The US has refugees, too. Except that we don’t have camps, we have detention centers.
When we visited McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico in April (see post here) we learned more about the specifics of US refugees who arrive via land borders. Regularly, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (ICE) release persons with official asylum/ refugee status from detention centers to stay with their families while their asylum case is being processed.
This week, disturbing news came out of San Antonio, Texas. ICE abandoned 50 refugees outside a closed bus station to wait out a multi-day hurricane without shelter, food, water, or medicine. Even though the bus station gave notice that they were closing, and a local congressional representative notified ICE that the bus station was closing, and 6 of the families left at the station were supposed to travel to Houston (to meet families which have evacuated due to the hurricane), ICE still left them there. The full story is here and it’s embarrassing.
I’ve seen the refugees when they are left at the bus station. They have nothing. If they brought anything with them to the border, it’s taken from them in detention – no backpacks, no water bottles, no baby bottles or formula, no diapers, not even shoelaces are allowed. Even when ICE approves their refugee status and releases them from detention to meet up with family members, they don’t get their stuff back. Aid agencies like Catholic Disaster Relief and Lutheran Social Services provide food, water, showers, backpacks, diapers, clean clothes, soap, shoes, maps, and phone calls to the refugees stranded at the border when ICE is done “helping” them.
Friends, these are women and children who have been cleared by the US government to live with their families. They aren’t a security risk, they are refugees. And, in the midst of a natural disaster, our government is ok with letting them die at a bus station.
While millions of people are trying to evacuate the path of the hurricane, ICE is more concerned about checking passports than saving lives.
It’s now federal policy that the ‘border’ is within 100 miles of the actual border. Within this range, border patrol can stop anyone at any time and demand proof of US citizenship or legal residency from anyone, without a warrant or reasonable cause. This range is considered a ‘reasonable distance’. 66% of the US population lives within this range, including all of Michigan (apparently, lake Michigan is also a ‘border’ even though it’s all US states on all sides of it??!!)
A significant part of Texas is in this zone, too. Which means that ICE regularly sets up checkpoints along freeways in that zone. A checkpoint means that everyone driving down the road has to stop (think toll booths) and present proof of citizenship and consent to a search of their vehicle without cause. A California Teacher recently refused to do that, and she was arrested.
So, even though a hurricane was hitting a huge metropolitan area, affecting millions of people, ICE refused to close their checkpoints. This slowed all of the evacuees, and it meant that families with even one undocumented person in their household were unlikely to evacuate – making the rescue efforts more difficult for first responders. They only closed the checkpoints after the roads were closed.
These kinds of policies give the very clear message that the US government does not care if undocumented people die in a hurricane. State and federal governments paid to evacuate 4,500 prison inmates, but refugee families were left behind to die.
Meanwhile, Mexico is offering to help Texas relief efforts, just like they helped NOLA after Katrina – by providing military personnel, food, medicine, and clean water. Seriously. Because, as Mexico’s president said, “That’s what neighbors do.”
Maybe one day, the US government will partner its power with kindness. We can hope.
In the meantime, there are still ways to help Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas (even if you’re not in the Mexican Miltiary). Pray, donate, and support efforts from Lutheran Disaster Response here.