Under President Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for people seeking asylum to follow the law and go to official ports of entry to request help. But asylum seekers at international bridges across the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas have been blocked by Border Patrol agents who say they are unable to process them. In some cases, asylum seekers—including women and young children—have been told to wait for days and even weeks on international bridges over the border, often in extreme heat. Residents on both sides of the border have responded by bringing food, water and clothing to people as they wait to be processed. Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz followed some of them as they delivered aid, and interviewed Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer who has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for over 40 years, about the significance of the United States rejecting legal requests by asylum seekers, detaining them at length, and in some cases deporting them after separating them from their children.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Under President Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for people seeking asylum to follow the law and go to official ports of entry to request help. But asylum seekers at international bridges across the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas have been blocked by Border Patrol agents who say they are unable to process them. In same cases, asylum seekers, including women and young children, have been told to wait for days, and even weeks, on international bridges over the border, often in extreme heat.
AMY GOODMAN: Residents on both sides of the border have responded by bringing food and water and clothing to people as they wait to be processed. Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz followed them as they dropped off donations Sunday at one of the busiest ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley.
NAYELLY BARRIOS: My name is Nayelly Barrios. We are on the bridge that connects Reynosa to Hidalgo, Mexico to the U.S. We are right in the middle point of the bridge, right over the river, the Rio Grande river. Behind me are—I believe it’s three Border Patrol agents, asking for individuals’—to glance at individuals’ documentation. They’re not scanning them or anything. They don’t have any of that machinery out here. They just have—they’re just checking to see that they have the documents. Border Patrol agents usually do not stand at that point.
So, I was born in Reynosa, and I’ve lived in the U.S. most of my life. I’m a U.S. citizen now. I first heard about the individuals that were stranded on Sunday. And the main reason is, I just thought, “Imagine if I were there, myself, stranded on a bridge, day and night, with very few resources, just whatever I brought on me, you know, while I made the trip.”
So, this one time, on Wednesday, we were getting ready to head out. We had been on the bridge for an hour and a half, distributing, talking to the people, asking them specifically what some of them might need, and we write it down. And there was this—we were about to head out, and one of the ladies who helps out there—she lives in Reynosa—and she told us, “Go look at that—go talk to that woman that’s standing.” She was about six yards away from the main group of asylum seekers, and she was just standing there with a little girl. And she looked really sad and confused and lost. And so, you know, we went to go ask her, “Are you here to seek asylum?” Because they’re not letting people cross, we just wanted to explain to her that it was best for her, instead of standing there, to go join the group. And she was not—she was not responsive. She was just looking at us like “I don’t want to talk to you.” I had never seen such a terrified look on someone. It was like she was defenseless and just terrified and—
UNIDENTIFIED: Holding onto her daughter.
NAYELLY BARRIOS: She was holding onto her kid, yes. And the kid looked about 6, maybe 7.
NAYELLY BARRIOS: She was looking around like—
UNIDENTIFIED: “Can I trust you?”
NAYELLY BARRIOS: Yes. She didn’t know if she could trust us. She did not want to open up. And I told her, “You look tired. You must be very tired.” I told her—all in Spanish, of course. I told her, “I don’t know what you must have been through, but you can rest over here. We’ve got some food. We’ve got water, clothes for your kid, as well. Come join the group, until it’s your turn. And we’ll explain to you, you know, what’s been happening here.” And so, it took a while, and then I like gently put my arm on her—on her shoulder, like to try and guide her, like to tell her like it’s fine. So then she started letting her guard down a little bit. And as she started following me to where the group was, she started crying. It’s like she finally let her guard down and—
UNIDENTIFIED: Felt relief.
NAYELLY BARRIOS: I think she felt—I feel like it was relief, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED: Mm-hmm, looked like it.
NAYELLY BARRIOS: And then, once I got her to the group, and the—one of the other volunteers that was there, from Reynosa, the woman that I was mentioning, she started talking to her. And then the girl just—well, the woman, she looked so young, with her little girl—just started crying, like more all-out crying. Yeah, I feel like it was relief that she started feeling, that, “Finally, I’m not by myself. Somebody’s taking me in,” and maybe also a little bit scared that “Why wasn’t it that easy for me to just go in and ask for asylum? Why am I having to wait in this line with all these people?” She probably really wasn’t expecting that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Nayelly Barrios at the port of entry, or international bridge, that connects Reynosa, Mexico, where she was born, to McAllen, Texas, where she lives nearby as a U.S. citizen.
And now we’re going to turn to another person Renée Feltz interviewed while in South Texas, Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer who has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for over 40 years. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was a Mayan comandante and guerrilla who was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. She later found there was U.S. involvement in the cover-up about her husband’s murder and torture.
JENNIFER HARBURY: My name is Jennifer Harbury. I’m a human rights attorney and also a human
rights activist, and have been for many years. I think most of you know I was involved in Guatemala during the dirty wars and during the genocidal campaign in the '80s and lost my husband there. I've stayed very close to friends all across Central America, and I understand why they’re fleeing northwards. It’s very clear, and it’s very tragic. And to see people being turned away here or punished for asking for asylum really breaks my heart. My father was 11 when he arrived at Ellis Island fleeing Hitler. I don’t want to think what would have happened if those children had been torn away from their parents at that point in time. They were terrified. They were alone. They were totally dependent on their parents. It’s just—it’s a very ugly chapter of U.S. history right now.
Let’s say it’s a three-pronged attack on refugees—not on cartel people. Cartel people have millions and millions of dollars. If they want to get into the United States, they can buy the passport. They can buy the police officer. They can buy a boat and an airplane. They don’t need to send scrawny, terrified refugees to swim the river and nearly drown, you know, to do their dirty work for them. They don’t need to do that. They’re way past it. So, the war that we’ve declared is on the victims of the cartels: the moms with babies, the 15-year-olds that are running from trafficking, the boy that could either work with the cartels or die and whose parents were killed in retaliation when he fled—those kinds of people. We’re supposed to be helping them.
Under U.S. law, you are permitted to come to the U.S. port of entry—that’s the checkpoint at the border—and say, “I’m in danger in my home country. I need to apply for political asylum.” You then get sent for a credible fear interview to see if that story is reasonable or not. And if it is, you get sent to detention to await your trial on your asylum process. Until recently, anybody in that category, if they had lots of U.S. citizen relatives and plenty of ID and stuff, they were released on parole, just as someone that faces a criminal charge would be released on bond. It’s normal, and it’s in ICE’s own policy. They have to obey that.
But as of last year, first they started out by trying to push everyone away from the border, which is totally illegal. The legal way to apply for asylum is to go to the border. Then they tried to sort of break their spirit by keeping them in prison-like conditions for a year and a half or two years. And those conditions in the detention centers are horrific.
What started even more recently, though, is, if people decide, “Maybe I don’t want to go that route. I’ll swim the river,” it’s extremely dangerous. You have to pay a huge fee for crossing the river, to the cartels. And if they don’t like you or think you’d be a good trafficking person, you could go down. Children drown all the time crossing the river, and adults and children die all the time crossing the desert here, trying to get out of southern Texas. If none of that happens, they’re probably going to get caught. It’s hard to run with kids. And what you’ve been seeing in the paper is happening: They take your children away, prosecute you for trying to save your kid’s life, and send you home without your kid.
Now, they’re telling them to sit on the bridge. It’s a hundred degrees out. There was a young 15-year-old girl, who was 7 months pregnant, out there for three days and three nights. Many small children are on the bridge for up to 10 days at a time at the Reynosa entry. Just going north a little ways, to Miguel Alemán-Roma bridge, it’s more remote, and we didn’t realize people were there. I went to speak with them a few days ago. They had been out there for 16 days in 100-degree heat, camping out. And there was a 3-month-old baby there, who was becoming ill. A kindly Mexican nurse had come forward to assist the child. That’s what’s keeping all of these people alive on the bridge, is all of us.
Can they go back to Reynosa to use the bathrooms or get dinner or sleep in a little motel? No. Immigrants right now are the number-one target for the cartels in Reynosa. So, anyone deported or anyone obviously coming north, if they see you coming back across the bridge with babies, you will be kidnapped. They have figured out that it’s a great, booming business, in fact, to grab anyone being sent back. And the reason is they know that they will have someone up north who cares about them. They may be totally destitute, but they’ll go find the $10,000.
Now what we’re seeing is they make them sit on the bridge in the hopes that they’ll just voluntarily go back. But, the last few days, they’ve started telling people, “You’re not allowed on the bridge at all. Go back.” Sending any refugee back to a place of danger, it’s a violation of international law, which I’m sure President Trump doesn’t care about at all. But it’s also a violation of U.S. law, and it has been for many years. We’re breaking the law. We’re ignoring the cartels. And we’re punishing the hell out of the victims. How that makes us great, I couldn’t tell you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Jennifer Harbury, human rights lawyer, who’s lived in the Rio Grande Valley for over 40 years, interviewed by Democracy Now!'s Renée Feltz. When we come back, we'll look at Trump administration’s reported plans to build tent cities on military bases near the U.S.-Mexico border to accommodate the increasing numbers of migrant children being held. Stay with us.