Twelve days before Christmas, 7-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin died from dehydration eight hours after she was apprehended by border patrol. While this is a horrible tragedy, the harrowing truth is that that her death (and the deaths of many other migrants) is the logical outcome of our nation’s immigration policy decisions. According to an unclassified government report obtained by ABC News, Maquin’s death appears to have been one of four people who died crossing the border this month, and one of more than 260 this year.
Together with lawyers from Al Otro Lado, a legal non-profit that helps asylum seekers understand U.S. immigration laws, a Union Theological Seminary student and I recently visited Barretal — now the largest migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, where thousands wait until U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials allow them to seek asylum. Once an old, abandoned nightclub, Barretal has now become a ramshackle tent city — one that will likely be many people’s home for months to come.
For their safety, families are housed in a separate structure, removed from the main courtyard’s commotion. Any benefits of privacy, however, are almost assuredly offset by the fetid conditions. The air inside feels thick, each breath laborious, with the musty smell of washed clothes moldering in darkness mixed with every other aroma from multitudes living on top of each other without adequate plumbing. These squalid conditions are now “home” to hundreds, including dozens of children with hacking coughs.
Access to food and water are serious concerns. The day we arrived, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had set up a tent to offer meals. I spoke to a 6-year-old boy who told me that UNHCR’s meal of rice and beans was the first he had eaten in two days. I watched as he shared the contents of his bowl with his 2-year-old brother who hadn’t been able to wait in line.
I watched a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala — just like Maquin — make a Play-Doh heart for the immigration lawyer assisting her mother. When I asked her how she got to Tijuana, she said that she had walked the 2,000+ miles from Guatemala.
“It was fun at first,” she said, “but then it wasn’t fun anymore.” Now, she told me, she just wants a new home but she’s worried they won’t find one.
This humanitarian crisis is not some inexorable product of human migration, as our government would have us believe, but the intended outcome of policies designed to keep asylum seekers from entering the U.S. Currently, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 people on the waitlist to apply for asylum, with more people arriving each day. Despite this overwhelming need, and the inhumane conditions travelers must endure, CBP only interviewed 30 asylum seekers the first day we were there. They interviewed 40 the second day. At this rate, people will be forced to live in squalid camps like Barretal for hundreds of days.
Our government is able to rapidly process more asylum claims but has simply chosen not to. Make no mistake, the disdain with which our government is treating asylum seekers is a deliberate choice to inflict suffering. With each passing day people are forced to wait, it increases the likelihood that more people, like Maquin, will die from thirst and hunger, or succumb to diseases that flourish in such cramped and unhygienic confines. It also increases the likelihood that people, facing interminable waits at the port of entry, will make more dangerous treks.
From shooting people such as 19-year-old accounting student Claudia Patricia Gómez González, to destroying water left for people in the desert, the cruelty of CBP goes well beyond any desire to “keep our country safe.”
In response to Maquin’s death, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said, “You know, this is just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey.”
Is she pretending that her organization plays no role in making the journey more dangerous? We need a spiritual revolution to eradicate belief that refugees are enemies. It seems difficult to envision how this will come to pass without eliminating or severely restructuring the agencies that have been so inextricably corrupted.
The words of Leviticus clang, deafeningly, “Do not stand idly by as your neighbor’s blood is shed.”
She came as a stranger, but we did not welcome her; she was hungry but we did not feed her, thirsty but we gave her no drink. We imprisoned her, and left her to die.— Serene Jones (@SereneJones) December 14, 2018
This death is on our hands—her blood cries out from the ground. Those responsible must be held accountable. https://t.co/LDDoAnyOae
It's time for people of faith and conscience to embody God’s love, to lay it at the feet of those who legislate death. Drive yourself between the spokes of that unjust wheel, that our border may be rewritten as "welcome" to thousands who desperately need it.