In Tijuana, asylum seekers sleep in the mud, without needed food, restrooms or medical care

As the migrant “caravan” continues to dominate headlines, many of us are focusing on protecting the rights of those who are fleeing violence in their homelands. I recently traveled to Tijuana where I volunteered at a legal information table under a tent outside of Benito Juarez sports complex, a temporary shelter for roughly 6,000 Central Americans. What I saw was appalling, and a direct result of the fabricated crisis created by this administration.

One fact about the shelter became immediately clear. The shelter did not, in fact, provide shelter. It is an uncovered sports arena, which provided no refuge from the rains that arrived midweek. Most parents lacked access to a tent or a tarp to keep themselves or their children dry. Sleeping pads became wet, muddy sponges. The raw sewage that lingered near the portable toilets quickly spread, oozing its way quickly across the hardened ground and into the families’ belongings.
 
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I realized only a few lucky ones were able to provide their child the temporary comfort of a clean diaper. I was startled at the number of sick children and parents lacking access to these basic supplies. One mother cradling a moaning 3-year-old child in her arms explained to me the various injuries she suffered at the hands of her abusive husband. She kept pausing during her description of why she left her country with her children to point out the blood in her child’s stool, and that she could not sleep at night out of fear that her child might not make it. 
 
Many also expressed concerns about safety in the shelter. We learned that women and children were taking showers in the open with their bodies completely exposed and with very little security. It was from this environment that I explained to the mothers, who shivered through wet clothing, children in tow, that it wasn’t clear how many weeks, or months, they would need to wait to reach the U.S. border to ask for protection.
 
It was from this environment that I realized that many of the children who were navigating food and shelter on their own without the help of a parent, were also being turned away at the designated port of entries by DHS officials under a rule known as “metering”.

Our government’s response to this humanitarian crisis has been nothing short of callous. Instead of attempting to understand why these children and adults have traversed thousands of miles to flee from their countries, the narrative has been riddled with war-mongering rhetoric, referring to the migration as an “invasion”.

At this time, it is paramount that we pause and parse the facts. The caravan is not moving together to serve as a weapon; they are together for self-protection. The journey from Central America to the United States is a perilous one. Thousands of miles are traveled merely on foot and often through dangerous regions.
 
Most of the girls we work with have been raped during the journey. Medecins Sans Frontieres recently found that 68 percent of interviewed migrants and refugees were exposed to violence in transit in Mexico, and about one-third of the women were sexually abused. Girls traveling on their own are more likely to face sexual abuse. It is also untrue that the caravan represents an unprecedented surge in the numbers of people attempting to cross the border. Our government’s own data tells us that migration in recent years has been historically low.

Although the Benito Juarez sports complex was just shut down due to its poor conditions, the crisis continues. Tijuana is not set-up to serve as a waiting room for those seeking asylum in the United States.
 
We should be concerned about the fate of the unaccompanied kids in Tijuana, worried about the vulnerability of LGBTQ individuals moving about in Tijuana, and for the mothers and children who remain vulnerable to additional exploitation as they navigate the open air showers, lack of medical care and other basic needs, and the daily challenges of waiting for an uncertain amount of time in Tijuana.
 
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What haunts me, as I come to terms with the manufactured humanitarian crisis I witnessed, is the degree to which these migrants have been “othered” that we ask them to sleep in the mud, in the cold, without access to sufficient food, restrooms or medical care. 
 
Our asylum process and statutory protections set forth to protect unaccompanied children are far from perfect. Though imperfect, our government has the resources and capacity to follow the laws on our books. It’s a moment we should all reach out to the Department of Homeland Security and ask them to do their job, permitting the children and adults who approach our border and who express a fear of returning to their home country to have their claims processed in accordance to the rules clearly set forth by Congress.
 
Anne Chandler is the executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center's Houston office, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on helping immigrant women and children.