By Kimberly St Fleur
“Mommy! Mommy! I see my dad!” Those were some of the words I heard while in El Paso, Texas volunteering at the seventh edition of the event “Hugs Not Walls” at the U.S.-Mexico border on October 26. When first hearing about this event, I admittedly was not very aware of the history of El Paso and the border. I knew about the family separations and the Walmart shooting, but it felt far removed from normal life. Yet being in El Paso and at the border itself made me realize how much of that violence has deeply affected the community and is part of daily life.
On my first night, we drove past a detention center that was actively holding children. The next day, I was painting crosses to commemorate the 22 innocent lives taken by a white supremacist shooter at an El Paso Walmart on August 3 and for seven children who died either in detention centers or from trying to cross the river into the United States.
Beyond El Paso, according to information reported by USA Today, as of August 2019, the United States Border Patrol has apprehended 457,871 migrants arriving as family units. This is a 406 percent increase in the total number of family unit apprehensions during the same period in 2018. From July 2017 to now, the Associated Press has reported the number of migrant children separated from their families at more than 5,400. Though both Democratic and Republican administrations have contributed to the potential for this situation, current rhetoric from the White House has seriously escalated a war on immigrants in the United States.
While in El Paso, I had the immense pleasure of staying with one of the coordinators of Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) and her family. My time with her and her family was the highlight of my time in El Paso. I grew to deeply care for this woman, not only through her kindness and love but also through the story of her family. Her family has been impacted by immigration policy and the violence occurring in El Paso. Her husband was deported several years ago, leaving her as a single parent to three children. One of her sons is one among roughly 700,000 DACA recipients. Her daughter was in Walmart when the aforementioned August 3rd shooting occurred. The experience of her family reflects the story of El Paso over the years. I couldn’t imagine experiencing such pain, separation, and violence. And yet, she is one of the most resilient people I have ever met, and that resiliency has definitely been passed on to her family.
At “Hugs Not Walls,” I learned that the spirit of resiliency wasn’t just a characteristic of this one family, but that is spread out through the whole organization and community. #HugsNotWalls (HNW) is an event run by the Border Network for Human Rights which allows families on both sides of the border reunite in El Rio Grande. Many families coming from the United States side are undocumented. Once they reach the United States, they cannot return home to visit without risking the life they’ve built in the United States. With an agreement with Border Patrol that the agency “look the other way” for four hours, HNW is a great act of compassion that lets families be together again, even for a moment. The most impactful part of the event wasn’t just seeing families reunite in the river, where they had three minutes for an embrace for which most had waited years. It was realizing just how much of the BNHR staff themselves were there to see their own families.
Our host told us she was going to see her husband at the event. Yet, she and her family were also making it possible for 250 other families to reunite that day. They were working the event from 3:30 AM into the mid-afternoon. While I was at the gate on the U.S. side, checking people in, I saw many BNHR members who were working the event also get in line to see family. The little girl who saw her daddy on the other side of the river followed her mother all day as she was all over the place working security. A few other BNHR members working as security, haphazardly put on their passes to indicate that they too would be seeing family. At that moment they weren’t just BNHR members. They became people who have been hurt by the violence of injustice at the hands of the U.S. immigration system.
My story: Immigration and post-earthquake Haiti
As a black, Haitian-American woman from New York, I didn’t know what to expect coming into this event. My life in New York seemed so far away from the issues at the border. However, being at the border and seeing the work and reach of BHNR made me realize the immigration issues affecting my own family and community.
The Trump Administration has been trying to end Temporary Protection Service (TPS) for Haitians, which was instated in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. I have a family member currently on TPS and I have seen them try to exhaust any avenues to stay in the United States, which has taken a toll on the family.
Beyond my immediate family, there are 46,000 Haitians in the United States on TPS who have created lives for themselves, families and communities over the last decade. A return to Haiti means returning to a country facing political turmoil and crisis, which can largely be attributed to U.S. foreign policy and interference. While we support the uprising of the Haitian people as they question the electoral process and demand more democratic procedures, we cannot deny the fragility of the country or how a mass influx could strain the country. Furthermore, the United States should not deny the rights of others wanting to live a better and safer life to exercise their inalienable human rights.
This very fact is true among not only Mexican and Haitian immigrants but also for the many immigrants and refugees who are struggling to either reach or stay in safety. The deliberate threats to their safety by the United States government and its people truly shows the white supremacist nature and lack of moral character and compassion from those with power.
My interactions with BNHR and my host family made me realize how much violence and inhumane acts have become a part of life in El Paso. These acts are being used to terrorize a community that just wants to live, to survive. And as a nation, as human beings, we cannot stand and be complacent with the blatant human rights violations happening at El Paso and at the border. Inaction and complacency equate complicity.
Despite acts of violence against immigrants in El Paso, from harassment by government agencies to interminable detention to mass murder, we see through BNHR, a community rising up to denounce, resist and counteract these heinous acts. Through “Hugs Not Walls,” we see a story of great love and mutual support for people on both sides of the border. We see the ongoing story of defiance and resistance, showing the country that they will not be stifled.
Stories of people at the border are vast and wide-ranging: from the Mexican-Americans living in El Paso to Central Americans who have apprehended at the border or have been deported. All different and yet all have common themes: love, strength, and resilience, but also of survival. As a community, the Border Network continues to work for survival, which is intrinsic to their and all of our rights and dignity as humans.