Tahirih Houston Executive Director Anne Chandler wrote this firsthand account after visiting the U.S. – Mexico border on June 4, 2018.
I just got back from the Federal Courthouse in McAllen, Texas, a border town where refugees are being prosecuted for entering the country because of a new government policy. What I witnessed was, as one attorney put it, a “manufactured crisis.” I saw people denied basic human needs, like water, food, and a shower. I saw refugees who have done nothing but ask for help treated like criminals.
I sat in the courtroom at 7:30 in the morning as parents arrived in shackles from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station, facing a federal judge on the charge of “illegal entry.” The benches were packed with immigrants sitting shoulder to shoulder, bleary eyed. They looked famished. Their expressions were of anguish and desperation.
Never in my 20-year career as an immigration lawyer working with refugees and asylum seekers had I seen anything like this. Our system has always had flaws, but I believed our nation honored its obligations under the international laws governing the treatment of refugees. I also believed we would do our best as a nation to uphold the values of freedom and fairness. Most of all, I believed we would always strive to treat one another as human beings.
But I saw something different in McAllen. I saw dozens upon dozens of heartbroken parents who didn’t know the whereabouts of their children.
One father was shaking as he explained that he didn’t know if his child had been fed or is being mistreated. Another parent asked if his son would have to wear shackles to court.
Some parents hadn’t heard or seen from their children in days, and had no idea where they were being held. They didn’t even know if their children were given medicine for conditions like epilepsy. Many parents reported that border patrol officials had told them that they would be reunited with their children if they plead guilty. Where is the fairness in that?
Families are fleeing rape, violence, and persecution, leaving behind everything they know in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to find safety. And this is the treatment they receive after an arduous, unsafe journey to the border to find an end to violence.
One mother, who had never previously been away from her five year old, explained how the girl was screaming and vomiting as she was taken away. The mother plead with the U.S. official to be given a moment to comfort her daughter. The answer was no.
My first impression in that courtroom was that we are treating these people like animals. But I came away feeling that we are the animals here, for treating people in this horrifying way. This is truly and without question a very dark moment in our nation’s history.