Migrants in open-air detention camps

The complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security alleges that migrants are not provided with water, food, adequate medical care, or protection from the elements

Migrants cross jungles, mountains and rivers on their dangerous march towards the United States because they are escaping the political repression of authoritarian and corrupt governments, the insecurity of extortion gangs, economic misery, natural disasters… and the list goes on. But when they arrive at the U.S. border with the hope that they will finally find the long-awaited refuge, what they find is the rejection of many intolerant Americans and a whole series of new problems.

Many choose to rely on international law and ask for asylum. But the process established by government agencies on the US-Mexico border is far from simple.

The only way to apply for asylum is to do so at an officially recognized port of entry. But it’s not a question of showing up whenever you want. The migrant must request an appointment through the CBP One application. And that is when the problems multiply.

Migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, waiting to cross the border. Photo: HLA/Francisco Lozano

While most migrants have cell phones and some technical knowledge, the main problem is that the CBP One application often does not work. And when messages are sent for technical assistance, there is no response. Further complicating the situation, the connection at the border is more than poor. Also, the app is only written in English, Spanish and Haitian, when the refugees are from a multitude of countries that do not speak these languages.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing is that appointments are given in dribs and drabs. That is, very few, too few. Obviously, with the clear intention of reducing the migratory flow at recognized entry crossings.

The big problem is that without the CBP One appointment, the only alternative that migrants have, after waiting weeks and months, is to venture to the border and cross at any unauthorized point and look for an immigration officer to whom they request asylum. This means being automatically detained and transferred to an open-air camp.

Al Otro Lado

An organization that has been there to assist migrants over time is Al Otro Lado.

“We are in Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles,” explains Erika Pinheiro, executive director of the non-profit entity. “We are a binational organization that provides services to refugees, people who have been deported and other migrants.”

Erika Pinheiro, executive director of Al Otro Lado. Photo: TED Talks

Al Otro Lado’s work includes legal assistance, humanitarian support, and defense of migrant rights; and is carried out free of charge on both the Mexican and U.S. sides.

“Last year, Al Otro Lado served migrants from over 50 countries speaking over 30 different languages,” says Pinheiro, who graduated from Georgetown University Law School and has extensive experience working with migrants. “More than 30% are from Mexico, from southern Mexico. Others from Central America, Africa, Asian countries.”

Migrants who enter without an appointment from CBO One are concentrated in temporary in open-air camps that, given the massive increase of migrants in recent weeks, have multiplied.

The Jacumba detention sites

Many of these concentration camps are located in the vicinity of Jacumba Hot Springs, California. A frontier community of a little over five hundred people in the semi-desert mountains of southeastern San Diego County.

That’s where the men, women and children who come for the American Dream end up detained.

“The Border Patrol agents tell them that if they leave, that they would be deported,” says Pinheiro, reaffirming the idea that these sites are prisons.

The conditions of the camps, where migrants are held sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, are unacceptable for organizations that defend the rights of migrants. This has led to formal complaints.

Migrants and Border Patrol agents at Jacumba, California. Photo: N-11 Yuma

Weeks ago, seven organizations accused the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Border Patrol (CBP) of not following their own detention protocols.

The 88-page complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties alleges that immigrants are not allowed to leave the area while not being provided with water, food, adequate medical care, nor protection against the elements.

“When migrants ask to go to the doctor, they are threatened that if they are pretending that they will be deported,” says Pinheiro.

The petitioners include Al Otro Lado, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the International Refugee Assistance Project, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Friends Service Committee, Border Kindness and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

The DHS budget for 2023 is almost $170 billion, Pinheiro explains, and yet they are keeping these detainees in deplorable circumstances. In the end it is non-profit organizations, like Al Otro Lado, that end up providing the water and food and other types of assistance that alleviate the situation of migrants.

“I am disappointed in the Biden Administration,” says Pinheiro. “There was so much hope, but now it even seems worse than when Trump.”

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This article was supported in whole or in part by funds provided by the State of California and administered by the California State Library.


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