When I first met Cuban asylum-seekers Carlos, Josefina, and their son Gerson* in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, they were quiet, reserved, and teetering between hope and despair. I had traveled to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez with a delegation from the World Communion of Reformed Churches to observe conditions for asylum-seekers, and took an extra day to meet with Rev. Samuel Lopez.
As Pastor of Frontera de Gracia (Border of Grace) Church in Ciudad Juarez, Samuel had begun a ministry out of his church to serve asylum-seekers arriving daily to his city. Even though they have few resources, Frontera de Gracia has opened its doors to hundreds of Cuban and Central American asylum-seekers over the past year. Samuel introduced me to Carlos and Josefina, who were awaiting a court date for their asylum case in the U.S.
Weeks later, I had a chance to catch up with this young Cuban family - who had by that point made it to the U.S. - via video chat. Their demeanor was different from when I first met them, though still cautious and emotional. Josefina was bubbly and laughing; Carlos spoke carefully, but with a clear sense of relief in his voice. Detained before transitioning to the U.S., they were now living in the home of another pastor and friend of Rev. Samuel’s, safe and free from the traumas of immigrant detention.
In some ways, it is a miracle they are here. The Trump administration has been systematically dismantling the asylum system, so that few if any will qualify for protection. The National Immigrant Justice Center has been tracking these changes, which violate U.S. and international law. They also violate our sense of morality and our religious teachings to “welcome the stranger” and treat newcomers as we would want to be treated.
There are a few things everyone needs to know about asylum law and policy in the U.S., and these are not truths that you will hear from our current administration.
First, this asylum-seeking family and others like them have followed the law. “Asylum” exists to help people fleeing dangerous situations, whether they already have a U.S. visa or not. It is completely legal to come here and request it.
Second, the argument that asylum-seekers must be detained to ensure they show up to their asylum hearings is false. After being released from detention, Carlos and Josefina have continued to report to all of their required appointments and hearings. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 99% of asylum-seekers attended all of their court hearings in 2019.
Third, the U.S. government is endangering — not helping — families like these. Policies invented or re-invented by the Trump administration, such as “zero tolerance” prosecutions of asylum-seekers; taking children from parents and caregivers at the border; prolonged detention in unsanitary conditions; putting families in detention camps; and forcing asylum-seekers to remain homeless in Mexico until their cases are heard in the U.S. are just the tip of this iceberg.
Roylan Hernandez Diaz, a Cuban asylum-seeker like Carlos, committed suicide after months of being locked up in a Louisiana immigration jail. He had already spent nine years as a political prisoner in Cuba. But when he came here seeking protection, we put him in a jail cell, and he ended up taking his own life.
In a recent report, “Immigration Detention is Psychological Torture: Strategies for Surviving Our Fight for Freedom,” Freedom for Immigrants documented multiple ways in which immigration jail attacks migrants’ mental health, through an in-depth survey of dozens of detainees and family members.
We know that cruelty is the point. The Trump administration is using cruelty as a strategy to deter migrants from fleeing here. They have said as much. They know that toxic stress can weigh on a person until their spirit is broken, and then they give up, “go home,” or take their own lives.
Rebecca Merton, Freedom for Immigrants’ Director of Visitation and Independent Monitoring, said: “The public has lifted up an alternative vision in which individuals live with their families and communities, instead of being caged by an agency that has an incentive to neglect and abuse their human rights.”
We are given a glimpse of that vision through the video conversation I had with Carlos and Josefina. That is the vision I see for all asylum-seekers, for our country, for our future.
*Not their real names
Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist at the Office of Social Justice for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can advocate for humane immigration policies with the Office of Social Justice by taking action here.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America also has an immigration story, although we recognize that descendants of enslaved Africans and Native Americans do not share this history. The CRCNA was established by Dutch Reformed immigrants but has since grown to include many ethnicities and nationalities. Learn more here.