Yesterday the Associated Press published a lengthy piece about a group of people living in a shelter just a few miles from the US border in Mexico. This isn’t meant as a policy story, just a first-person observation of the daily struggles of some of the people waiting for their chance to claim asylum in the United States or, in some cases, to simply sneak across the border illegally.
At least one of the people profiled in the piece probably has a legitimate asylum claim. A Ugandan bodybuilder named Alphat fled his home country after he allegedly became the target of goons working on behalf of the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni. The piece offers this summary of his story:
Eventually, he says, he was arrested, beaten and tortured because of his opposition ties. Policemen used string to hang heavy blocks from his penis. While he was in detention, his wife and two young daughters were shot and killed by military policemen, who had warned him to drop his political client.
If true, that’s political persecution and torture which is the kind of thing our asylum laws were intended to help with. But Alphat isn’t the only person featured in the story. I was struck by the story of another family, a father and three children, who came to the border apparently hoping to claim asylum and then decided to take matters into their own hands:
He’s a distinguished-looking man with close-cropped hair and a beard going gray. He speaks three languages fluently and a smattering of others. He studied to work on large-scale electrical projects, but in the chaos of Congo, where the economy barely functions in many regions, he survived as an electrician.
Shelter life weighs heavily on him. He worries what it’s doing to his children. He’s known among the migrants for agonizing about what he should do.
In the spring, he and his three children flew from Angola to Colombia, where they met up with a couple hundred other Congolese migrants. The caravan spent 70 days in the jungles of Panama before making their way to Mexico. Then they separated, each rolling the dice on the limited information they had. He went to Juarez; his friends went elsewhere. At least a handful got through U.S. immigration. Some are now living in Maine.
“I could make a life there. This is not a life,” he says, the words spilling out rapidly and bitterly. “My head isn’t in a good place here. The stress is not bearable.”
He spends his days sifting among the rumors that filter through migrant discussions on Facebook and WhatsApp: Try a border crossing into New Mexico, someone says. Try near San Antonio says another. Just go illegally, some say, arguing there are plenty of places to cross.
The story reveals that the man’s wife was killed in “political violence” so maybe he was hoping to claim asylum on that basis, but the story also suggests he came to the US border hoping for a better job and a better life. That’s certainly understandable but it’s not grounds for an asylum claim. Ultimately, he decides to cross the border illegally, perhaps to join his friends who have already done so:
A few weeks later, he is gone.
Just before he disappeared with his family, the Congolese man told Fierro they had to leave. They’d cross illegally.
“Pastor, I’m out of hope,” he told the pastor. “I can’t wait anymore.”
Again, the facts of this story aren’t completely clear but I suspect this father who gets his border crossing rumors from WhatsApp had heard that people coming to the border with children could make an asylum claim and quickly get released into the country. Now that Trump’s remain in Mexico policy is in effect, that back door entrance to America is closing. Some people will look at the situation and decide to go home. Others will wait for as many months as necessary to make an asylum claim. But some will simply decide to become illegal immigrants and hope they get away with it. That’s clearly the decision this father made.