I would think that 6 trips to the U.S.-Mexico border to reunite children with their parents and to help asylum seekers find refuge here would make a difference. Three of these trips were at the Southern Texas border and three were in Tijuana. But the more I visited, the better I understood the problem. And the problem lies with the White House.
My parents are proud immigrants. My father came from Thailand and my mother from Ecuador. I grew up with diverse foods and clothing and aromas and languages that have shaped my best thinking as a social justice advocate and strategy consultant. My parents came to this country with a few hundred dollars for a better life. The American Dream is one of our greatest exports. Anyone around the world seeking a better life for themselves knows this.
But now, President Trump has turned this hope into an “invasion” that needs protecting with a border wall. Hey Trump: funny how your grandparents were granted the freedom to immigrate here, but you now close off our borders to grandparents of other people. Funny how the greatest threat of terrorism is homegrown, but you blame immigrants.
But this is no laughing matter.
In Nov. 2018, the first wave of migrant caravanners—from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—were LGBT asylum seekers. They fled unimageable violence. They escaped the persecution, taunts, employer discrimination, public beatings, family ostracization, and poverty, to name a few, in pursuit of the American Dream.
As the border wall fight rages on, the Trump administration has quietly begun enforcing its Migrant Protection Protocols, forcing many asylum seekers to remain in Mexico throughout the duration of their asylum cases—a process that can take years. This is both illegal and affects the most vulnerable of populations, including unaccompanied minors and LGBT people.
Since the enactment of the 1980 Refugee Act nearly 40 years ago, U.S. law has prohibited the return of individuals to countries where they are likely to face persecution. Thus, the Migrant Protection Protocols are a violation of the humanitarian protections to which asylum seekers are entitled under U.S. and international law.
Migrant Protection Policies not only endanger migrants but also make it far more difficult for asylum seekers to pursue their claims. I witnessed this first-hand. In the 3 trips to Tijuana, Mexico, in as many months, I’ve seen the migrant campground displaced in as many times. The most recent location is deeper into the city and further away from the U.S. border, where—interesting fact—they must be present at in order to have their case heard and processed.
So, not only is the Trump administration using illegal tactics to keep vulnerable populations from entering the U.S., they are making it harder for them to even be considered for rightful asylum.
We do not have the exact numbers of unaccompanied minors or LGBT asylum seekers, but they are in the dozens. I met 2 teenagers, 2 trans women and 5 LGBT people during my visits to the various campsites in Mexico. The scars are visible on their faces and arms, masking the turmoil and fear they are valiantly hiding.
With the support of my firm, the strategic insights group, and ACLU, we supplied nearly 1,000 towels and toiletries for the migrants at the campsite by the border in Tijuana during our first trip in November 2018. As we handed these supplies over to the aid workers, the Mexican border patrol agents placed me in custody. I learned to expect anything from years of humanitarian work. But this was just another sign of how bad the situation was for these migrants who were denied international aid.
During another visit the following month, I was granted unprecedented access into the tent city where the migrants were relocated. There were limited supplies and restrooms. Artists painted rallying cries on sheets of cloth, asking for America to help. It was a tense visit, as I went from tent to tent finding the 9 asylum seekers I had met in previous trips.
“Lucy” is one of the trans women I met who shared her story of fleeing violence from her own family members in El Salvador. No job would hire her there or in neighboring countries. She sat still in front of me, exhausted from escaping one bad situation from another. We spoke in Spanish and I made sure she received legal counsel and transportation to the U.S. border, where she could present her case. She trusted me and I tried to convey that the asylum process would take awhile.
“How long?” she asked. “Possibly up to a year,” I said. I was eager to connect with her during my last visit, but forced to find work anywhere in Mexico, she permanently left the campsite. I can’t blame her. No one has the luxury of waiting a year in such conditions.
Tai Esteban Sunnanon is the Founder and CEO of the strategic insights group (tsig), the premier mission-driven consulting firm in Los Angeles. tsig helps communities by supporting social justice organizations, nonprofits and social enterprises and its leaders. For more information, go to www.strategicinsights.group