvador to escape murder at the hands of gangs that wanted to convert his home into a refuge. He has been waiting three years to reunite with his mother and older sister with Down Syndrome, who successfully crossed the border, yet live in a car in Florida.
I have learned that family separations persist not at the hands of Border Patrol as they had years ago, but as the heartrending choice of parents/guardians who encourage youth to cross alone; to safety from the omnipresent threat of rape and kidnapping by cartels, knowing that unaccompanied minors are exempt from MPP. Indeed, in the detention center where I worked as a psychiatrist, I encountered a young boy who begged his father to allow him to cross because he had heard that children in the United States have the right to an education. I encountered children separated from guardians at the border due to a lack of proper custody documentation.
Through HOME founder Jenifer Wolf Williams, I have become acquainted with the hopeful voice of Holocaust survivor and psychologist Ervin Straub who notes that we need not be passive bystanders—seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil. “For one active bystander can turn the tide toward genocide” (Straub, 2009). We each have a choice. We might actively seek information that may not be shown on our mainstream news reports or social media. Organizations—like Families Belong Together, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Physicians for Human Rights, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, and Human Rights First—tirelessly share information that is easily accessible on their websites. The Young Center invites any of us to train to become an advocate for an unaccompanied youth facing the immigration system alone. HOME continues to seek mental health professionals, attorneys, interpreters, grant writers, and funders to assist asylum seekers in obtaining humanitarian entry into the US. Medical students have established human rights clinics throughout the country under the auspices of Physicians for Human Rights to accompany, document, and advocate. HIAS has created an urgent appeal to sign a petition calling upon the Biden Administration to protect asylum-seekers at the US-Mexico border and to implement a fair and humane asylum system.
Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, claims that a ruling supporting the lawsuit of Texas and Missouri’s desire to expand MPP would “further eviscerate current US asylum procedures and set a stark example for the undermining of refugee protocols throughout the world.” She fears that these states “want to kill asylum” and instead expand the detention of migrants in private prisons. Her expert opinion is that MPP has exposed issues rooted in the immigration courts’ relationship with the Department of Homeland Security. She urges Congress to consider “the establishment of an immigration court independent of the Department of Justice or the executive branch.” [https://www.refugeesinternational.org/yael-schacher]
There is hope. To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” This Passover H.I.A.S. shares a Haggadah inviting all global refugees to the Passover table. And I recall the faith of Salvadorans under siege, with whom I joined on Good Friday in the 1990s to sing from Canto Hermano/Songs of Brothers, a hymnal that, if found in one’s home, could lead one to be disappeared by US-backed military.
For me too they killed Him
And today we kill them too
In every brother who dies, He dies once again
In every sister who dies, He dies once again.
On Holy Thursday, we danced with Judas, that fearful part of ourselves that paralyzes us and kills hope. We stood awaiting the promise of resurrection by a bonfire, joined in our shared vulnerability as active bystanders whose voices could not be silenced.
May we all join in the song and dance. No longer passive bystanders but companions creating a path through the wilderness and across the sea to new life for all.
Please reach out to me at [email protected] should you desire more information on how you might contribute to this effort—as a physician; mental health professional; interpreter; citizen; or donor.
For together, we can move mountains.*
*This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 edition of Community Psychiatry | Volume 36, No. 1, which is a publication of the American Association of Community Psychiatry.