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← What's really happening at the US-Mexico border -- and how we can do better

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Showing Revision 5 created 11/14/2019 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Twice a week,
  2. I drive from my home near Tijuana, Mexico,
  3. over the US border,
    to my office in San Diego.
  4. The stark contrast between the poverty
    and desperation on one side of the border
  5. and the conspicuous wealth on the other
  6. always feels jarring.
  7. But what makes this contrast
    feel even starker
  8. is when I pass by the building
    that those of us who work on the border
  9. unaffectionately refer to
    as the black hole.
  10. The black hole is the Customs
    and Border Protection,

  11. or CBP facility,
  12. at the San Ysidro port of entry,
  13. right next to a luxury outlet mall.
  14. It's also where, at any one time,
  15. there's likely 800 immigrants
  16. locked in freezing, filthy,
    concrete cells below the building.
  17. Up top: shopping bags and frappuccinos.
  18. Downstairs: the reality
    of the US immigration system.
  19. And it's where, one day
    in September of 2018,
  20. I found myself trying to reach Anna,
  21. a woman who CBP had recently separated
    from her seven-year-old son.
  22. I'm an immigration attorney

  23. and the policy and litigation director
    of Al Otro Lado,
  24. a binational nonprofit helping immigrants
    on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
  25. We'd met Anna several weeks earlier
    at our Tijuana office,
  26. where she explained that she feared
    she and her son would be killed in Mexico.
  27. So we prepared her for the process
    of turning herself over to CBP
  28. to ask for asylum.
  29. A few days after she'd gone
    to the port of entry to ask for help,
  30. we received a frantic phone call
  31. from her family members
    in the United States,
  32. telling us that CBP officials
    had taken Anna's son from her.
  33. Now, not that this should matter,

  34. but I knew that Anna's son
    had special needs.
  35. And once again,
  36. this news filled me with the sense
    of panic and foreboding
  37. that has unfortunately become
    a hallmark of my daily work.
  38. I had a signed authorization
    to act as Anna's attorney,
  39. so I rushed over to the port of entry
  40. to see if I could speak with my client.
  41. Not only would CBP officials
    not let me speak to Anna,
  42. but they wouldn't even tell me
    if she was there.
  43. I went from supervisor to supervisor,
  44. begging to submit evidence
    of Anna's son's special needs,
  45. but no one would even
    talk to me about the case.
  46. It felt surreal to watch
    the shoppers strolling idly by
  47. what felt like a life-and-death situation.
  48. After several hours
    of being stonewalled by CBP,
  49. I left.
  50. Several days later,

  51. I found Anna's son
    in the foster-care system.
  52. But I didn't know what happened to Anna
  53. until over a week later,
  54. when she turned up
    at a detention camp a few miles east.
  55. Now, Anna didn't have a criminal record,
  56. and she followed the law
    when asking for asylum.
  57. Still, immigration officials
    held her for three more months,
  58. until we could win her release
  59. and help her reunify with her son.
  60. Anna's story is not
    the only story I could tell you.

  61. There's Mateo, an 18-month-old boy,
  62. who was ripped from his father's arms
  63. and sent to a government shelter
    thousands of miles away,
  64. where they failed
    to properly bathe him for months.
  65. There's Amadou,
  66. an unaccompanied African child,
  67. who was held with adults for 28 days
    in CBP's horrific facilities.
  68. Most disturbingly, there's Maria,
  69. a pregnant refugee who begged
    for medical attention for eight hours
  70. before she miscarried in CBP custody.
  71. CBP officials held her
    for three more weeks
  72. before they sent her back to Mexico,
  73. where she is being forced to wait months
  74. for an asylum hearing
    in the United States.
  75. Seeing these horrors
    day in and day out has changed me.

  76. I used to be fun at parties,
  77. but now, I inevitably
    find myself telling people
  78. about how our government
    tortures refugees at the border
  79. and in the detention camps.
  80. Now, people try to change the subject
  81. and congratulate me for the great work
    I'm doing in helping people like Anna.
  82. But I don't know
    how to make them understand
  83. that unless they start fighting,
    harder than they ever thought possible,
  84. we don't know which of us
    will be the next to suffer Anna's fate.
  85. Trump's mass separations
    of refugee families
  86. at the southern border
  87. shocked the conscience of the world
  88. and woke many to the cruelties
    of the US immigration system.
  89. It seems like today,
  90. more people than ever are involved
    in the fight for immigrant rights.
  91. But unfortunately, the situation
    is just not getting better.
  92. Thousands protested
    to end family separations,

  93. but the government
    is still separating families.
  94. More than 900 children
    have been taken from their parents
  95. since June of 2018.
  96. Thousands more refugee children
    have been taken from their grandparents,
  97. siblings and other
    family members at the border.
  98. Since 2017,
  99. at least two dozen people have died
    in immigration custody.
  100. And more will die, including children.
  101. Now, we lawyers can
    and will keep filing lawsuits
  102. to stop the government
    from brutalizing our clients,
  103. but we can't keep tinkering
    around the edges of the law
  104. if we want migrants
    to be treated humanely.
  105. This administration would have you believe
    that we have to separate families

  106. and we have to detain children,
  107. because it will stop more refugees
    from coming to our borders.
  108. But we know that this isn't true.
  109. In fact, in 2019,
  110. the number of apprehensions
    at our southern border
  111. has actually gone up.
  112. And we tell people
    every day at the border,
  113. "If you seek asylum in the United States,
  114. you risk family separation,
  115. and you risk being detained indefinitely."
  116. But for many of them,
    the alternative is even worse.
  117. People seek refuge in the United States
    for a lot of different reasons.

  118. In Tijuana, we've met refugees
    from over 50 countries,
  119. speaking 14 different languages.
  120. We meet LGBT migrants
    from all over the world
  121. who have never been in a country
    in which they feel safe.
  122. We meet women from all over the world
  123. whose own governments
    refuse to protect them
  124. from brutal domestic violence
    or repressive social norms.
  125. Of course, we meet
    Central American families
  126. who are fleeing gang violence.
  127. But we also meet Russian dissidents,
  128. Venezuelan activists,
  129. Christians from China, Muslims from China,
  130. and thousands and thousands
    of other refugees
  131. fleeing all types
    of persecution and torture.
  132. Now, a lot of these people
    would qualify as refugees

  133. under the international legal definition.
  134. The Refugee Convention
    was created after World War II
  135. to give protection to people
    fleeing persecution
  136. based on their race, religion,
    nationality, political opinion
  137. or membership
    in a particular social group.
  138. But even those who would be refugees
    under the international definition
  139. are not going to win asylum
    in the United States.
  140. And that's because since 2017,
  141. the US Attorneys General have made
    sweeping changes to asylum law,
  142. to make sure that less people qualify
    for protection in the United States.
  143. Now these laws are mostly aimed
    at Central Americans
  144. and keeping them out of the country,
  145. but they affect other types
    of refugees as well.
  146. The result is that the US
    frequently deports refugees
  147. to their persecution and death.
  148. The US is also using detention
    to try to deter refugees

  149. and make it harder for them
    to win their cases.
  150. Today, there are over 55,000 immigrants
    detained in the United States,
  151. many in remote detention facilities,
  152. far from any type of legal help.
  153. And this is very important.
  154. Because it's civil
    and not criminal detention,
  155. there is no public defender system,
  156. so most detained immigrants
    are not going to have an attorney
  157. to help them with their cases.
  158. An immigrant who has an attorney
  159. is up to 10 times more likely
    to win their case
  160. than one who doesn't.
  161. And as you've seen, I hate
    to be the bearer of bad news,

  162. but the situation is even worse
    for refugee families today
  163. than it was during family separation.
  164. Since January of 2019,
  165. the US has implemented a policy
  166. that's forced over 40,000 refugees
    to wait in Mexico
  167. for asylum hearings in the United States.
  168. These refugees, many of whom are families,
  169. are trapped in some of the most
    dangerous cities in the world,
  170. where they're being raped, kidnapped
  171. and extorted by criminal groups.
  172. And if they survive for long enough
    to make it to their asylum hearing,
  173. less than one percent of them
    are able to find an attorney
  174. to help them with their cases.
  175. The US government will point
    to the lowest asylum approval rates
  176. to argue that these people
    are not really refugees,
  177. when in fact, US asylum law
    is an obstacle course
  178. designed to make them fail.
  179. Now not every migrant
    at the border is a refugee.

  180. I meet plenty of economic migrants.
  181. For example, people who want to go
    to the United States to work,
  182. to pay medical bills for a parent
  183. or school fees for a child back home.
  184. Increasingly, I'm also meeting
    climate refugees.
  185. In particular, I'm meeting
    a lot of indigenous Central Americans
  186. who can no longer
    sustain themselves by farming,
  187. due to catastrophic drought in the region.
  188. We know that today,
  189. people are migrating
    because of climate change,
  190. and that more will do so in the future,
  191. but we simply don't have a legal system
    to deal with this type of migration.
  192. So, it would make sense, as a start,
  193. to expand the refugee definition
  194. to include climate refugees, for example.
  195. But those of us in a position
    to advocate for those changes
  196. are too busy suing our government
  197. to keep the meager legal protections
    that refugees enjoy under the current law.
  198. And we are exhausted,
  199. and it's almost too late to help.
  200. And we know now

  201. that this isn't America's problem alone.
  202. From Australia's brutal
    offshore detention camps
  203. to Italy's criminalization of aid
    to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean,
  204. first-world countries
    have gone to deadly lengths
  205. to keep refugees from reaching our shores.
  206. But they've done more
    than restrict the refugee definition.
  207. They've created parallel,
    fascist-style legal systems
  208. in which migrants have none of the rights
    that form the basis of a democracy,
  209. the alleged foundation of the countries
    in which they're seeking refuge.
  210. History shows us that the first group
  211. to be vilified and stripped
    of their rights is rarely the last,
  212. and many Americans and Europeans
  213. seem to accept an opaque
    and unjust legal system for noncitizens,
  214. because they think they are immune.
  215. But eventually,
  216. these authoritarian ideals bleed over
    and affect citizens as well.
  217. I learned this firsthand

  218. when the US government placed me
    on an illegal watch list
  219. for my work helping
    immigrants at the border.
  220. One day, in January of 2019,
  221. I was leaving my office in San Diego
  222. and crossing the border
    to go back to my home in Mexico.
  223. Mexican officials, although they had
    given me a valid visa,
  224. stopped me and told me
    that I couldn't enter the country
  225. because a foreign government
    had placed a travel alert on my passport,
  226. designating me
    as a national security risk.
  227. I was detained and interrogated
    in a filthy room for hours.
  228. I begged the Mexican officials
  229. to let me go back to Mexico
    and pick up my son,
  230. who was only 10 months old at the time.
  231. But they refused,
  232. and instead, they turned me over
    to CBP officials,
  233. where I was forced back
    into the United States.
  234. It took me weeks to get another visa
    so that I could go back to Mexico,
  235. and I went to the border, visa in hand.
  236. But again, I was detained and interrogated
  237. because there was still
    a travel alert on my passport.
  238. Shortly after,
  239. leaked internal CBP documents
  240. confirmed that my own government
  241. had been complicit in issuing
    this travel alert against me.
  242. And since then, I haven't traveled
    to any other countries,
  243. because I'm afraid I'll be detained
  244. and deported from those countries as well.
  245. These travel restrictions, detentions

  246. and separation from my infant son
  247. are things I never thought
    I would experience as a US citizen,
  248. but I'm far from the only person
    being criminalized for helping immigrants.
  249. The US and other countries
    have made it a crime to save lives,
  250. and those of us who are simply
    trying to do our jobs
  251. are being forced to choose
    between our humanity and our freedom.
  252. And the thing that makes me so desperate
  253. is that all of you
    are facing the same choice,
  254. but you don't understand it yet.
  255. And I know there are
    good people out there.
  256. I saw thousands of you in the streets,
  257. protesting family separation.
  258. And that largely helped
    bring about an end to the official policy.
  259. But we know that the government
    is still separating children.
  260. And things are actually getting worse.
  261. Today, the US government
    is fighting for the right

  262. to detain refugee children
    indefinitely in prison camps.
  263. This isn't over.
  264. We cannot allow ourselves
    to become numb or look away.
  265. Those of us who are citizens of countries
  266. whose policies cause detention,
    separation and death,
  267. need to very quickly decide
    which side we're on.
  268. We need to demand that our laws respect
    the inherent dignity of all human beings,
  269. especially refugees
    seeking help at our borders,
  270. but including economic migrants
    and climate refugees.
  271. We need to demand
    that refugees get a fair shot
  272. at seeking protection in our countries
  273. by ensuring that they have
    access to council
  274. and by creating independent courts
  275. that are not subject
    to the political whims of the president.
  276. I know it's overwhelming,

  277. and I know this sounds cliché, but ...
  278. we need to call
    our elected representatives
  279. and demand these changes.
  280. I know you've heard this before,
  281. but have you made the call?
  282. We know these calls make a difference.
  283. The dystopian immigration systems
    being built up in first-world countries

  284. are a test of citizens
  285. to see how far you're willing
    to let the government go
  286. in taking away other people's rights
    when you think it won't happen to you.
  287. But when you let the government
    take people's children
  288. without due process
  289. and detain people indefinitely
    without access to council,
  290. you are failing the test.
  291. What's happening to immigrants now
  292. is a preview of where we're all headed
    if we fail to act.
  293. Thank you.

  294. (Applause)