By Katie Sharar
Over the past year, the most salient political reality of U.S. border and migration policy is Title 42. This policy, enacted by the Trump administration in March 2020, invokes a 1944 public health statute to close the border to “nonessential” travel indefinitely. Since then, the border has effectively been sealed off to migrants and asylum-seekers, using the pandemic as a pretext to justify this extreme measure. Many senior health officials dispute that there is any credible public health basis for this order. Several months into President Biden’s term, the policy remains, and the violations of people’s well-being and their access to fair legal processes continue. Migrants from many countries are returned shortly after crossing the border to Mexican border towns, where they are often victims of violence at the hands of organized crime. And with no concrete plans to unwind Title 42, migrants are living in dangerous limbo that makes planning for the future nearly impossible.
Almost all adults who present at or cross the border are immediately sent back to Mexico, with no opportunity to ask for asylum or present claims of fear of return. However, Title 42 can play out in different ways for families with young children. Some families are released to spend a day or two in shelters in U.S. border states, before traveling to the places where their sponsors live and where future court dates can be scheduled. Other families are returned to Mexico, though that country has pushed back on its willingness to accept people returned by the U.S., particularly families with small children. Who is sent back to Mexico and who is allowed to remain in the U.S. appears to be highly random.
In a reversal of the Trump administration’s application of Title 42, children traveling alone are now allowed to remain in the U.S. and continue their cases in the country. They are processed at the border before being sent to shelters where efforts are made to reunite them with family members. However, the process is often riddled with delays and mistreatment; children are frequently held in the holding facilities for far longer than the 72 hours mandated by law. Many detained children also report that they lack access to food, water, medical care, or other basic necessities.
Near where I live in Tucson, there are several humanitarian aid centers that receive many of the migrant families released by Border Patrol. In Tucson and Phoenix, as in multiple cities in the southwestern U.S., there are coordinated efforts and levels of infrastructure to ensure that people have meals, COVID tests, a change of clothing, the chance to sleep and shower, and to connect with their families to make travel arrangements. However, the U.S. Border Patrol has also dropped families off on the street in very remote towns, where there are few, if any, services available. In the small town of Gila Bend, for example, the mayor and members of the community banded together to help migrants that the Border Patrol left there — including providing meals and driving them several hours to Phoenix, where far more services, such as lodging and bus stations, are accessible. Though there is a long history of struggle and cruelty toward migrants in the Southwest, there is also a history of hospitality, and of people rising to meet the needs of travelers.
Several weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso to visit friends and family. I spent a weekend volunteering with Annunciation House, a hospitality center for migrants. It has been working to serve people in migration in the border community for over 40 years, and I have volunteered there off and on for nearly 20 years. On my recent visit, we received mostly Central American families because of the Title 42 policies mentioned above. Nearly all of the families had crossed in South Texas — hundreds of miles away from El Paso — and then had been flown west. Everyone, including infants and toddlers, wore identical outfits: royal blue T-shirts, grey sweatpants, white socks, and ill-fitting flip-flops. The adults also wore ankle monitors that require daily charging. The monitors are to ensure compliance with court appearances, but they are a cumbersome physical — and emotional — weight.
One day, after my shift at Annunciation House, I walked across the border to the city of Juarez, Mexico. Though the border is closed to immigrants, asylum seekers, and many others, U.S. citizens are able to come and go as they please. As I was returning to El Paso, I saw a group of families with small children being led back into Juarez by a U.S. agent. I later heard that when they arrived back in Mexico, they approached an acquaintance to ask where they were. When she told them the city and the country, they burst into tears — they had no idea where there were being taken, or even that they had been returned to Mexico. This happens regularly, sometimes multiple times daily. Migrants are left to fend for themselves, do whatever possible to avoid becoming victims of violence, and figure out their next steps from a place of terrific uncertainty.
Returning home is rarely a conceivable option. Conditions in sending countries remain highly precarious: the pandemic wreaked havoc on already marginalized economies, people continue to be at risk for profound violence, and climate change has made survival nearly impossible in many communities. Climate disasters like the hurricanes in Central America and rising rates of hunger and malnutrition combine to make conditions at home unlivable.
As avenues to seeking protection in the U.S. remain restricted, conditions in sending countries worsen, and waiting in Mexico continues to be life-threatening for migrants, people do what humans have nearly always done: what is necessary to survive. Any policy based in denying this reality will only result in more suffering and loss of life. Indeed, the summer of 2020 — the hottest and driest on record in Arizona — was also one of the deadliest summers for people crossing the desert.
As the wall has been expanded, there are also more injuries as a result of falls; those with “minor” injuries such as broken bones are generally sent immediately back to Mexico. Others suffer life-changing injuries. A young woman from Guatemala who fell from the 30-foot wall outside of El Paso suffered a spinal cord injury and was recovering at Annunciation House. As a result of her injury, she is in a wheelchair, and needs assistance with bathing, using the restroom, and many other daily necessities. She left Guatemala because of crushing poverty, because she dreamed of saving money to support her family and to put a little aside to pursue her dream of being a dancer.
The U.S. must answer questions about the border and migration in a way that minimizes suffering, avoids preventable deaths, recognizes root causes, and promotes the well being of people and communities on both sides of that boundary. Repealing Title 42 is a necessary beginning, but there is much more to be done, and this question only becomes more urgent as inequality and climate change worsen. If the U.S. is to reimagine border policy in the direction of greater justice, we must listen to the voices of migrants and asylum seekers, honor their agency and their rights as humans, and uplift the interconnectedness of people and communities throughout the Americas and beyond.
Katie Sharar lives in Tucson, Arizona, and has engaged in border and immigration work for nearly 20 years in Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. Through various nonprofit and community-based organizations, she has worked to provide humanitarian aid to people in migration on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, researched and written about current border trends, and supported people in immigration detention and upon their release.