The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
Grassroots Partnerships: Providing Resources Within a Broken Immigration System
By Lindsey Hoemann on June 22, 2020
(Header Photo: Group photo with some of the people in migration who are staying in the shelter. They hold up the number “4” in reference to FM4. They are joined by Milú, the boxer who goes to the shelter every day with the director. Credit: FM4 Paso Libre)
While the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely criticized as an ineffective public health failure originating at the highest levels, it has been resoundingly effective in one area: using the pandemic as an excuse to keep asylum-seekers out of the United States and in harm’s way. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration has used this public health crisis to justify:
- Summarily deporting children without notifying their parents;
- Temporarily shutting down the entire asylum system, with plans to implement severe permanent restrictions aimed squarely at those fleeing violence;
- Expelling 20,000 people to wait in Mexico—many thousands of them in crowded tent camps that put their personal safety at risk and that seem intentionally designed to encourage the spread of disease.
A former Senior Border Patrol Agent calls it a “a shadow immigration system…of nothing: no asylum, no refugees, no credible fear hearings, no child sponsorships, no hearings before immigration judges, no oversight, no accountability.”
At a time when the United States government has openly abdicated its responsibilities and abandoned thousands, UUSC’s partners have adapted and are working harder than ever.
In Mexico, shelters run by UUSC partners FM4 Paso Libre in Guadalajara and the Scalabrinianas Misión con Migrantes y Refugiados (SMR) in Mexico City continue operating, each providing a safe space for up to 35 people. To protect the health of residents and staff, however, both organizations have had to close their doors to new arrivals. For organizations founded on a fundamental belief in the dignity of all who migrate, turning people away in a time of crisis is a deeply painful step to take.
People in migration who found themselves at the shelters in March, when the shelters were still able to accommodate new arrivals, were forced make a seemingly impossible choice: suspend their journeys indefinitely and commit to staying inside for the duration—through food shortages and emotional turmoil—or leave with no option to come back and no guarantee of safe haven anywhere else. For people in transit, the prospect of missing what looks to be a quickly closing window of possibility for asylum is devastating. Many of those who opted to stay face other medical vulnerabilities, like diabetes or hypertension, that put them at even higher risk and require medication and close monitoring.
For FM4 in Guadalajara, where Jalisco state restrictions are strict, shelter residents’ only moments for outside recreation come very early in the morning and in groups of three—any more people together and they run the risk of being stopped by police. Fourteen volunteers rotate through the week to continue to provide 24-hour attention at the shelter. They manage meals, basic healthcare, and break the monotony by organizing creative activities like ceramics classes and a “virtual tour” of international destinations, complete with music and food tastings.
In Mexico City, the SMR’s Casa Mambré is now home to 34 people, including families with children, pregnant women, and unaccompanied minors. The work of managing the shelter and providing support 24 hours a day, seven days a week is covered by just three Scalabrinian Sisters who take turns staying overnight, making sure each can take one day a week off to rest. Because access to medication through the public hospitals is limited, SMR has taken on 100 percent of the costs for residents’ medications, creating a significant burden for the organization’s finances.
Isolation takes a toll on all of us, but imagine for a moment what it would be like far away from home, far from your family, unsure of what will lie on the other side of the door once it opens again. SMR director, Sister Lidia, says, “nights are especially difficult; we have had to deal with moments of tension and emotional crises…many [of those here] arrived having been victims of violence.” Nevertheless, both the Sisters and Casa Mambré’s residents find moments of joy—they celebrated Mothers’ Day with music and dancing late into the night, and one of the residents is leading physical education sessions to keep everyone moving.
In Guatemala, UUSC partner, Pop No’j, is responding to deportations that continue both from the United States as well as Mexico. While United States deportation policies are helping create the “Wuhan of the Americas,” Mexico is doing its part too, shipping large numbers of people from the north to the south, leaving many stranded on its southern border. Because all public transport in Guatemala is suspended and the government will not provide transport beyond larger regional cities, those returning to the country quickly become effectively stranded. Claiming that it does not have the resources necessary to house returning citizens in safe isolation, the Guatemalan government has only implemented a three-day quarantine for returning people, far from the recommended 14 days. Pop Noj’s migration orientation workers in Huehuetenango help them with information and access to transportation.
Compounding this crisis is the long-term situation of poverty and food insecurity in Guatemala. Now, white flags, scarves, or rags hang out of windows and are carried in the street as a sign that there is no more food in the house. In a showing of neighborhood solidarity, family members, neighbors, and strangers on the street donate whatever they can. In response to this widespread hunger, Pop No’j is spearheading a family farming initiative with returning migrant youth and their families to help mitigate these acute needs among families who have lost almost all sources of income.
While the United States, with its billions of dollars in resources, fails to fulfill its international obligations to receive asylum-seekers and provide even minimum levels of safety and dignity, UUSC’s partners are engaged in mutual aid work rooted in community-based ways of knowing and organizing that provide concrete possibilities for effective action.
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!