More than 100 demonstrators from across the nation walked up and down past the port of entry at the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville on Sunday afternoon. One local union leader shouted through the fence that families seeking asylum are “the same as you and I.”
Outside of the tent courts — where immigration judges hear asylum cases via closed circuit television — the crowd called for an end to the “sham courts.”
Witness at the Border organizer Joshua Rubin led chants through a megaphone, at one point directing the group’s attention to a drone hovering over the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, surveilling the crowd.
For a moment, the group directed its chants at the drone. A woman in a wheelchair shouted her name and place of residence, telling officials inside that she was “not afraid.”
Organizers cited numerous reports of immigration judges failing to properly look at evidence of persecution, a lack of oversight in the secretive immigration proceedings and the dangers families face while living on the streets of northern Mexico.
Those in attendance made the trip to the Rio Grande Valley to witness and demand an end to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) keeping families seeking asylum living homeless in Mexico as part of the Witness at the Border event.
Rubin, whose months-long vigils are credited with helping shut down child detention centers in Tornillo, Texas and Homestead, Florida, describes the process of witnessing as a “subversive act of seeing.”
The coalition of educators, health professionals, clergy, congregants, lawyers, and average citizens hope that in paying special attention to an inhumane system, they’ll raise awareness about human rights violations that will shut the system down.
“Since MPP was instituted, an estimated 60,000 migrants and asylum seekers (plus some 20,000 more asylum seekers waiting in Mexico due to the US policy known as “metering”) are trapped on the Mexican side of the border,” the group wrote in a press release. “A high level of violence against young girls and women, abductions, rape, and extortion have been reported; as many as 1 in 5 families with young children have been threatened with violence. Family separation continues, albeit out of sight of most Americans.”
Local organizers and demonstrators also marched in solidarity to celebrate the opening of the event, which aims to establish a permanent faction of demonstrators demanding that the system see its end.
Ruby Fuentes, an immigration organizer at La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), said union organizers “came out here to be a witness of the atrocities that are happening in Matamoros, in the migrant camp, in the tent courts.”
“They are not allowing people to seek asylum even though it is perfectly legal. They are allowing men, women and children — immigrant families — to slowly die,” she said. “They have sponsors; they have family here in the U.S. that would be willing to take them in. Instead, they are not allowing them to cross. Humanitarian organizations are keeping these people alive. We believe that no human being is illegal, and we came to let the government know that we will not stand for this injustice, for this inhumanity.”
On Sunday, the group of protesters marched back and forth across the entrance to the tent court. Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Services officers observed demonstrators, at times corralling them back onto the sidewalk.
The coalition held a vigil in the afternoon in Matamoros, where demonstrators who have not yet seen the conditions in the camp were given the opportunity to witness the situation and speak with residents.
Camillo Perez Bustillo, a human rights attorney and fellow at the Center for Advance Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, spent time in the El Paso area at the Hope Border Institute and witnessed the success of the vigils at Tornillo.
“We participated in the documentation of these places and helped give these demonstrations the kind of community support they needed. The shooting that took place last August in El Paso was really the culmination of a lot of terror there. I think it’s really important to remember the way in which the border has been targeted — all the way to San Diego/Tijuana — by policies that we consider to constitute crimes against humanity,” he said. “When we talk about family separation, zero tolerance and now Remain in Mexico, we’re talking about policies that violate international law and U.S. law. They negate the right to seek asylum.”
Other participants traveled all the way from the East Coast. Ken Barnes, a demonstrator from New Hampshire, said he used his access to political candidates making campaign stops throughout the state during election season to direct their attention to the push to close the child detention centers at Tornillo and Homestead.
“MPP is maybe in some ways worse than incarcerating children — it’s an outrageous thing that my country is doing with my money, our money, and in our names. I can’t tolerate it,” he said.
Thomas Cartwright, a global refugee advocate and organizer with Witness at the Border, he spends several months a year in refugee camps in Greece, but was jarred when he saw the situation in Matamoros for the first time over the summer.
“It’s not new to me to see very difficult, dangerous situations for refugees. What was new to me was seeing it 100 feet from our soil at the hands of this administration. They are purposely doing this to, in essence, deter by terror,” he said.
Another woman, sitting in Xeriscape Park prior to the rally, held a stack of giant paper hearts reading “Somos tus abuelas” (“We are your grandmas”).
“We would climb up on fences and hold them up so people inside could see them in Homestead,” she told a fellow demonstrator.
The Witness at the Border movement plans to hold vigils daily well into February. Another event is planned for Feb. 14. Those interested in participating are also encouraged to support local aid organizations like Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV and the Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Mexico, based in Matamoros.