“We didn’t expect the amount of chaos”: A Dispatch from the Border

“We didn’t expect the amount of chaos”: A Dispatch from the Border

“Traumatized, triggered, shocked.” An immigrants’ rights activist from the Cosecha movement describes the feeling among Central American migrants at the San Diego-Tijuana crossing.

Migrants climb up a bank of the nearly dry Tijuana River, November 25, 2018. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On Sunday, November 25, U.S. border agents and police fired tear gas at hundreds of mostly Central American migrants, including young women and children, demonstrating on the Mexican side of the Tijuana-San Diego border. The migrants, many of whom fled violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, are seeking asylum in the United States. Dissent contributing editor Michelle Chen and associate editor Joshua Leifer spoke Monday with an activist from Cosecha working at the San Diego border crossing. Cosecha is a national movement fighting for permanent protection, dignity, and respect for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and is part of the coalition of groups working with the migrants in Tijuana. The Cosecha activist, who for reasons of personal security asked to remain anonymous, described the conditions on the ground in Tijuana, discussed what the migrants’ next step might be, and explained what can be done to help—from spreading the word to directly volunteering.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leifer: What is Cosecha doing down by the border and what has that been like—can you give us a little update on how things look from the ground?

Cosecha: Cosecha is part of the caravan support network working in San Diego, plugging in new volunteers from all over the country to do logistics, communications, and media work, alongside coordination work. We’re also working with those volunteers in Tijuana to do hands-on direct aid with the asylum seekers, giving donations, helping cook, talking to them, humanizing them, getting footage, doing interviews.

Chen: What have you been hearing in terms of report backs from the border now? Have there been any surprises or were you expecting the crackdown that seems to be unfolding?

Cosecha: We expected the generalized criminal narrative that big news stations have been pushing. On the ground, we didn’t expect to meet such a large-scale humanitarian crisis. We weren’t expecting to give out donations independently at the Benito Juarez stadium, which is the stadium in Tijuana that is currently being used as a shelter for the thousands of refugees from Honduras and El Salvador. We didn’t expect the giant need, the lack of resources. Demand has completely outmatched the amount of supplies that organizations are able to supply. And we didn’t expect, particularly [on Sunday], how atrociously the U.S. Border Police is responding to the peaceful asylum seekers. We didn’t expect Border Patrol to throw tear gas on the front line, knowing how many children and families were up there. We didn’t expect the amount of chaos.

Chen: In terms of the humanitarian aspect of this, are you actually able to get across the border to deliver aid?

Cosecha: Yes. With regards to providing aid, when you go across borders, the only thing you can carry without being fined for declared items is what you will personally use. A lot of volunteers who’ve been going to the other side have faced fines or have had to get creative. We have a feeling that the Mexican Border Patrol has gotten demands to crack down on volunteers going across with donations, so what people have been doing now is just going across with money to buy donations on the other side to avoid confrontation. Coming back to the U.S. side, people have had U.S. Border Patrol claim that they have the right to check phones. Which, legally speaking, they do. But that has been something we did not expect.

Chen: It seems like both the people of Tijuana, groups within Tijuana, and even the government, to some degree, as well as the UN are on that side of the border. Have you heard anything about what they’re doing in terms of providing aid? Is there some sort of formal or informal encampment set up for them now?

Cosecha: Yes, the formal encampment is the Benito Juarez stadium in Tijuana that’s doubling as a shelter, that’s holding thousands of people. With regards to the Mexican authorities, like any other country, we have good cops and bad cops. From what I’ve heard some of the Mexican police have been very responsive and communicated with these refugees, and encouraging them to file complaints about the cops who have mistreated them. Pueblo Sin Fronteras has been doing an amazing job providing legal observation, and connecting to the sergeant of the local Tijuana police force. The sergeant has been very communicative and fair.

Chen: Could you explain what the living conditions are like there for the asylum seekers?

Cosecha: Cold dirt, makeshift tents that have been created with whatever they found or things that volunteers across the globe have donated. There was a downpour of rain a few days ago, and an asylum seeker spoke out to the police force, saying “we’ve all been wet because there weren’t any tarps provided for us.” A lot of people got sick after that downpour, and once the asylum seekers spoke with the police sergeant, he promised, apparently, that the state was going to provide tarps.

Also according to asylum seekers, the government has said that Benito Juarez is going to be closed on Friday to kick everyone out. I’m not sure how accurate that information is. But that’s what I’ve heard from asylum seekers who are currently taking shelter in Tijuana.

Chen: What are you hearing in terms of what the asylum seekers plan to do after this initial encounter with the Border Police? There are reports that Mexico plans to deport some of these people. Are they going to wait this out or have you heard anything on the ground about what their next plans are?

Cosecha: For those who haven’t applied for asylum, the plan is to apply for asylum. But they’re in shock right now. The altercation at the border, the attack against the asylum seekers from the U.S. side, has left people traumatized, triggered, and in shock— both the asylum seekers and the volunteers who are on the ground. That trauma hasn’t really allowed for what that next step is. After the awful attack from the U.S. side that put a lot of children and families in jeopardy, the only thing I heard was: okay, next time we’re not bringing the kids here knowing how the U.S. is going to put their lives at stake. The point of these demonstrations is to pressure the U.S. side to quicken their asylum process. We’ve heard that there’s been a max of 100 hundred applications to be reviewed a day. According to asylum seekers, roughly 13 people were crossing per day, and they were upset at how incredibly small that ratio is.

Chen: What are your plans now that you face these difficulties in terms of both delivering aid as well as just navigating the border area? Do you have a plan to change tactics in terms of bringing stuff over the border, or in terms of communicating and coordinating with people on the other side?

Cosecha: Nothing’s really changing. We’re just getting work done faster because of how much of a crisis this is, especially after yesterday, after the inhumane attacks against the asylum seekers demonstrating at the border.

Chen: What do you think their prospects are once they are able to get over the border? Under the current administration, immigrants even within the country are under siege right now. How are you planning to navigate that and what are you telling people?

Cosecha: One way to navigate that is to mobilize other groups, other organizations, and other individuals, black, brown, allies, anyone who is willing to stand up and do some work to address this human rights crisis. If these asylum seekers are able to cross, we shouldn’t just turn our backs once they cross. These people are displaced; you don’t just expect a displaced person to be on their feet once they get to the other side. Once they finally get a home, the support has to be long term. This isn’t just a now thing. We need to get people stabilized once they get across. We need to get people support when they’re going through this legal process once they get to the U.S. We need to help them understand the terrain of whatever city they live in. Asylum seekers have been coming into the U.S. since Ellis Island. It’s important for us to understand that the support has to be long term. People should step up to the plate and become sponsors, and maybe open their homes to help stabilize these individuals. There are ally families in Boston who have opened up their homes to asylum seekers. We are grateful for those allies who have taken that extra step to provide that level of support for those who are getting comfortable in their new cities. There are some asylum seekers who have never been in a city before, there are asylum seekers who’ve never been in weather less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a lot to get accustomed to.

Chen: In the past, there were the Day Without an Immigrant strikes and other labor mobilizations that were rooted in working-class immigrant communities. We saw a lot of day-laborer groups and worker centers coming forward to show support. Have these groups been able to deploy any resources or do any outreach to asylum seekers while they’re trying to navigate the border, or once they’re in the United States and pressing their claims? Have you been able to tap into some of the networks that came out for the earlier mobilizations?

Cosecha: We’re connecting with as many networks as possible. If you are a major labor working group out there, or if you’re anti-displacement nonprofit, if you just believe in addressing the human rights crisis here in the Western hemisphere, then please sign the Cosecha volunteer pledge to plug in either remotely or on the ground. This work can be done from the other side of the world, it’s just being able to get people organized, and through that organization, being able to assign tasks create plans and actions—whether that means a simple share on Facebook or being able to create media or being able to organize a workshop for the kids or adults in Tijuana. Any work that can that can be done to reduce the amount of trauma out there and to reduce the amount of hunger.

Chen: Are these folks, to the best of your knowledge, people already with ties in the United States, either family or people they know through work?

Cosecha: It’s a mix. You have people who have no connection to the U.S., unaccompanied minors who have no connections in the United States, unaccompanied minors who have an aunt in the U.S. but don’t know where she lives, adults who have a brother in the U.S., people who have been deported before who have families in the U.S. and just want to get back to them and reconnect. People who have family in the U.S. so they haven’t seen in decades.

Chen: What can our readers do right now to help, from spreading the word in their communities all the way up to directly volunteering?

Cosecha: Aid does not just mean being on the ground in Tijuana. You can do work remotely. This means donating money, spreading the word. If you need more guidance, please go on to www.lahuelga.com and sign the volunteer pledge. From there we can figure out together what your capacity is and what you can do based on your capacity: whether it’s being connected to the social media posts sharing network, or, if you live in the San Diego or in the California the area and can host volunteers to stay at your house, or donating groceries to the volunteers here, donating money to buy groceries on the other side to provide the asylum seekers.

Chen: And Cosecha is actually operating in a number of different cities as well?

Cosecha: Cosecha is a national decentralized immigrant rights group that advocates for the dignity, respect, and permanent protection of immigrants. There are bases everywhere from Boston to Jersey, all the way to the other side of the country here in California. Cosecha does a lot of work that does not only revolve around the asylum seekers. We’re doing as much as we can to help the asylum seekers but we’re also pushing a driver’s license campaign throughout the country to allow undocumented folks to be able to drive without fear in their home states.

I also want to add one last thing. A lot of media have been asking the asylum seekers, “who is your leader?” The fact is that no one’s leading them. The only thing that has led them to this exodus, to trying to get into the United States, is the fact there aren’t enough economic resources to provide healthy or sufficient meals for their families in their home countries; the fact that their home countries do not have enough medical supplies for the sick; the fact that violence makes life unsafe. A lot of the destabilization in Central America has been an effect of U.S. intervention. So the fact that the U.S. isn’t acting now to help is a disgrace.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at Dissent and co-host, with Sarah Jaffe, of the Belabored podcast.

Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent.