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The Faces Behind the Wall: My Experience at the US-Mexico Border

Nothing prepares you for Juarez, Mexico. The human grief, but also the resilience of the human spirit that I have witnessed at the US-Mexico border compels morally-guided solutions, certainly not walls.

On December 15th of last year, I joined a local delegation from the Washington state area, as we headed first to El Paso, Texas, then to Juarez, Mexico.

The main goal behind our visit was to observe, understand and to be critical of the national security measures the United States has taken, and the results of these abrasive policies. What we have learned and witnessed, however, has added more than a human dimension to our understanding of the suffering of refugees and immigrants in Central and South America, but convinced us that the wall debate is entirely the wrong approach to this persisting humanitarian crisis.

Donald Trump’s,‘big, beautiful wall’- which is yet to be realized – has occupied headlines regarding the immigration crisis for the last two years. But this crisis has been unfolding for many years prior, and has been exasperated during the terms of Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

In Juarez, they refer to former President Barack Obama as ‘deporter-in-chief because of the millions of people he has pushed to Central and South America. Interestingly, the massive fences and other barriers I saw at the border were in fact funded by both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Reducing the entire immigration debate to Trump’s horrific policy advancements is excusing policies that have been in effect for decades.

At the border, the self-serving discourses of US politicians and all other popular media talking heads are irrelevant. Here, humanity, as brutal and inspiring as it can be, is in full display.

During deportation hearings at a US District court in New Mexico, a judge told us that 90 percent of all of those who cross the border into the US don’t have any criminal record.

However, border patrol agents insist that they are constantly catching ‘rapists’, ‘drug smugglers’, and all sorts of dangerous criminals attempting to cross from Mexico, a claim that they could not prove in any way. They went so far as to ‘warn’ us that the children peeking their small faces through the border fence, trying to lure their puppy back to the Juarez side had no honest intentions; ‘They will pickpocket you. Be careful around them.’ To them, no one was innocent or deserving of clemency.

That mindset makes it possible for border agents to treat all immigrants as if criminal offenders. When I challenged the judge regarding the fate of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala who died in border patrol custody, I was told, point blank that it was not justified to incriminate or punish those potentially responsible for this child’s death because there was ‘no way that it could have been prevented’.

At the court, the rattling of shackles echoed throughout the chamber. Minors were brought in with their hands and feet chained. They wore orange and green prison fatigues. Many of them were teens and in their early 20’s. They were sentenced to deportation and further threatened with prison time of up to 20 years for illegal reentry. Many of the defendants were only introduced to their attorneys that day.

But immigrants are not villains, and must not be treated as such, despite the judge’s assertion that he is not accountable to uphold international law.

When meeting with Border Patrol agents along the border fence separating El Paso from Juarez, they spoke of their colleagues’ training trips to Afghanistan and other occupied regions around the world. Being that Border Patrol is a paramilitary agency, they treat their role at the border as such: a military operation.

Maria and Ricardo were not criminals. They couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s elementary education in Mexico, so they brought them to Texas. The father was detained and deported many times over, but his wife sold tamales and so he was able to afford to hire a smuggler every time, just to be in his home with his family.

Rosa wasn’t a criminal either. Along with as many as 500,000 other people, Rosa lives in an unincorporated slum called a colonia; an area near the Mexican border that has no utilities provided by the local government. She lives without running water, electricity or sewer. She hasn’t seen her husband in 11 years, but they talk on the phone every single night. She stays for her daughter, although she is usually alone.

When Trump was elected, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted more frequent raids in the area where Rosa lives. She hid inside her trailer and didn’t venture outside for three months.

Miguel wasn’t a criminal either. He worked for 15 years in an American factory in Juarez making 50 dollars a week. He couldn’t support his family under these exploitative conditions. He has to walk to work every day out of fear of being pulled over by police who happily assist ICE agents by asking for papers. His purpose in life is to support and love his children and his grandchildren.

When crossing back into the states from Juarez, I noticed that border patrol agents were stationed far from the official checkpoint, checking passports and IDs. An agent stopped me and asked what my necklace meant before letting me pass: I told him, “It’s my name, Zarefah, in Arabic.”

In order for refugees to claim asylum legally, they are required to appeal their status at an official checkpoint. But in El Paso, border agents now impede people from even reaching the checkpoint, making it impossible for them to seek asylum per their rights under international law. According to an article in TIME magazine, the number of asylum seekers has risen by 2,000% since 2008. This also requires us to be critical of the US’ role in the ongoing refugee crisis, as it is undeniable that we have played a key role in creating it.

In 1948, the United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14of this declaration insists that all people have the universal right to seek and to enjoy asylum.

Treaties that the United States has signed and declared their allegiance to, are being repudiated in the practice of American government agencies and American immigration courts daily.

Serious consequences are inevitable if the United States continues to disregard international and humanitarian laws. The trauma stemming from the offenses it has carried out against those most vulnerable is accentuating human misery at the US-Mexico border promising more instability and the victimization of innocent people like Rosa, Maria, Ricardo and Miguel.

All photos by Zarefah Baroud.

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Zarefah Baroud is a Media and Communications student at the University of Washington.

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