With the arrival of people with international protection needs of Ukrainian origin at the Tijuana-San Diego border, an immediate response was generated by the authorities of the United States and Mexico, very different from what migrants and asylum seekers have had of the caravans of migrants from Central America and internally displaced persons from Mexico.
Human rights organizations and defenders at the forefront of this phenomenon have called on the governments on both sides of the border to recognize this differentiated treatment and develop actions that allow the thousands of people on the move waiting on this side of the border to access their right of asylum.
For the May interview in our newsletter, we have the valuable participation of Gina Garibo, a member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who shares important information and experiences that she has witnessed regarding the arrival of Ukrainians to Tijuana seeking asylum in the United States and the importance of the delivery of justice in the human rights of all migrants regardless of where they come from.
How does nationality impact the right to seek asylum?
It has a great impact, from two angles, first from a geopolitical perspective. In other words, there are some governments that the US authorities consider to be enemies or contrary to “democratic countries” (from their point of view), since people who flee from those countries are treated more quickly and by the media or as a result of acts of those countries, precisely because with the reception of these people to the United States, the other governments with which they do not agree are being delegitimized, that is a very clear example of the relationship that exists between the United States and Russia.
Second, the US asylum system is classist and racist, and is a clear effect of structural racism. There are differentiated treatments on the subject of asylum (and in many others) based on the color of the skin, if you are a black, brown or white person. What we have seen with great indignation is the openly racist treatment that the US authorities have towards asylum seekers. The fact that they are people with white skin, blonde hair and light eyes, in a society built on colonialist, racist and classist thoughts, gives certain privileges to people who have white skin.
I share a very concrete experience. In mid-March I was going frequently to the port of entry in San Ysidro and I had to see the very different treatment that there was between families from Ukraine, families from Belarus, Mexican families, Central American families and Haitians. Specifically, I got to see a family from Russia and a family from Ukraine arrive at the port of entry, present their documents, and be told by CBP officers, “give me a minute, let me see what can be done.” They asked them to stand to one side of the line. I see that, I turned my eyes and saw that there were two Mexican families sitting who had just arrived in Tijuana in great fear because they had been threatened and had approached the port of entry to try exercise their right to request asylum, what the CBP officers told them was that at that time there was nothing on the subject of Covid-19, obviously there is a highly differentiated treatment.
I wish I could explain all of panoramic photography. Imagine, the port of entry, imagine the CBP officers, a line, within the lines of people who normally enter with documents there were also people from Ukraine saying where they were from and at that moment the officers told them “hold me a moment, let me see what can be done, step aside.” Then, Mexican families and other nationalities who do not have white skin approached and the response was “for the moment there is nothing”, that was do it how you want, you can stay there as long as you want.
It is undoubtedly a super complex and unfair situation, where it is evident that having white skin gives you many privileges, the privilege of being able to save your life in a more expeditious way, it also has to do with a geopolitical character, it is presented as a mixture of a colonialist and racist vision with this geopolitical vision, from my perspective.
Undoubtedly, the right to request asylum must be guaranteed and accessible to everyone who needs it, regardless of their skin color and without distinction of origin.
What do you think is the reason for this unequal treatment? That is, does this discrimination go beyond just skin color? What factors influence?
It is a super complex issue, like the spearhead and what is also in the background and behind it is an openly racist construction, even filtering, by these border policies and the asylum system. As I already mentioned, from my perspective, this carries a geopolitical connotation and also a necropolitical one about who to let live and who to make die.
Apart from this, there is a kind of intersection with the issue of what the media coverage has been. For example, saying or hearing: they are fleeing from war, without a doubt it is a very strong phrase that resounds in the ears of many people, it is very cruel.
Living, surviving and fleeing from a war is something that is not wished on anyone. Unfortunately there are many undeclared and/or unrecognized wars in Mexico, Central America, South America, several in African and Caribbean countries where violence is experienced every day.
Precisely, how certain processes are recognized as war and how other processes are not recognized as such also implies or affects how people are treated by the media and by the authorities of the countries they travel or where they seek to arrive, that is happening here with the issue of access to the United States so that people can apply for protection.
The treatment and immediate articulation of government efforts for the reception of Ukrainian people surprised me if I see it with the crucible of comparison and differentiation. From the media, geopolitical, colonial and racist issue, the Tijuana authorities articulated themselves to receive people who flee from the war that they do recognize, not from wars and violence that they do not recognize (although they are witnesses to it) as from those who are fleeing several national and foreign families stranded in Tijuana waiting to apply for asylum. It is ironic to see that the most articulated government effort for the people who have been fleeing these other unrecognized wars is the return to their places of origin or the meetings with authorities of those spaces.
It is complex how these actions are framed, which in the end are very well received by society, and because it was logical, it is quite logical, when you hear that there are people fleeing a war and everything you see in the media and social networks is about that, obviously some solidarity, the narratives of cooperation move you. And that has not happened for Mexican families, for Central American families, for Haitian families, for families in South America or for families in African countries, that has not happened despite the fact that there are wars that have been going on for decades in some of the countries or regions I mentioned.
I also put on the table how government actions and narratives change towards people who exercise solidarity practices. For example, I had to see all this support network and people who offered to receive the people from Ukraine arriving at the Tijuana airport, and that speaks volumes about the communities. People arrived and immediately had information, a network of volunteers was put together who set up vans so that Ukrainian people could be taken from the airport to the Benito Juárez Sports Unit. These actions of radical solidarity were widely recognized and celebrated.
Now I remember that many of the people who at some point accompanied the caravans in various ways, giving information and others, were criminalized, there are clear differentiations towards people who seek international protection and for those who accompany them, it is a mixture of colonialism issues, racist issues, geopolitical issues, media coverage issues, issues of who is and who is not fleeing a declared war, necropolitical issues.
What is the relationship between the right to non-discrimination and the right to seek asylum?
In theory, the right to request asylum should not have any barriers. In other words, all the people who have been fleeing due to persecution, as established by national and international laws of the United States, could request asylum, they should be able to request it. The authorities should be able to make it easier for people to exercise that human right to safeguard their lives, then in theory there should be no relationship between discrimination and access to request asylum. However, in practice we see that this is completely false.
We have a very clear element of the asylum system in the United States, it is basically made so that people lose, and those who have more argumentative capacity, as well as resources to pay for legal representation to present their cases are those people who in one way or another are going to be able to avoid this asylum system.
Also remember that, although it is true that the asylum system in the United States saves lives, the processes to which you have to submit are also highly re-victimizing. I would say that being able to exercise the right to request asylum if you have white skin, access to education, a computer, legal representation and economic resources, without a doubt, this right is much easier to exercise that way.
And the other part of the visualization of the differentiated effects of this border closure is not being taken care of, of not having access to technology, not having the money to pay rent while you wait to apply for asylum. At the end of the day, although in theoretical terms there should be no relationship between discrimination and the right to request asylum, in practical terms it is very clear that even being able to exercise asylum is highly discriminatory, and even more so at this time when the Title 42.
What rights are being violated with this selective application of migration policies?
First, the right to request asylum itself. There are endless rights that are being violated, the right to housing and the right to a life free of violence. It is very complex to tell you a list of rights, but I can give you some cases.
For example, families who have been waiting here for two years and a few months during this entire closure of the border, who have first been restricted in their right to save their lives, to be able to apply for asylum, to be able to access decent housing and to stay informed, because various things are changing all the time, even some of their right to identity has been curtailed, there are some people who cannot get some documents here, their right to regularization has also been curtailed, there are some people who are looking to regularize themselves here with fear that if at some point they want to apply for asylum, that could be a problem for them when they try to access a more permanent status of regularity in order to be able to work and survive.
Something that is very clear to me is that it is very difficult for people to be hired if they do not have at least a temporary residence and above all a permanent one, we know very well that, if you do not have any of these two conditions and you only carry your card as a visitor for humanitarian reasons, many times they do not give you a job
There are many rights that are systematically violated. In this situation of prolonged and forced waiting that has occurred, we have many children who have not had access to classes for two years or a year. When people arrive and present themselves at the port of entry to try to apply for asylum, the asylum officers speak English or at some point speak Spanish, but none of the other languages, for example Haitian people when they go and present themselves there. It is quite difficult to have clear communication.
Several rights are systematically violated, the most serious, without a doubt, is the one that takes away the right to safeguard your life, and with that all other rights are automatically violated.
Is there any difference in the way the US and Mexican governments approach this situation?
There is not such a differentiated form, I think that the different form could be the way in which it is activated or how they are activated in space. For example, the United States government, with this implementation of Title 42, every day they are systematically expelling or blocking hundreds of people who seek protection, the only thing they are told is that at that moment they are not listening to these requests and have to go back.
The United States expels them, blocks them, they arrive in Mexico and are made invisible and forgotten by the Mexican government, that is one. For example, I had to go to the port of entry recently and identify several Cubans who had been expelled, that’s one, the US government expels them, the Mexican government receives them and here they are completely invisible, without information or telephone numbers to where to go, no explanation of how the city is divided or where they can go, none of that.
The other thing is precisely these elements of solidarity, since a space was articulated and facilitated, yes, with the support of Ukrainian organizations in the United States for the reception of Ukrainians. Here in Tijuana other spaces have also been organized that have been super stigmatized, criminalized and violently evicted, public spaces, specifically as visible camps, I think the El Chaparral camp was the most visible there was, but there are also other camps in other areas of the city, because precisely in Tijuana it is super difficult for a newly arrived person to access rent, and even more so when the person looking for rent is foreign, there is a very strong xenophobia, they do not want to rent from them or they ask for too many requirements that are very difficult to meet, even in areas where it is more affordable to be able to pay, the conditions are very difficult. and complex.
We are talking about rooms in overcrowded conditions where they can pay more or less rent. What is clear to me is that there is an abrupt difference in how the governments of the United States and Mexico treat people based on one, the color of their skin and, two, their economic conditions.
We saw it clearly before the Benito Juárez opened for the people of Ukraine, when they arrived very close to the bus terminal, very close to the San Diego-San Ysidro entrance gate, the authorities evicted the vagrants who were sleeping there so that the Ukrainians could take refuge, that is a problem, the Ukrainians are protected but others are made invisible, they are forced to leave.
We have the case, for example, of the camp where a narrative of what they are here was woven, even in the media it is heard that “they are returning to their countries”, listening to the Tijuana authorities who were going to contact the governments of the places where the people from the Mexican camp fled. In other words, contacting the governments that these people have been fleeing from is extremely serious, because they are internally displaced.
Aside from language, what barriers do migrants coming to Tijuana from Europe face?
Some spoke to us about obviously the language, which is also what the people of Haiti face, the difficulty in being able to use their money, how to exchange it, difficulty in being able to find hotel rooms while they waited, which could be a few hours or a day.
From my perspective, there were almost no Ukrainian people in hostels. First, because they arrived directly at the port of entry, some people began to stay there at some point, then they went near the bus station and from there they went to Benito Juárez, but there were people who did not stay in those spaces and they rented in places in the area such as the Center, Zona Río and some other spaces near the border, what was true was that it was difficult to access available rooms.
What is the call issued by organizations that support the migrant population to the authorities in the face of differential treatment between people of different nationalities?
I’m going to put it in three perspectives:
First, that the right to request asylum be respected without any obstacle or privilege, due to race or nationality, that would be one.
Second, that Title 42 ends now.
Third, repair the damage done to the thousands of people who have been forced to remain in Mexico in the conditions in which they have done so, Mexicans, Haitians, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Cameroonians, Nigerians , from different parts of the global south, who have been fleeing for their lives, some of them provoked by many of the interventions that the United States government has carried out in their places of origin.
For example, the movement of weapons in Mexico, it is clear that there are weapons that are produced in the United States and end up being used by armed groups in Mexico to evict families from their places of origin, there is a kind of historical responsibility. That is almost never said and I think it is important to mention and recognize what has been the role of US policies that has caused many people to leave their places of origin.