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Column: Scenes from the U.S. border in Mexico

04/25/2019 11:15 AM |

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To cross the U.S. border on foot from San Diego into Tijuana, Mexico, is to navigate a series of maze-like hallways and ramps.

As visitors enter the U.S. from Mexico, they’re immediately greeted by a mall, as if transported to Tanger Outlets in Riverhead.

“It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz,” said Carolyn Peabody of Orient, a social worker and professor at Stony Brook University. “You go from gray to bright colors.”

Experiencing those bright colors was the dream of many migrants Ms. Peabody met during a week-long humanitarian trip to the border in January. She traveled with Christine Flatley of Mattituck, who’s retired and has recently volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and Tina Efron of Brooklyn, a retired occupational therapist. In the months since, the women have shared their firsthand experience of the crisis at the border in a series of presentations titled “The Border: A Call to Action.”

Immigration, particularly in the era of President Trump, has become such an inflammatory issue, the trio wanted to see for themselves what was unfolding and to lend any support they could to the many migrants from Central America.

They hope their message will inspire others to take action, to contact their local representatives and to better understand the crisis and what can be done to improve the perilous situation.

“We were so troubled by what we learned about before we went, while we were there and when we came back about how people are being treated by our people, our representatives — the Border Patrol and customs people,” Ms. Peabody said. “They are treated with such inhumanity in so many ways.”

Ms. Flatley said she felt a need to do something to combat the toxic news environment about immigration.

“To be able to come back and share what I saw would be in my small way an important way of helping myself and hopefully helping other human beings who are being so poorly treated that I’m almost embarrassed by it,” she said.

What they saw were people who had made incredible, long journeys, who were frightened yet resilient and hopeful. They were people who faced few options but to leave their homes, for many of them the northern triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Corruption, gang violence and failing economies drove people from their homes in search of better opportunities.

They saw families, women traveling with children who were exhausted. The president’s characterization of criminals invading our country didn’t match what they saw in person.

“The stories are compelling and they are stories of human beings who are suffering at the hands of evil that in some ways we helped create,” Ms. Flatley said. “Nonetheless, there is evil being perpetrated. We as other human beings owe them some consideration and some safety.”

Tina Efron (left), Christine Flatley and Carolyn Peabody prepare to cross the border into Tijuana, Mexico in January.

The women volunteered through a faith-based organization in New York City called New Sanctuary Coalition. The organization began setting up at the border when the large caravan that became a rallying cry for anti-immigrant sentiment during the 2018 midterm elections was headed toward the U.S. They attended an orientation in San Diego and talked to people who had been there before. They learned tips like bringing hiking boots because the sidewalks in Tijuana are so broken up.

Ms. Peabody stayed in a small hotel and Ms. Flatley and Ms. Efron stayed at an Airbnb. Other volunteers stayed in hostels or even slept on church floors.

Their first day, they worked in a kitchen that was making 3,000 meals a day. The owner of an Asian Fusion restaurant in Washington, D.C., volunteered as the head chef.

They also worked at a legal clinic where volunteer attorneys from across the U.S. assist migrants. They bought toys for children who were swept up in a never-ending waiting game.

“My sense is that the children are like us and our children,” Ms. Efron said. “The people are just like us, and yet I think what I understand is they have a level of perseverance or commitment that no matter what they keep going.”

An important misconception, the women noted, concerns the interactions between the migrants and those assisting them. The rhetoric pushed by Trump and conservative media is that migrants are coached on what to say when seeking asylum. In reality, the volunteers only guide migrants through the legal process. Seeking asylum, which requires physically being in the country, is not illegal.

What they saw was a process deliberately kept obscure so people are unsure how to proceed or what will happen. And people treated like criminals.

“I believe wholeheartedly that what we saw represents what lots and lots, thousands, of other people saw and heard when they were there,” Ms. Flatley said.

In the past, the border at Tijuana could process 200 people a day, Ms. Peabody said. But now, only 15 to 20 a day were being processed.

They’ve done their presentation at Orient Congregational Church and at Stony Brook University. They’ve received additional requests as well. When they begin a presentation, they tell the audience that traveling to the border was the first step. The second is sharing that story and encouraging people to investigate on their own.

“It’s not about us. It’s about telling the story and amplifying it as much as we can,” Ms. Flatley said.

All three hope to one day return to the border. And locally, Ms. Flatley and Ms. Peabody volunteer with the North Fork Unity Action Committee, which supports marginalized people in the community. The group organized a rally last year in Greenport to protest the family separation that was occurring at the border.

“Migration is going to happen,” Ms. Flatley said. “Of course, there have to be ways to regulate it and put safety measures into place, but creating choke points is not the way to find solutions to this.”

The author is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].

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