Santa Fe Dreamers Director Allegra Love speaks to the Voices of America group Monday evening at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Santa Fe Dreamers Project Director Allegra Love’s passionate address to the Voices of Los Alamos group Monday stirred those in attendance to ask how they could help with the current situation with immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers at the New Mexico-Mexico border.
Love is an attorney who taught public school for four years before going to law school and founding the Project. She said the Project’s mission is to provide free legal services to immigrants and refugees with a focus on community development, economic empowerment, education attainment, family unity and liberation from detention.
“We believe that immigrants make our community stronger, our country stronger and that by providing these free legal services, by providing tools to liberate people (whether liberation is getting a job, liberation is education, or actual physical liberation from prison) that we are making our country better and our community stronger,” Love said.
She said the legal services take all kinds of forms with a lot of work being done with undocumented folks living in New Mexico in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos and Valencia County, “identifying people whether it’s dreamers, people who need green cards, people who need citizenships, people who qualify for special immigration status because they are victims of violence or political asylees.
“It’s working with communities and organizations to help find out who may need those legal services and if there’s a way that we can help them change their status, get them their work permit and stuff like that. We probably do about 600 of those cases a year,” Love said.
She said the Project has a whole other aspect that has developed from working in detention facilities, specifically with family detention facilities since 2014 and most recently with the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan which she called “basically a truck stop in Cibola County west of Grants”.
“We do a lot of work with transgender women because the United States trans ‘pod’ or the most sort of established one is in Cibola County. So we have developed this whole program around getting trans women out of prison and helping them become safe in our country – trans asylum seekers. And this year that has even taken the form of us joining the migrant exodus, the migrant caravans through Mexico to identify with LGBT folks on the caravan and help prepare people for detention in the U.S.,” Love said. She said the Project also works post-release with trans clients when they leave detention to see where they go and how they transition into a new life in the United States safely.
Love said the Project has an office in El Paso, Texas, because a lot of work is being done on the border. She said there are three detention facilities and three “horrific immigration courts” in the El Paso Metro area so the Project has a lawyer there.
“We’re expanding to really start working on the broader issues of what southwest detention looks like and the stuff that’s happening slightly south of the border as well. There’s a lot going on on the Mexican side of the border that we want to start addressing,” she said.
Love said that just recently the Project began trying to organize folks in New Mexico to come together around the idea that they can personally divest from the institutions that uphold private immigration detentions in the state.
“We are starting a campaign to try to get New Mexicans involved with the idea that we do not need to fund private immigration facilities. We can abolish private immigration facilities and we can definitely demand more oversight and that they provide safe conditions. I’m of the personal position that there’s no safe way to detain anybody. I’m just an abolitionist when it comes to all types of incarceration. But if we are going to have immigration facilities in New Mexico, we shouldn’t have people and corporations making vast amounts of money on it and we should be keeping them safe,” Love said.
Love said asking for asylum or migrating to seek protection from another state is not a crime.
“This isn’t our opinion. I often say this in public and people are like, ‘Yeah that’s just like your philosophy around it’. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be a crime. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be punished for it. It is factually under U.S. and international law not a crime. There is no universe where asylum seeker is called an illegal alien in the same breath and that is correct,” she said. “They are two completely different phenomena and our public conflation of those two phenomena is what’s causing all of the violence that happening by our government to asylum seekers on our border right now.”
Love said by using the word illegal, it is implied that a moral breach is happening and that it is thought that because people are making this “bad, illegal, terrible, unjustifiable choice to come here illegally we get to punish them any way we want to”.
“But here’s the thing, they’ve not done anything wrong. We are signatories to a 1968 protocol called the Refugee Convention which says that you’re allowed to seek political asylum in other countries. Why do we have this protocol? We have it because of the Holocaust. After millions of Jew were exterminated in front of millions of people’s eyes, the world got together with the newly-formed United Nations and asked, how did we let this happen?” she said.
Love said there has to be a way that people can seek state protection from this type of state-sponsored violence and there has to be protocols around it. She said there are currently refugee camps in the Middle East, Greece, Europe and Central Asia – all places people can go to and assert the fact that their life is in danger and talk to the U.N. about the fact that they need protection.
“We don’t have those in the Western Hemisphere. There’s nowhere from the tip of Chile all the way up to the top of Canada and Alaska where you can go and ask for protection in a third party country. That’s being a refugee. The process we have to work with is political asylum which means you put your feet into another country or you knock on the door of another country and you say I am scared for my life and I need you to evaluate whether or not I qualify for this protection,” she said.
Love said asking for asylum is not the same thing as getting asylum.
“The protocol doesn’t say that we have to give protection to everyone. What it says is we have to evaluate their very real request for political asylum. In fact under the U.N. conventions it is illegal to detain an asylum seeker. It’s violation of international law to do what we’re doing when we detain asylum seekers,” she said. “When your brain is moving around these issues you have to keep that really present, because all the propaganda that’s been building for decades around this issue wants you to start with the fact that these people are dangerous, that they’re criminals and that there’s something morally repugnant about them that allows us to treat them this way. No one who is trapped in the asylum process has done anything that they need to be punished for. I can’t state this enough.”
Love discussed what is currently happening the border. She said an asylum seeker can walk up to the port of entry and ask for political asylum but the problem is the number of asylum seekers that can get through the port on any given day is being metered because there is not enough bed space in the areas where people who come to the border are being held. She said people’s names are being placed on lists.
“This is an extremely new phenomena in the last six months, so new that there isn’t really a serious U.S. protocol around it and they are leaving it to Mexico who is maintaining these massive lists. At first, at Juarez they were putting numbers on people’s biceps with Sharpies, like that’s not chilling enough, writing numbers on peoples’ arms. In Tijuana it’s literally like a hand-written list and when you approach the gate you can’t get anywhere near Border Patrol. You’re intercepted by Mexican authorities who take your name and give you a number and there’s an informal way where they’re calling number for example No. 1794 and you need to get back to the port of entry where you’re going to be allowed to get in line,” she said.
Love said this is causing a massive humanitarian crisis with 6,000 to 8,000 families living in the streets or in shelters with no way to get space in any shelters on the border anymore. She said people are living in squalor in these massive camps waiting for their chance to come and ask for asylum.
“One of the things you can do is cross between ports. I call it crossing between ports because one of the ways it’s always described is crossing illegally but it’s not illegal. That is one way that you are allowed to ask for political asylum. Crossing the border without permission is a criminal misdemeanor so that’s where it gets confusing with asylum seekers. Their act is not illegal but the U.S. has the right to charge you with a criminal misdemeanor if you cross without permission,” Love said.
She said that’s how families are being separated – because the parents cross with kids and are told they are going to be charged with a federal crime and be put in a federal prison.
“And kids can’t go to criminal federal prisons and since you have to go there, we’re going to go ahead and take your kids. It was the sole mechanism they could use to separate kids from their family and it worked very effectively,” Love said. She noted that crossing between ports is extremely dangerous. She said children’s bodies really can’t take it.
Love said believe it or not, people are pretty uncomfortable with the concept of breaking the law and that most asylum seekers don’t have a robust understanding of international protocols so a lot of people want to go to the ports of entry. She noted that there is no requirement to ask for asylum in the first country an asylum seeker gets to.
“In fact the Mexican asylum system is brutal and dangerous and Mexico is in fact as racist if not more racist to Central Americans than the U.S. is. Their prisons are more dangerous and a lot of people make the wise choice to come and enjoy the brutal American system. I work with trans women. They can not stop there, they have to come to the U.S. It is not a requirement under refugee protocol,” she said.
Love spoke about the exodus from Central America due to extreme violence.
“When you see what these parents are putting their children through, when you see what these people are putting their bodies through – the detention, the misery, the caravans. You wouldn’t do that if you had another option. They wouldn’t do this dehumanizing thing if they weren’t facing extraordinary violence. Do you think someone would do that just because they wanted to try the American dream, because they wanted a job or something or because they wanted to do something illegal against our country,” Love said. “No rational person would bring their baby on such a brutal migration if they didn’t have to. I have seen moms throwing their babies onto moving trains to get them away from something in Honduras and when you witness that for yourself, you all of a sudden in your heart and your tummy and your spine understand that whatever that person is running from is so much worse than what you can possibly understand.”
Love discussed what she called “remain in Mexico” which she said means that when people ask at the border for political asylum they are given a paper that says when to come back to the border and show that they have a court date. When they get there, they will be told to put their hands out and they will be put in chains and driven to the immigration and the back to Mexico because they can ask for asylum but can’t come into the United States to do so.
“I would like this plan if they were given a camp to stay in that the U.N. was running, that the Red Cross was there and there was clean water and bathrooms and schools for the children and they had food. But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re literally saying (leave) and come back on this day – this isn’t our problem. It’s so questionably constitutional. They don’t have money. They’re coming from places where you live on a dollar a day,” she said.
Love said if the “remain in Mexico” practice starts in El Paso, communities like Los Alamos can support the people living in Juarez. She said there’s one shelter in Juarez and that there are very few support services for people that are going to have to stay there.
“We can’t just run down to Juarez and start flapping our hands and saying we went to help. We need to listen to the groups that are on the border because they’re going to need our material support “ she said.
Love said refugees being dumped on the streets in El Paso is a mini civil rights crisis for the churches in Las Cruces and El Paso,
“Also in Albuquerque because people are being bussed north because they are out of bed space in all the churches in southern New Mexico. If we can figure out how to handle that as a community maybe it’s much better than detention,” she said.
Love concluded her presentation which lasted more than an hour by telling the Voices of Los Alamos group that immigration action is not something that happens once a year when it’s “immigration night”.
“It’s appointing someone to liaise so every meeting you have someone update about new things, new events and ways to get involved,” she said.
Note: Love suggested the following organizations for those who wish to donate:
- Santa Fe Dreamers Project – www.santafedreamersproject.org/donate-now-1
- Al Otro Lado is an amazing organization that is doing incredible work in Tijuana/San Diego holding the line for the asylum seeking families down there. https://alotrolado.org/
- Annunciation House. A-house is shouldering the care for all the people being dumped into the streets in El Paso. https://annunciationhouse.org/. https://annunciationhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/CurrentVolunteerNeeds-18_MAR_2please note this is their specific volunteer needs:019.pdf
- Another amazing group that does not do direct services but works on tech solutions and strategic solutions to maximize impact and collect data for litigation is Innovation Law Lab. I cannot stress how this organization has radically changed the way we think about our work and our approach to delivering services. They are doing some of the most critical background work without getting the attention that some other border agencies get. https://innovationlawlab.org/