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For two years Angelica and her son, now six, waited in Tijuana to apply for asylum in the United States. The Mexican border city was the latest stop in a perilous journey from their home in Honduras, a place of inequality, injustice, and violence, to hoped-for sanctuary in the country just across the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Three times she was allowed over the border to present her case for asylum before an immigration judge, a right granted to refugees under U.S. and international law. Each time, she was placed in detention, like a prisoner, though she had committed no crime. And each time, the court ordered her to return to Mexico to wait for her next appearance.
Angelica was a victim of former president Donald Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. Initiated in January 2019, the MPP mandated that asylum seekers on the southwest border wait in Mexico while their cases are being decided. Angelica was one of some 28,000 people living in shelters, in hotel rooms, under bridges, or on the streets of an increasingly violent and dangerous Tijuana, waiting to have a day in court that seemed never to materialize.
In the early days of his administration President Joe Biden vowed to dismantle the immigration policies of the Trump era: unaccompanied minors would be allowed to enter the country and asylum seekers caught up in the MPP program—essentially those with active cases—would be allowed to cross the border to present their cases in the United States. Under an executive order the Department of Homeland Security would begin processing migrants whom the MPP had forced to remain in Mexico.
Following Biden’s announcement of the new strategy, hundreds of asylum seekers gathered in the plaza across from the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the link between the city of Tijuana and San Diego, California. When, they asked, would they be allowed to cross? The scene was predictably chaotic. Stripped of personnel and services under Trump, the U.S. immigration system lacked staff and structure to administer the new policies; nor could it cope with the human situation at the border.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of several UN agencies responding to the border crisis, created a website for people with active MPP cases to register for processing. Angelica signed up and also filled out a four-page form asking for details of her case. However, she was not given an appointment to cross.
Border officials started slowly, processing 25 refugees a day, with the hope of increasing that number to 300 daily. Among the human rights organizations offering assistance, the Jewish Family Service in San Diego worked round the clock to provide care and arrange travel for migrants who were staying in the organization’s shelter—in March alone they processed 490 people, roughly 5.5 times the number they had assisted in February.
For the asylum seekers uncertainty reigned yet again. “Nobody knew what was going to happen,” Angelica recalled. “Then, at the beginning of March, I got a call from UNHCR telling me to pack my bags immediately and go to a shelter a few miles away. When we got there, we were tested for COVID-19 and told we would sleep in the dormitory that night and cross over the border the next day.”
Early the next morning mother and child, masked and with face shields, were transported over the border, where representatives of the Jewish Family Service Welcoming Task Force met them. They were tested again for COVID and taken to a hotel on the outskirts of San Diego. The next morning they were asked to leave. More refugees were arriving every day and beds were urgently needed. With the help of JFS Angelica was able to make contact with relatives in California who could pick her up that day. Finally she would be able to continue her quest for asylum, this time on U.S. soil.
For the thousands of asylum seekers who have made the journey from their homes to the Mexican border since February 2020, the MPP program offers no recourse. The Biden administration prevents them from crossing the border, citing, as Trump did, Title 42 of the United States Code, which mandates expulsion of persons who have recently been in a country where there is a communicable disease, in this case COVID-19. And President Biden is facing criticism from refugee groups and some democrats in Congress over his announcement that he would keep this fiscal year’s refugee cap at 15,000, and not raise it to 62,500 as he promised at the beginning of his administration.
In the often acrimonious debate over immigration, those in opposition, parrot tales of invading hordes whose aim is to take jobs away from U.S. workers. But this is not about jobs. Immigrant workers in this country are mainly people of color, and racism lies at the root of policies that control their entry. Once again we see here the force of racism as it is deployed to deflect attention away from any common, natural interests among workers, immigrant and native-born alike, and toward a false narrative that justifies the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at the borders.
In Central America, a slick media campaign warns that the journey to the U.S. border is fruitless: the Southern Border is officially closed. These warnings fall on deaf ears; the migrants are not deterred. They are still arriving and few are leaving Mexico. They wait, many in appalling conditions. In Tijuana they sleep by the hundreds in the plaza across from San Ysidro. The Haitians and Africans among them, a group too often forgotten in a discourse that prioritizes the plight of Central Americans, have erected a tent city close to the border wall. In recent days Customs and Border Protection officers have staged a show of force at the port of entry, which seems to directly contradict the present U.S. government’s stated claim that border security must not “ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them.”
In its attempt to address the underlying causes of the migration from Central America, the Biden administration proposes that the United States spend $4 billion on aid to the region. But California congresswoman Norma Torres, herself an immigrant from Guatemala and now a member of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, advised strongly against this:
I implore you to resist sending money directly to the hands of corrupt officials. Our foreign assistance should not validate and prop up would-be authoritarians, nor should it be wasted on corrupt public actors who benefit from public funding rather than those who need it most.
Congresswoman Torres would also eliminate military funding to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Her words echo those of the archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, who forty years earlier, in February 1980, wrote to President Jimmy Carter asking him to cancel a proposed $50 million aid package that would send U.S. military advisers and equipment to the civilian-military junta then governing El Salvador:
The contribution of your government, instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people, which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.
Within a month of writing those words, Archbishop Romero was assassinated. The mass exodus of Central Americans, including his fellow Salvadorans, was already gathering steam at this point. The Pew Research Center identified an estimated 92,000 Salvadorans living in the United States in 1980. Ten years later, that number had risen fivefold, to 459,000.
The violence and destitution immigrants flee today has its roots in the nineteenth century. It was then that the Spanish colonists cleared the lands seized from the Indigenous populations and began to cultivate lucrative cash crops, like coffee and cotton. Small farmers had no choice but to work on the plantations of their colonizers. In more recent times, the 1980s, revolutionary movements across the region challenged the power of the local oligarchs and their allies in the U.S. government. Then as now, successive U.S. governments propped up brutal, corrupt regimes with dollars and military aid to protect the economic interests of the multinational corporations, which exploit the raw materials and workers of Central America.
Yet, despite death threats and killings, resistance is building among the working class.
Women working in El Salvador’s many maquiladoras–producing the clothing sold under the labels Fruit of the Loom, Zara, Wal-Mart, Nike, Puma, Adidas—are bravely demanding unpaid wages and compensation for layoffs due to the pandemic. Bosses, in retaliation, hire armed criminal gang members to intimidate workers who protest working conditions or join unions.
Last November thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Guatemala City to protest a new  government budget that significantly cut social programs for tackling malnutrition, education, poverty, housing, and health.
The Ombudsperson’s office, a watchdog agency that had also seen its budget slashed, reported the excessive use of force by security forces, which resulted in 17 injured protesters and 35 detentions.
Cerros Escalante, a member of the Lenca Indigenous community, and one of the leaders of a fight against the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the region was killed in March 2021. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists, with at least 12 killed last year but indigenous people and campesinos continue to organize to stop mining and agribusinesses from destroying their land.
For many in Central America, the only way out of this violence and extreme poverty is asylum in the United States. For the new generation that remains, the struggle that started over four decades ago continues.