By: Sean Coffey, Development and Advocacy Program Assistant, Summer 2019
In 1939, the Saint Louis ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, along with the hopes and dreams of over 900 Jewish refugees to escape the horrors brewing across Western Europe. The boat, scheduled to dock in Cuba, was re-routed to the shores of Florida after government officials in Havana revoked their necessary transit visas. The refugees could see the shimmering lights of Miami on the horizon, and many believed a new life was upon them. However, the United States decided to close its doors on these Jewish refugees, forcing the Saint Louis to return to a perilous and war-battered Europe. Nearly a third of the passengers would be later found murdered during the Holocaust. This would mark one of the darkest moments in this nation’s history.
Shortly thereafter, the United States made a promise to “Never Again” repeat this grave mistake and to welcome those fleeing persecution and mass violence. The US would not let those on the Saint Louis be forgotten, ever again. Nearly a century later, another group of people are pounding on America’s front door with similar fears and echoing stories.
Over the past year, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) have apprehended nearly 363,300 migrant family members from the US-Mexico border. Many are leaving behind family members and friends to escape rampant gang violence and political persecution. Yael Schacher from Refugees International, a refugee advocacy organization based in Washington DC, highlighted the case of an indigenous woman from the Central American country of Honduras. She, along with her son, had witnessed the brutal murder of her husband right in front of them, as he was targeted for being a community leader. Honduras has seen a dramatic spike of violence over the past few decades; so much so, that “The Telegraph” named it the most dangerous country on the planet back in 2014.
The woman and her child fled their village on foot and travelled hundreds of miles across the Mexican desert with the goal of reaching America. Her father, a Temporary Protected Status holder, lives in Houston, and she was determined to reunite with him. After weeks trekking through sandy deserts in scorching heat, the pair finally reached the Mexico-US border. Yet, once they reached the El-Paso city limits, they were instructed by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to return to Juarez, Mexico, as a part of the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
Remain in Mexico was imposed by the Trump administration in January of 2019 in order to have asylum applications processed and court dates established while the migrants wait in Mexico. Despite initial hesitations, the woman cooperated with CBP and patiently waited for the opportunity of a brighter future in America. However, she proceeded with caution as Juarez is known for its high crime, particularly directed towards asylum seekers. Many migrants facing immigration court in El Paso, Texas, have described being raped, assaulted, and mistreated by locals while remaining in Mexico for their asylum application to be processed. Her greatest fears would quickly turn to reality. While waiting in Juarez, the woman’s son was nearly kidnapped—a grim reminder that her chance at the American dream was submerged under a pile of bureaucracy and strict immigration laws.
The experience of the Honduran woman is one of countless tales shared by refugees and asylum seekers across Central America. As of April 2019, more than 8,000 migrants have been sent back to Juarez after approaching the US border. Remain in Mexico is simply part of a greater trend aimed at curbing the numbers asylum seekers approaching the southern border, such as the zero-tolerance policy which separated thousands of apprehended parents from their children. These restrictions aim to deter fraudulent cases; when in reality, all cases are being affected, including ones with legitimate asylum claims.
What many people fail to fully realize is these people are forced to flee. Those seeking asylum will continue to surpass obstacles presented their way—even if it requires traveling thousands of miles or jumping through a series of hoops—because the livelihoods of themselves and their families are at stake. The US-Mexico border clearly exemplifies this by the demographics of the migrants. Last year, nearly 3,000 African migrants were detained in Mexico alone to seek asylum in the United States. Many of the migrants cited concerns over European nations closing their borders as their main reason for traveling thousands of miles across the Atlantic to seek asylum in America. As Schracher mentions, “the [US-Mexico border] is becoming a microcosm of what we are seeing around the world”.
The United Nations has been incredibly outspoken in their disdain for these asylum restrictions such as Zero Tolerance and Remain in Mexico. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called many of these regulations ‘undignified and damaging’ and perhaps even a violation of international law. Bachelet does claim that while the UN supports independent nations having the sovereignty to control their borders, they must operate within the framework of international human rights.
Schracher also points out that these limits on claiming asylum impact local communities already in the United States. Similar to the woman from Honduras, many of the migrants wishing to seek asylum already have family and friends on the other side of the border. Forcing these migrants to wait in Mexico requires the people already in the United States to send out remittances to their connections at the border for food, shelter, and other living expenses. This can often cause large economic strains on both parties, as well as take a massive psychological toll for those apart from their loved ones.
Exactly 80 years have passed since the Saint Louis was forced to revert course and return to Europe. For some aboard the ship, it was the beginning of troubling and traumatizing period of extended suffering. For others, it was a death sentence. As Schracher explains, “the heavy hand by which the federal government is pressing upon to reduce refugee admissions place the most vulnerable communities in greater risk.” We are doomed to repeat the blemishes of the past unless we realize that this trend of implementing ineffective and, even, dangerous regulations to deter asylum seekers will not reduce the flows of people but impose further harm on those most defenseless.