Imagine you are a five-year-old child and you are unable to hug your mom or dad. A wall divides you from their warm embrace. Never again are you to feel their touch or have the daily experience of their love.
The wall at International Friendship Park, located at the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, is this divide for many families. Enrique Morones and his team at the nonprofit organization Border Angels have changed that experience for several families. With their help and negotiation with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, a few selected families on Mexico’s Children’s day are able to reunite with their parents for a simple embrace lasting a few minutes just as Luis Rene and his daughter Ximena did, seen in the photo below .
For the first time since the early 1990s when the fence was built along the border, Enrique Morones in 2013 convinced Customs and Border Patrol to open the sealed door, which people refer to it as the “Door of Hope.”
Morones pointed to the picture of a father and daughter hanging on the wall of his office.
“I convinced Border Patrol for the first time to open the Door of Hope so a daughter and father could finally hug and reunite,” Morones said.
Morones and his Border Angels have been able to negotiate opening the Door of Hope every year since.
Children laugh and play outside at the Sherman Heights Community Center, located in San Diego’s historic Sherman Heights neighborhood. The community center is decorated with colorful ceramic circles filled with pictures of animals and sayings like la amistad es el sol de la vida, friendship is the sun of life. Border Angels is one of the organizations located within this center to help the migrant community, and holds free legal immigration consultations every Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Border Angels is committed to promoting social justice and advocating for the lives of undocumented migrants. The office is filled with colorful crosses. Some of them say recordados, which means recorded. Others say no olvidados, not forgotten. Pictures of migrants and news articles about Border Angels cover the walls.
Morones explained a typical scenario that occurs when migrants have enough money to pay for a coyote, a human smuggler. The coyote tells these men, women and children to throw away their IDs just in case they get caught by border patrol. This way, they will be transported back to Mexico rather than all the way back at their distant homelands.
Other times, children may start off their journey with a parent. They end up unaccompanied because the parent hands them to another migrant stranger to take care of them while the parent distracts gang members or other dangers that cross their path. According to Morones, some strangers place the child in a sex trafficking scheme, or sexually abuse the child. Others help the child cross the border.
In 1994, Operation Gatekeeper was initiated to prevent illegal immigration and to ultimately gain control over the busiest border crossing, according to the Office of Inspector General’s 1998 report.
“Operation Gatekeeper is worse than the Berlin Wall,” Morones said. “More than 11,000 have died trying to cross the border. There is a mass grave site 2.5 hours from this office for the 600 ‘no olvidados’ – migrants who are still not identified.”
The lucky ones who make it to the border still face many more challenges.
In the month of April 2016, 38,135 people were apprehended by border patrol along the Southwest border, according to United States Customs and Border Patrol. Of those people apprehended, 5,219 were unaccompanied children. In the San Diego sector alone, 155 unaccompanied children were apprehended that month.
Children who do make it across the border and are apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol will eventually face the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
In fiscal year 2015, 33,726 referrals were received in the ORR, and a majority of these children came from Honduras (17 percent); Guatemala (45 percent); El Salvador (29 percent); Mexico (6 percent), and other countries (3 percent), according to ORR’s unaccompanied children factsheet.
Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, which comprise the Northern Triangle, are known to be three of the five most murderous countries of the world, with El Salvador having the highest rate, according to Insight Crime, a foundation that investigates organized crime, in its annual homicide round-up.
According to InsightCrime’s tally, in 2015 there were: 6,650 homicides in El Salvador; 27,875 homicides in Venezuela; and 5,047 homicides in Honduras.
In addition to fleeing violence, the pull of the U.S.’s booming economy and hopes for opportunity drive immigrants towards the U.S.
“We need to deter these people,” said immigration attorney Meredith Brown. “They just can’t come here for economic reasons.”
Brown has been practicing immigration law since 1997 and has been an advocate for the immigrant community since 1988, when she began as a volunteer with the Central American Refugee Committee. She also serves on the pro bono panel of the Los Angeles Immigration Court.
Brown recently visited the USC class, Media for Policy Change, and was joined by Roberto Suro, a journalism and public policy professor who serves as director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. They discussed the ongoing immigration crisis in the U.S., the search for solutions, and the many barriers that exist.
Sixty percent of child migrants get no legal representation, according to a 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute.
“They are deporting people quickly with no due process,” Brown said. “Some people do get deported to their death.”
Instead Brown suggests ideas for a better solution in the establishment of pilot programs, foreign investment, and the curtailing of gang activity.
“Ninety-five percent of the cases go to trial,” Suro said. The problem is the influx is still coming in so strong. The courts are backlogged about two years, but they’re trying to close out these cases. As a result, a lot of these kids never show up for their court dates.”
U.S. officials are trying to convince people to go to the U.S. Embassy and apply for asylum in the country of origin or in a third country, namely Mexico, Brown said.
This is the same program Morones calls the “Aquí no allá program,” which he is working to convince the U.S. Congress to pass. It means neither here nor there.
“This helps migrants hoping to cross to apply for asylum within their country rather than making the treacherous journey toward their death,” Morones said.
When Morones confronts political impasse, as all immigration advocates do, he doesn’t quit. He keeps trying to help migrants and make a difference in their lives, no matter how small.
Opening the Door of Hope and allowing divided family members to embrace each other does not solve the immigration quandary. However, it gives these families a chance to express their love, and it gives us all a chance to embrace our common humanity.
Gabriela Cartwright is from San Diego and recently graduated from the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy with a Master of Public Administration degree. She wrote this story for the Media for Policy Change class.