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On the Front Lines: UUs Unite to Fight Xenophobia, Bigotry on the Southwest Border

By Rev. Kent Matthies, Unitarian Society of Germantown (Guest Columnist) on December 5, 2018

Through the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, UUs from across the United States have flocked to the southwest border to combat hostility and vitriol being directed towards Central American asylum-seekers. As part of an expansive series that gets at the heart of the UU experience on the border, UUSC has invited UUs to write first-hand accounts about their experiences welcoming migrants and combatting hatred on the border.

TIJUANA, MEXICO—We have a clear and present humanitarian crisis right across our border. Here in Tijuana I have witnessed massive suffering.

A couple of examples:

There are perhaps 10,000 refugees in the Tijuana area. A large percentage of these people want to apply to enter the United States. A significant number of these refugees have strong asylum cases.

However, the U.S. government aggressively prevents the huge majority of these refugees from applying for entry upon arrival. The U.S. government will not maintain a fair and clear process for people seeking asylum. Refugees themselves are forced to manage a system, which involves a physical book, with a waiting list of thousands!

Every day people gather at the tent at El Chapparal where refugee leaders call out 40 to 50 names from the book. Those who are named get on a bus and are taken to the Border Control police station to apply for entry. No U.S. government official will confirm where the refugees will be taken from there. How long will the refugees wait to learn their status?  Nobody will say.

Every day thousands of people do not hear their names called from the book. Many of them are lost in deep poverty and despair. Many of them move back into the cracks and crevices of Tijuana in an attempt to survive one more day.

Less than a mile away from the book sits Benito Juarez Stadium where thousands of refugees are housed in a humanitarian nightmare. Yesterday, I was one of the few international observers permitted to walk through this outdoor community recreation center. Imagine a superdome (with no roof) post Katrina!

Thousands of people—with high percentages of children—are sprawled out in small makeshift tents: blankets, tarps, branches, leaves. Nobody has enough clothing, food or water. Toilets, sinks, and showers are filthy and overwhelmed with volume. Respiratory illness, lice, and chickenpox bounce around the population.

Recently, I worked with a team of excellent lawyers advising refugees of their legal rights and what process they must follow in order to apply to enter the United States. A shocking number of people had no idea about the basic facts. The entire world knows these people have travelled in a perilous manner from far and wide in an attempt to enter the country, yet here they sit in a humanitarian disaster with a paucity of good information for them about their options.

The United States is not doing enough to help and is blocking many of the viable paths to relief. There are refugees here from Central and South America as well as Africa. This is not simply a Mexican problem. This is a hemispheric crisis. With a dedication to human rights, all governments, non-profits, and international support should be coordinated.

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice is working to find ways to help.

Photo Credit: Kent Matthies

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