by Maddie Clark

A talk was held this past Sunday, Jan. 27 at the Commonwealth Chateau on the Sugarloaf campus of Chestnut Hill College regarding the ongoing crisis at the Mexican border. Though immigration and the Mexican border have been a hot topic of discussion for years, it’s even more prominent now that the U.S. had reached the 35th day of the government shutdown, the longest in history.

At 4 p.m., Judi Bernstein-Baker, former executive director of HIAS and a longtime immigration attorney and advocate, kicked off the talk by recalling her recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico where she gave legal guidance to migrants seeking asylum at the border.

“It’s total chaos,” she said.

In addition to giving legal advice, Baker also observed what life at the border was like for thousands of asylum-seeking migrants.

Most of these refugees are Central Americans who are fleeing violence, whether it be from spouses, drug cartels, gangs, etc. Haitian migrants and Nicaraguan doctors are also among those who have been denied visas.

The overall border crossing process is “very bleak,” Baker said. The first step involves lining up to take a number and waiting for that number to be called in order to move on to the next phase of processing.

“If it’s hot out, you line up to take a number,” Baker said. “If it’s cold, you line up to take a number, if it’s raining, you line up to take a number.”

Once their designated number is called, migrant families and individuals enter a series of detainment centers run by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to determine whether or not they will be granted asylum in the United States.

While the migrants entering the U.S. are only supposed to be held at these facilities for a period of 72 hours, they are often detained for 10 days or longer. These detainment centers run by ICE are not always of public record either. As of now, ICE has contracts for 1,400 detention centers all throughout the United States.

When talking to people at the border, Baker came to realize that many of them had “no clue about what they were going to encounter.”

Once the refugees are released from these various detainment centers, they are then bussed to facilities like the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, where people like Sister Eileen McNally, the second speaker of the night, help provide transitional housing to poor migrants while they’re waiting for housing papers, social security numbers and so on.

Each day, ICE would bus about 30-40 people between 12 and 5:30 p.m. to the Annunciation House. Each person or family would have about two to three papers with them. One was a contact sheet for someone in the United States that could be contacted on behalf of the migrants’ travel accommodations, and the other had an appointment location and date with ICE for whatever city the migrant was traveling to.

So if someone was traveling to Salt Lake City, they had an appointment with ICE in Salt Lake City less than a week after their arrival in the U.S.

Once everyone arrives at the facility, they’re taken to a clothing room where everyone can pick out an outfit for their departure the following day.

“You would’ve thought they were on the first floor of Macy’s,” McNally said.

Many of these people arrived only with the clothes on their backs and slept on floors in detainment centers with tin blankets and a hole in the floor for a toilet.

Some people actually “cried when they saw a bathroom [and a bed of their own]” she said.

The next morning, between 9 and 11 a.m., McNally would assist the migrants with their departure to whatever city they were headed to next. Then just a few short hours later, a new group would come in, and the process would be repeated.

Though a lot of mystery still surrounds the processes before and after the border, the third and final speaker, Pennsylvania State Representative Joe Hohenstein, said he is tirelessly working to resolve this crisis from the top down.

Hohenstein, who was recently elected State Rep. of the 177th district, said there’s an “undercurrent of social conservatism and racism in the district,” especially when it comes to immigration.

While immigration is a federal issue, Hohenstein says there is still work that can be done on the state level. One of Hohenstein’s missions is to effectively shut down the Berks County Residential Center, an ICE detention center located in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

Though this center is only one of three to hold children with their families, there is no time limit to which families can be kept, leaving many in limbo for up to two years or longer.

“It’s never been a good place,” Hohenstein said. “It’s never been a good idea to house people in a place that’s like custody. All people are created equal.”

“We really have to start advocating around it,” said Baker, “So that on the next Jan. 27, the country will finally be fully accepting of all people who are sacrificing their lives for a better future.”

If you would like to get involved with immigration and refugee advocacy actions, go to sanctuaryphiladelphia.org, hiaspa.org or contact Baker at judibernsteinbaker@gmail.com for more information.

 

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