Out Here on Our Own

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The press has gone.

Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.

Not anymore.

Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.

Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.

For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.

But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.

So, I’d like to make you aware.  Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.

Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.

So that others will know they are not alone.

As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.dont_forget_me

Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.

Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.

They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.

The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year.  They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.

They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.

At an alarming number.

A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.

That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.

On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.hands-tied

It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough.  And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”

He is learning…and so am I.

I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.

Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.

Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.

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.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.

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A Boy from a “Shithole Country”

 

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You may have a reaction to this vulgar term. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it already.

I get it.

But please stick with me. I have a story to tell. And it matters that you read this.

My new friend – I’ll call him Mathias – sleeps on a mattress so thin, he feels the cold steel of the springs underneath him. A bullet lodged into his left side presses into him, aggravated by the hard coils of his assigned bed. He tries to sleep only on his right, but even then, the pain barely diminishes. The bullet, put there long ago by police who were supposed to protect him.

Mathias is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from one of those African countries.

He’s not a criminal. Yet, he is a prisoner.

He’s one of the detainees I visit weekly at the El Paso Detention facility.

We’ve never hugged. I’ve not been able to touch his shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. Even though I’ve longed to.

I speak to Mathias from the other side of a glass. With a phone to my ear, my body hunched forward, as if straining will help me hear his words more clearly, I listen. To stories of hardship and trauma I’ve never known.

Stories of the challenges of living in confinement.

Stories of hope.

Because Mathias does have hope. Despite all he’s experienced.

He hopes in a country that values liberty, justice, and the dignity and right to life. He hopes in a court system that will do the right thing.

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I wish I could share that hope.

Mathias was just a boy, away at school, when his entire family, threatened by corrupt police, fled the country.

It’s been years since he’s seen his mother.

He smiles when I come to see him, asks how my week was, if I’ve heard from my son, who’s only a year older than he is.

I think of Mathias’s mother, holed up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She didn’t get to say goodbye.

Mathias tried to live a “normal” life without his family. Continue school, then hold down a job, save money. But the police threatened him. He had to flee. By that time, crossing the border wasn’t easy. He couldn’t join his family in the camp. He had to get help.

His story of how he made it all the way to the El Paso port of entry is more than admirable. It’s an amazing story of the human spirit. Of faith, hope, trust.

He trusts in the promises of a free and democratic society.

Still. In spite of his shock that, after pouring out his story to Border Customs, they handcuffed him and tossed him in detention to await his fate.

And he’s not unusual.

More weary asylum seekers have been arriving at our ports of entry, fleeing violence from places as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Congo, as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala. Countries that are not on the U.S. list of favorable places to migrate from.

Whether our president used those exact words or not to describe these countries is not the point. The real concern is his intention.

And ours.

Words like “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “immigrant” have become associated with something evil. Or, at least, something undesirable.asylum

Yet international law supports asylum seekers. International law says a Government is prohibited from returning someone to their country if they will be subjected to torture or persecution or death. But a recent report compiled by human rights organizations at the border documents cases where we have not been following that law.

It shows that more punitive and inhumane deterrence practices are being implemented towards asylum seekers under this administration. More human rights violations are being recorded.

Surprisingly, the report also shows, El Paso courts have one of the highest denial rates for asylum seekers. It’s a sad reality that makes no sense.

Yet, the outcome of a case is determined by the judge assigned rather than the severity of the asylum seeker’s life-threatening situation and the credibility of their supporting documentation.

I may be going against the grain here, but I am actually praying that Mathias wins his asylum case and remains in the U.S.

I am praying that more and more of these violations come to light. And that they matter to people like you.

And I pray that one day winning an asylum case will not be a rare occurrence in many of our courts.

It’s worthwhile noting that National Right to Life Day is January 22. The right to life, the dignity of a life, extends to all human beings, not just the unborn. Not just those who were lucky enough to be born in the United States.

For me, Mathias – and thousands others like him – is the voiceless little one who needs me to stand up and say, you are a child of God. You have a right to live.

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