Three weeks ago I spoke with a woman via my computer.
She was Haitian, with a name so sprinkled with vowels that it sounded to me like a springtime melody.
This was November, though, and Guernais had been in a Mexican border town named Reynosa since way before last spring. She had travelled a very long way to get to Reynosa. From her home in Haiti (burned down by the local gang), to Columbia, on foot up through the deadly Darien Gap, and up through Central America and Mexico.
She was alone, living on a sidewalk under some sort of plastic tarp rigged up like a lean-to. Guernais was 8 months pregnant, hungry, thirsty, and scared that something might happen to her and her unborn child in this, one of the most dangerous cities in the entire world.
Her daily affirmation of that fear came with the strangers with guns or knives or just nasty attitudes who passed by on the sidewalk and laughed at her.
She told me this when I asked her if she could give me an example of the racism she said she experienced in Reynosa.
“They called me a black, ugly woman and would spit on me…I am black and I am a beautiful woman. But they spit on me anyway.”
This question was part of her application for the kind of administrative relief that would allow her to cross into the United States. She would then live with a sponsor while her application for asylum was processed by the US government.
I am living in Washington DC, far from that border space. I know Reynosa and the Texas/Mexico border, though, having lived there for many, many years. Reynosa is a place of horrors for migrants. Simply that. Horrors.
The woman with the April-like descant for a name had come to this border to apply for political asylum. She intended to live with her aunt while the US government attended to her immigration case. US government officials, however, had bent over backwards to keep migrants like her out of the country. Under the previous administration, the US pulled off a political stunt with the application of “Title 42”, a public health rule that can be invoked to protect the American people from contagious disease. Under Title 42, migrants who showed up at a bridge to request asylum were turned back immediately. Many of those migrants would swim the river and turn themselves into the border patrol. The agents would ignore their requests for asylum, load them up into their trucks and drive them to one of the bridges between the US and Mexico, leaving them to their fate.
There were some exceptions to the rule, amongst them, like Guernais, women who were far along in a pregnancy. But the migrant needed someone to interview them, someone to explain how this process worked, and take down their information: name, name of their sponsor, and what was the situation that might merit them a more human response than the brutal “No!” of Title 42.
There also needs to be another individual to review the interview notes, confirm the basic facts of the case with the migrant, and be sure that they understood that this was a request for an exceptional permission to enter the US, and travel to the home of the person who would care for them while they pursued an asylum claim.
In the case of Guernais, I was that person.
Through the grace of God and the hard work of so many people, especially a fellow who has figured out a way to get these requests considered by US government officials, Guernais got permission to enter the country. She would live with her aunt in some town in Florida, one more poor person in the US, one more person who brings to her new community all the gifts that an individual with the grit and courage to migrate carries with them.
In a few weeks the application of Title 42 to these migrants will be halted. The normal flow of asylum applicants will begin again. There will be many asylum seekers, a reflection not of a US failure to control our borders as much as a living commentary on the failed states to the south of the United States (with so much of that failure due to US interventions as well as the plundering of the countries by international business interests).
It seems that many of these asylum seekers will not enjoy the relatively good luck of Guernais. The minutes from a private prison corporation’s recent shareholders’ meeting demonstrated a profiteer’s delight at the removal of Title 42. “We are back in business,” a company leader noted to the stockholders.
Indeed. The policy of holding asylum seekers (who are not criminals) in private prisons while they await the outcome of their applications is a tried-and-true money maker. The prisons’ care for those placed in their institutions is a well-documented abominable form of abuse. In most cases, asylum applicants (repeating, who are not criminals) are held in isolated institutions, far from those few immigration attorneys who would work for them pro-bono or low-bono. The failure of the United States to create a just, accountable immigration process has created an enormous backlog of asylum cases. People can literally spend years in prison after asking for our nation to save their lives.
The institutionalization of a system in which people searching to make a buck are allowed to manage the detention of desperate people trying to escape misery creates a self-perpetuating evil loop of a Biblical sort.
It puts off, indefinitely, the springtime of hope for these people.
Guernais sent me a final text the other day. She was with her aunt, she was safe. She was due to give birth any day now.
She told me that she would name her child for me.
I thanked her as profusely as I could in a text message, and told her that there was no need for that. She texted back, in a Creole that I had to have translated, “It is a very small way for me to express my gratitude and my relief. God bless you.”
Guernais is settling into her new community, looking forward to spending a first spring with her new born.
God bless, indeed.