By Miriam Raftery
Photo, left: Lilian Serrano, Director, Southern Border Communities Coalition
May 18, 2023 (Jacumba Hot Springs) —the U.S. Immigration Policy Center (USIPC) at the University of California, San Diego, issued a blistering report accusing Border Patrol of endangering migrants’ lives by depriving them of food, water, shelter, medical care and other necessities. The damning report is titled Lives in Danger: Seeking Asylum Against the Backdrop of Increased Border Enforcement. It was published on May 16, two days after ECM broke the story of some 1,000 to 2,000 migrants in Jacumba Hot Springs who were aided by residents after Border Patrol failed to provide food or shelter.
In addition, the nonprofit humanitarian group Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) has filed a federal complaint with Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, alleging mistreatment of the Jacumba asylum-seekers and violations of both U.S. and international law.
Lilian Serrano, director of SBCC, told ECM in an interview for KNSJ radio that volunteers withessed ”families, children, elders waiting outdoors for days without access to food or water.” Regarding filing the complaint, she said, ”Our hope is that we can find out why were there outdoor detention facilities in our area, what was the reasoning behind that, and why were agents in full, clear violation of their policy – but more importantly, what can we do to prevent this from every happening again? Because regardless of your situation, whether you are coming in for asylum or not, basic standards need to be met. We cannot allow another child to go hungry in front of a federal agent.”
After Border Patrol agents hemmed in the migrants along the border fence at Jacumba, Border Patrol claimed the migrants were not being detained, though they were surrounded by Border Patrol agents and told they would be arrested if they tried to leave, according to SBBC and USIPC. Detained migrants are entitled to humane treatment under U.S. Customs and Border Protection national standards.
Yet migrants detained for up to five days in the high desert community said they were given only one water bottle per day and most were not given any food by Border Patrol agents. They were also not provided any shade or other shelter from the sun, and nearly all received no blankets to stay warm at night. Some also had serious medical conditions ignored or treatment delayed.
Tara Kaveh with the Southern Border Communities Coalition told ECM, “One woman suffered life-threatening allergies. A child suffered epileptic seizures, and a man suffered an infection in his leg.” A 79-year-old woman suffered a medical emergency from 8 a.m. Thursday until 10 p.m., when aid workers finally succeeded in having her transferred to Scripps Hospital in Chula Vista for treatment, Kaveh added. “A lot of them were hurt on their journeys over here, and they were sitting therein unsanitary conditions with no food or water, so conditions got worse.”
USIPC surveyed 15 migrants at one of the Jacumba encampments, which held 150 people. Two-thirds agreed with the statement, “If I did not receive food and water from volunteers, I would not get enough food and water from Border Patrol to survive.”
Of the asylum seekers surveyed:
- 100% said border agents were not giving them enough food and 53% said they were not given enough water.
- 100% said border agents were not providing adequate sanitation such as toilets (just one porta potty was provided for the group)
- 100% said agents did not provide adequate shelter, such as protection from the sun, and 93% said agents had not provided blankets for warmth at night.
- 87% agreed with the statement, ”If I tried to leave this encampment, I am afraid I could die in the desert.”
A third of the migrants had minor children. Nearly half said they have family in the U.S. Just over half (56%) were male and 44% were female; the average age was 29 years. Some had been camped at Jacumba for five days, surveyors found.
Photo, right: Asylum seekers in Jacumba, courtesy of We Are Human Kind
The survey also raised troubling problems with changes made by the Biden administration to the asylum process.
Title 42, a public health measure, was utilized by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic to require that asylum seekers wait in Mexico and not enter the U.S. A declaration ending the pandemic led lifting of Title 42 around the time the migrants arrived in Jacumba.
Anticipating a surge of asylum seekers with the lifting of Title 42 restrictions, the Biden administration imposed a new requirement for migrants to apply for asylum through an app. Those who failed to do so can be deported and prohibited from reentering the U.S. for years.
But the USIPC survey found that while 100% of the migrants said they sought asylum, 80% had never heard of the CBP One app that is now required. The 20% who said they knew about the app were still unable to schedule appointments, for reasons that included lack of internet access or Wifi, or technical problems. For instance, applicants had to have the latest version of the app, some reported problems with it crashing, and the app is only available in three languages, posing language barriers for those who speak other languages, yet no translators or help has been provided for those who need tech support. For families, every family member must apply separately, and some have been unable to secure appointments together.
The asylum seekers in Jacumba came from around the world, including India, Peru, Columbia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Mexico, Vietnam, African nations, and other locations.
Before Title 42, migrants who crossed the Border could simply ask for asylum if they faced a credible threat if returned to their homeland. They would be entitled under Title 8 to a hearing to determine whether or not they qualified.
However, of the 15 migrants interviewed, only two said they had been able to tell Border Patrol that they sought asylum, and neither was granted an interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officer. Some said Border Patrol refused to speak to them or did not listen.
The USIPC report concludes that the asylum seekers “have been denied due process.”
Serrano says she agrees with the Biden administration that “the safest route to asylum is through the ports of entry.” But she adds, “When the ports of entry are at capacity—some people have been waiting for three years—people take desperate measures.” She believes border officials should be prepared to help those who cannot wait because their lives or in danger, and who have been unable to access the app.
The problem in Jacumba was foreseeable. Serrano said families and small groups began arriving before Title 42 expired, with others arriving after. “Clearly, this wasn’t hundreds of people approaching the border at the same time,” Serrano notes.
The dire situation in Jacumba isn’t an isolated incident. According to an SBCC press release, “The survey corroborates the conditions reported from human rights observers at multiple open-air detention sites in California that CBP is using as pre-processing sites without complying with custody standards.” Although CBP is required to provide adequate water, food, shelter, sanitation and medical supplies to all detained migrants, SBCC states, “That is not happening at any site in California.”
A similar complaint has been filed with Homeland Security over treatment of asylum seekers stuck between fences along the border at San Ysidro in south San Diego County, where migrants also were left without adequate water, food or shelter for days.
Though the Border Patrol failed to provide basic humanitarian care for the migrants in Jacumba, residents and nonprofit groups did provide aid through the border wall initially including the American Friends Service Committee, SBCC, ISIPC, and others. Volunteers charged phones for migrants and gave out supplies such as food, baby food, water, hygiene kits, diapers, clothes, and blankets, and some aid continued after the migrants were on the U.S. side of the border.
Kaveh told ECM the group has been aware for months of migrants along the border near Jacumba and other East County communities that also received a smattering of migrants in recent days, such as Campo, Boulevard, and Live Oak Springs. So how was it that the Border Patrol was woefully unprepared for the influx?
ECM reached out to the Border Patrol’s Southern District media representative for comment, but no response has been received. ECM also contacted California Senator Alex Padilla’s office, but did not receive a reply.
“We’re calling on Congress to hopefully take up the situation and hold the CBP accountable,” Kaveh told ECM. “Senator Padilla has been one of our greatest supporters on this.”
Serrano said the strongest response came from State Senator Steve Padilla. “He actually accompanied us multiple times out there.” But even his office has been unable to get responses from federal authorities, Serrano said.
Despite international news coverage of similar situations in the past along the U.S.-Mexico border, Kaveh says little has been done to assure humane treatment or due process for asylum seekers. CBP has been mum on the fate of the migrants picked up in Jacumba, most of whom have now been taken away in busses, though the prospect of deportation looms for most.
Kaveh says white immigrants often receive favorable treatment over black and brown immigrants, further complicating the situation. “For Central American and Black migrants, people don’t care, “ she laments. “Even when we bring it to the administration or to Congress, they don’t see it.”
If Homeland Security does not address the concerns raised in the complaint, the SBCC has other options, including potential legal action. The group also hopes Congress will provide oversight, accountability, and reforms to prevent such situations in the future.
The problems here echo past problems in other border towns, including Del Rio, Texas, where a few years ago migrants on U.S. soil had to wait outdoors for long periods while awaiting Border Patrol to pick them up and begin processing their asylum claims.
“It’s not okay,” Kaveh concludes.” It’s a humanitarian crisis with human rights violations, international violations but also they are violating their own policies by doing this. It’s not a no-man’s land. They’re in U.S. territory in CBP custody…Everyone we spoke to was seeking asylum and had a fear of being killed in their country. If they could go back, they would. No one wants to stay in those conditions.”
Serrano wants follow up for those who were mistreated in Jacumba. “We want to be sure that our government does the right thing, which is to care for those that we left outdoors, left to starve…We stripped their dignity and humanity away, so now it’s time to restore that,” she says.
Serrano notes that all levels of government need to work together toward real solutions. Migration is a worldwide phenomenon, she points out. “People are coming and leaving on a daily basis, not just in our country, but around the world….The real question is how to manage migration, how to screen people, and treat them with dignity and humanity.”
She urges the public to speak out to their elected officials. “As citizens, it’s our duty to make sure that our elected officials do their jobs.” Concerned community members can also reach out to www.alliancesd.org, the SBCC’s parent organization, to volunteer or provide support.
“At this point, our conversations really should be about what kind of country do we want to be?” She concludes. “The actions of Border Patrol agents these last few weeks in our community very clearly are not representative of the values that we hold…Regardless of your past or what future awaits you in our legal system, you deserve respect…We’ve seen violations of national and international law.” In any reforms, she concludes, “Let’s start with dignity, from a place where we respect everybody’s humanity, and set politics aside.”