Each day there is some new racist anti-immigrant policy
announced by Trump and the cartoon villains who are running our country. As is
by now apparent, with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and
is the point. Their theater
of cruelty is meant to rally their so-called base and to send a message to
immigrants and would-be immigrants that they aren’t wanted in this country,
unless they can, as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship
Services Ken Cuccinelli put it, “stand
on their own two feet,” by which he means unless they are wealthy,
able-bodied, and preferably white.
Last week when ICE
raided workplaces in Mississippi, arresting 680 people, the videos,
photographs, and news reports about distraught children whose parents had been
detained, leaving many kids without family care, were terrible. One little
girl, who sobbed
on camera begging for the release of her father, was particularly heartbreaking.
That night, I had nightmares about the three little
Albanian girls whose family I have worked with through the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) for
18 months and two little Honduran girls whose mother I had helped fill out an
asylum application in early June at the NSC Pro Se Legal Clinic. In my dreams,
the little girls were crying for their parents the way the kids in the
Mississippi videos had done. But I actually know these kids. I have heard in
great detail about the violence their parents had fled, and I have learned about
the dire conditions in the countries from which they come. I also know about
how fearful their parents are about the possibility of being detained and
As part of her asylum application, J., the Honduran mom,
wrote about the domestic violence she had suffered, and her reluctance to go to
the police to report the abuse, which meant she didn’t have documentary
evidence to support her claim. She said, “In
countries like ours the only record of these violent events is in our memory.
Unfortunately in my family there was a lot of domestic violence. I saw that my
aunts were often beaten by their partners, and if they called the police, the
abusers would go to jail for maybe one night. Unfortunately, in my country the
police only believe you once you are put into a box and buried in a hole.”
Last Monday, as part of a NSC accompaniment, I went to
immigration court with J. and her two girls, aged eight and six. The girls were
hungry and bored because of the long wait outside the courtroom. People with
attorneys are seen first, and those without lawyers can wait several hours or
more for their turn. No food is allowed in the waiting area or in the
courtroom, so I offered to take the girls to the cafeteria in the federal
building while their mother awaited her turn before the immigration judge. The so-called
cafeteria sold only chips, candy bars, cookies, and soft drinks, so they
selected chocolate and chips. As we sat at the table eating and talking, the
older girl said, “Would you be our grandma?” The little one said, “Can you also
be our auntie?” I laughed. They laughed. But we were now friends.
The only way I can keep from descending into despair is by taking action, whether it is by helping people fill out asylum applications, by accompanying friends to immigration court, or by working with groups organizing against the cruelty. In New York City on August 10, over 100 people, among them members of the NYC DSA Immigrant Justice Working Group (to which I belong) were arrested in a #CloseTheCamps action that shut down the West Side Highway near an ICE field office on 26th Street. The next day, a coalition of #JewsAgainstICE protestors, including Never Again is Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, occupied an Amazon store in Manhattan to demand that Amazon cancel its contracts with ICE. In upstate New York, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has a rapid response network that sends out texts when ICE agents are spotted in town so people can drive to the location, offering support to their targeted neighbors, and often preventing detentions. This is the time to mobilize radical kindness and militant refusal in the face of their relentless cruelty.
Spring is really here in New York City—my neighbors’ garden beds are full of bright and blowsy tulips, and the cherry trees in the parks and on the Columbia campus are blossoming and showering pink petals on the ground. Yesterday I went on the first in a series of Spring Migration Bird walks led by the NYC Audubon Society’s Gabriel Willow in Central Park. In addition to the birds—among them an Indigo Bunting, a Black and White Warbler, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Blue Winged Warbler—the park’s paths are lined with wildflowers such as Virginia Bluebells, Columbines, Trilliums, and an assortment of Viburnums. Each week there will be different flowers and different birds.
The solace and hope that we find in the natural world, and in our friends, and in the activities we love (walking, yoga, biking, cooking, knitting, gardening, what have you) are essential in this turbulent time. Also necessary is the work that we do to push back against the cruelty and hatred being manufactured on an industrial scale by the leaders in our country and around the world.
James and I went to Oaxaca City for two weeks this month
to take Spanish language immersion classes four hours a day and to vacation. We
had never been Oaxaca before, and we loved it. The food was fantastic, the old
city was beautiful, and the place was full of street art, street music,
museums, radical printmaking workshops, and markets with abundant fruit and
vegetables alongside Zapotec handicrafts. The Ambulante film festival was in
town while we were there, so we went to a few screenings and had dinner with
filmmakers and curators affiliated with the festival.
We went to learn some Spanish because James is working on
a limited TV series for Netflix that is set in Mexico and will be shot there,
probably in Durango, in Spanish later this year. And I wanted to pick up some
Spanish to enhance my work in the New Sanctuary Pro Se Legal Clinic with
Central American asylum seekers. The interpreters at the clinic are by
necessity fully fluent, a minimum requirement when collecting grim stories for asylum
applications, but I can now say a few polite phrases and compose and read text
messages from my friends.
At the Oaxaca Spanish Language Immersion School, I had two weeks of individual lessons with two excellent teachers—two hours with Yesenia in the morning, and two hours with Jacobo in the afternoon. It was difficult at first, as words in French and Armenian would swim up in my head when I was looking for a word in Spanish. But it turns out that I love learning ABOUT languages—how they operate, how they relate to other languages—which is a good first step to actually learning to read, write, and speak a new language. My attempt to learn Arabic three summers ago was pretty much a failure, but I have been making good headway with Armenian, and I feel I now I have a solid base to continue with the Spanish.
I had hoped to work on my novel when we were in Mexico, but I found it impossible to make the necessary mental transition from the compelling sights and sounds and languages of Oaxaca to wartime Beirut. But now that I’m back home, I am able to return to the familiar world of Vera Serinossian and the neighborhood of Nor Hadjin. And so it goes.
My daughter Djuna Schamus, her friend Hannah Wilton, and I went to volunteer with the Sanctuary Caravan in Tijuana at the beginning of January. This is her report.
I recently arrived back in New York City after spending a week in Tijuana/San Diego with my mom, Nancy, and my friend, Hannah. After receiving training from members of the Sanctuary Caravan (SC), we began volunteering in Tijuana, where SC is standing in solidarity with members of the Central American Exodus waiting at the border by supporting them throughout each stage of this inherently unjust immigration process. The humanitarian crisis in Tijuana, created by the current administration’s prohibiting asylum-seekers from presenting themselves at the U.S. border promptly and directly, is immense and in urgent need of redress. During our week at the border, we witnessed a fraction of the injustices our migrant friends are facing on a daily basis.They, our migrant friends, are leading the fight for their own freedom, and, in doing so, are at the forefront of the fight for a more just world: a world without exclusionary borders, where the dignity and safety of all, rather than racism, U.S. imperialism, and the violent structure of nation-states, guide policy and our futures more broadly.
Today, there are thousands of asylum-seekers living in temporary encampments and shelters across the city, many of whom made this thousands-of-miles-long journey on foot. They are exerting their right to migrate and their right, as enshrined by U.S. and international law, to seek asylum. According to these laws, the first step that an asylum-seeker must take is to cross the border and present themselves to immigration officials. Until recently, those seeking protections could just walk into the U.S. and promptly present their claims for asylum; currently, however, those pursuing asylum are forced to wait in a state of uncertainty and neglect on the Mexican side of the border.
A new, unofficial system of entry has emerged in Tijuana, known as “metering,” whereby groups of ten asylum-seekers are each given a unique number and told to return to a public plaza next to the San Ysidro border crossing the day that their number is called. They will not be allowed to cross until their numbers are called. This list, and the ten names corresponding to each number, are managed by fellow migrants in conjunction with Mexican immigration officials.
Not only is this system of metering illegal, but it also places individuals in a difficult and vulnerable position, as they do not know exactly when their number is going to be reached or how many numbers are going to be called on a given day (this number ranges from 0 – 80 peopleper day). Furthermore, El Barretal, which is the largest shelter in Tijuana and currently houses around 1,000 individuals, is a 15-mile trip to the San Ysidro border crossing, compounding the obstacles created by this system of entry.
When someone’s number is announced by coordinators at the plaza, they must arrive at the border, with all of their belongings, prepared to cross. People wait in a line along one side of the plaza before being driven by Mexican immigration officers across the U.S. border, where they will likely be placed in detention centers and potentially separated from family members.
While always following the lead of our migrant friends, members of the Sanctuary Caravan assist people through this process at every step. The aim of this work is to empower our friends as much as possible under this inherently unjust immigration system.
This effort includes explaining, to the best of our ability, what one should expect going forward, giving rides to those whose numbers have been called, providing a welcoming resting place for people scheduled to present themselves at the border, helping individuals fill out immigration paperwork, and prep for the “Credible Fear Interview” that they will request from a U.S. immigration official shortly after arriving in the States.; this re-traumatizing interview, which aims to assess whether people seeking protection can demonstrate a “credible fear” of harm if they return to their home countries, will determine whether or not they can continue with the asylum application process.
During our time in Tijuana, while we continued to make the Sanctuary Caravan our principal organizing hub, because neither Hannah nor I speak Spanish, we ended up being additionally useful as volunteers with World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs responding to hunger and poverty. At a closed-down restaurant in Tijuana, with the radio continuously blasting dance music, a group of chefs, volunteers, and local workers cook two fresh meals for 1,500 people daily, delivering the food to shelters scattered throughout the city. After our first day of washing dishes and chopping vegetables, Hannah and I, accompanying a longer-term volunteer, travelled 15 miles to the dinner service at El Barretal encampment.
The over 1,000 people in Barrtetal live in densely situated tents, mostly set under the open sky. We were immediately welcomed by residents, who have come to anticipate the meals’ arrivals each day. With assistance from El Barretal residents, we distributed penne bolognese and salad to over 800 people (many of whom were women and small children, for whom men in the front of the line always gave up their spots). After dinner, we walked through the camp—through tents, groups of playing children, and friends congregating around a small television playing Alice in Wonderland—finding ourselves at a Three King’s Day ceremony, where residents prayed and sang alongside a visiting pastor.
While many of people’s basic needs are being met at El Barretal—with food from World Central Kitchen, medical care from Doctors Without Borders, and aid from UNICEF— life in a de facto refugee camp is precarious and untenable. And, of course, there is something deeply problematic with having the “answer” to an issue, largely created and exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy being an influx of nonprofits and aid-based relief.
In addition to visiting El Barretal, and along with other members of the Sanctuary Caravan, we spent time at the second-largest shelter housing members of the Central American exodus, located in a warehouse beside the Benito Juarez sports complex close to the border. Immediately following our arrival in in San Diego/Tijuana, Mexican authorities issued an eviction notice to the roughly 100 residents of Benito Juarez, dispatching dozens of Mexican federal police to the shelter and commencing a drawn out struggle over the residents’ right to remain. There was a days-long standoff between residents and organizers working in solidarity with them, on the one side, and the Mexican government and police, on the other. Answering the call of migrant friends living at Benito Juarez, volunteers with the Sanctuary Caravan and other organizers on the ground camped out on the street in front of the shelter when the threat of immediate eviction was at its height: at one point the police, dressed in riot gear, were no longer allowing water into the shelter or permitting residents to use the port-o-potties, leaving those inside without sanitary toilet options. In the middle of the night, organizers, harnessing their privilege as U.S. passport holders, acted as witnesses to the Benito Juarez residents’ struggle to remain in place. Although an unfortunate reality, it is likely that having American citizens present on the scene prevented a forceful removal of those living in the Benito Juarez shelter. A few days after we left, the final residents agreed to leave the location, many of them transferred to El Barretal.
In addition to working in solidarity with those in Tijuana, volunteers with the Sanctuary Caravan are working to expand their support for people being released from detention in San Diego and leaving for other parts of the country, as, in many ways the arduous asylum process just begins after they have finally made it onto U.S. soil. It is important to note that every person going through this process will be promptly be put into deportation proceedings; their asylum application is their defense against deportation, but the threat of deportation is ever-present.
The convoluted and dehumanizing system of ICE check-ins, immigration hearing dates, and the reality of living with uncertain and precarious status can continue for years, and it is imperative that people feel welcomed, supported, and empowered throughout the entirety of this process. Undergirding this work are the convictions that the freedom of movement/migration is a human right, that no one should be deported, that ICE be abolished (and not merely replaced by an analogous entity), and that we should strive for a future without exclusionary borders.
In the last few weeks, and thanks to your contributions, we were able to raise $4,175 for the Sanctuary Caravan movement. Thank you again for supporting this work, and for standing in solidarity with those leading this fight for a more just world.
Each morning at El Chaparral Plaza in Tijuana, some men set up a small red pop-up canopy tent, and other members of the Central American Exodus and other asylum seekers gather around. There is a table, a megaphone, and a battered notebook that contains numbers associated with the names of people who are on a list of those waiting for a chance to present themselves at the U.S. border to request asylum. Each number represents ten people. By law—both U.S. and international—people should be able to go to any port of entry to request asylum, but the current administration has enacted a “metering” systemwhere only a specified number of people is allowed to cross each port on any given day. Since there is a huge backlog of people waiting—at this point the wait can be up to two months—the asylum seekers have self-organized, and a family or a group of men who have been on the list for a while take charge of the notebook. In addition to calling out two batches of names—one in the early morning and one an hour or so later—they give out new numbers every day until noon. When it is their turn to cross, they pass the notebook along to people who are lower down on the list.
Each morning a member of Grupos Beta, a service of the Mexican National Institute of Migration, relays from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to the notebook keepers the total number of asylum seekers who will be allowed to cross that day. The total might be 80, or it might be none. It is important to understand that this entire system is illegal, and has arisen out of desperation. A member of the notebook team will use a megaphone to read out the names of people whose numbers have come up. People must keep track of their numbers and when they are likely to be called. Many of them are living in shelters and encampments far from Chaparral, and have to get themselves to the plaza or risk losing their chance to cross. There is an informal grace period of two days, so if your number is called and you miss it, if you can get there within two days, you might still go across. The mornings that I was at Chaparral I saw lots of young mothers with small kids, toddlers, and even infants. In addition to members of the Central American Exodus, many of them from Honduras, there were single men from Haiti and West Africa.
After the names are called—and they often have to call two hundred names to assemble a desired 20 people—people line up along one side of the plaza to wait for the shuttle vans driven by Grupos Beta. The vans take people to the other San Ysidro checkpoint where they cross the border to face the bureaucratic nightmare created by the CPB—detention in the Ice Box, separation of fathers from their wives and children, the “credible fear interview,” and so on. The San Diego detention facilities are over capacity, and before we arrived people were being released from detention in the middle of the night, just dropped off at a bus stationor in a public park. The San Diego Rapid Response Network organized shuttle buses to drive around after midnight looking for people who had been dumped, and taking them to shelters. Because of bad publicity, this practice of “dumping” has apparently been suspended.
The Sanctuary Caravan has two programs running concurrently. One is the Pro Se Clinic where volunteers fill out intake forms with people who are scheduled to cross the border and help them prep for their credible fear interviews, which is the first step in the asylum process. The Pro Se Clinic’s borrowed storefront has turned into a de facto community center where families hang out and volunteers play with the kids while their parents are interviewed. Volunteers also go to the El Barretal refugee camp, twenty minutes out of Tijuana, to let people know about available services and to do intake.
The Accompaniment Program in Tijuana is in some ways more extensive than its counterpart in New York City. In addition to waiting with friends at Chaparral until they board the Grupos Beta shuttles, Sanctuary Caravan also keeps track of friends’ numbers, and has a van that picks people up from El Barretal each morning to take them to the plaza where the names are called.
Because Djuna, Hannah, and I don’t speak Spanish, we had a hard time in the beginning figuring out how to plug into the work that was going on. We were cursing ourselves for having chosen French as our second language. Our first afternoon I was called to the clinic to translate for some Haitians, but when I got there it turned out they were Creole speakers and my French was still useless.
Djuna and Hannah ended up working with the World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs addressing hunger and poverty, where they didn’t need Spanish to scrub pots and chop vegetables. I joined them a couple of afternoons and was wildly impressed by the work that was going on. In Tijuana, the World Central Kitchen prepares and delivers three thousand meals a day—feeding 1,500 people at lunch and dinner. The food is fresh, inventive, and made with love. One evening Djuna and Hannah went to deliver dinner to El Barretal, where they saw a thousand people living in tents. Hannah said, “They get meals, UNICEF is there, and Doctors Without Borders, but it’s still no way to live.” If it rains, they get wet. If it’s cold, they are cold. Djuna reported that women and children are fed first, and that everyone pitches in to help out with serving the meals.
Meanwhile, back at the volunteer hub, I was assigned to work as a “Story Steward,” which was a data entry and clerical gig supporting the Pro Se Clinic. One afternoon I spent a few hours prepping a large stack of intake files with all the needed forms and materials.
On Sunday afternoon, we went to Faro Playas de Tijuana, a beachfront recreation area, for a religious service that usually occurs on both sides of the hideous and immoralborder wall, which traverses the land, travels down across the sand, and continues into the ocean. Only the gulls could move freely from one side to the other. Of late, because of ‘security concerns,’ CBP has closed access to the International Friendship Parkthat connects both sides of the border and has created a no-go zone on the U.S. side of the fence, so the service occurred only on the Mexican side that day. Through the steel slats, razor wire, and cyclone fencing on the U.S. side, we saw at a distance CBP agents blocking access to the border, and beyond them we made out some of our Sanctuary Caravan colleagues, including NSC Executive Director Ravi Ragbir, who was visiting from NYC. On the Mexican side, there were cafes, restaurants and benches. Couples strolled, families picnicked, and children played in the surf under the shadow of the wall.
When we landed in New York City, Djuna and I discussed how it would take a while for us to process all that we had seen and experienced. We had been moved by the dignity and perseverance of the members of the Exodus. We had admired the dedication, humor, and intelligence of the Sanctuary Caravan’s volunteer coordinators. We had been disgusted by the violence, both physical and bureaucratic, of our government’s policies and agents.
Two days after we got back from the border, I picked up my work here in New York with NSC, and found out that my local Congressman, who had requested deferred action of removal for my Albanian friends (basically asking that they not be deported), had heard back from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). The request was denied, and USCIS told the parents that they have thirty-three days to leave the country that they have called home for fourteen years. Brooklyn is the only home their three young daughters, two of them U.S. citizens and one with DACA, have known. I sat in a cafe with my Albanian friend and the Congressman’s caseworker as we fought back tears and plotted our next moves. The struggle continues.
The beautiful celebrity duck of Central Park, a solo male Mandarin Duck, was first sighted at the pond near 5th Avenue and 59th Street in early October. Mandarin Ducks are not native to North America, and it has been speculated that the duck was an escaped or released pet. In October, I was more interested in the birds flying through the city during the fall migration. The hordes of people lining up to take a look at the Mandarin Duck also kept me away. Standing in a long line waiting for a turn to take a photo of an exotic pet was not appealing.
As the weeks went by, the duck kept attracting crowds, its comings and goings were assiduously tracked, and it drew lots of media coverage in The Gothamist, The Cut, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, and other outlets. In early December the New York Times ran a new article entitled, “The Hot Duck That Won’t Go Away.” The Times piece quoted a disgruntled birder who was annoyed by all the publicity, and the hysteria, surrounding the bird. He said that the Mandarin was essentially “the Kim Kardashian of ducks.”
I will admit that this reference to Kim K. piqued my interest, and when a few days later my friend Marie Lee proposed a joint foray into the park to find the superstar waterfowl, I agreed. As we entered the park at 59th Street, we could tell by the small crowd assembled on the north side of the pond where we would locate the duck. As the weather has grown colder, the crowds have thinned so we were able to go immediately to the edge of the pond. And there he was, splendid and colorful, and really so photogenic. The Mandarin Duck, unfazed by its fans, paddled around among the pairs of Mallards, along with a pretty male Wood Duck, and an American Coot. When I pointed out the Coot—and its prehistoric looking lobed toes—Marie asked, “Is that where the expression ‘old coot’ comes from?” Yes indeed.
The Mandarin Duck was definitely worth the trip, although the hype—Mandarin Duck manicures, Mandarin Duck dog jackets—is a bit much. I felt a little sad that I’m not a winter birder as I read about the Saw-Whet Owls and other raptors that people have been sighting in the park. Gabriel Willow, who runs birding classes for NYC Audubon, told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” But I hate the cold, and I don’t have the proper gear, so I’m on birding hiatus until the Spring Migration, except for watching the Dark-eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, and other birds I can see from my kitchen window in the country.