Around the table were a mother, her daughters, the attorney and myself. Tearfully, the mother shared how their lives had been threatened by gangs who were controlling their neighborhood in Honduras.
One of the gang members wanted to force a relationship with one of her daughters. Her daughter’s “best friend” had refused similar advances and was killed a few days later. Terrified, the mother grabbed her daughters and fled.
They trekked nearly 2,000 miles through Guatemala and Mexico, finally getting to the U.S.-Mexico border, where, as the mom put it, they thought they had finally arrived into the arms of a compassionate nation.
We were sitting inside a trailer that had originally been set up as an influx facility to accommodate the massive hiring of U.S. Border Patrol agents after 9/11 at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico.
On that day, armed officers were sitting a few feet away from us in the brightly lit room filled with other women and children, sitting at small tables or on the floor.
It was the summer of 2014 and, like now, we were seeing a large number of Central American families from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala fleeing from insufferable conditions and seeking safety at our southern border.
The Obama administration responded by converting these make-shift barracks into a family detention center that could hold up to 800 women and children.
I was there helping interpret for civil rights attorneys who were taking declarations from Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran women who had experienced abuse and due process violations at the hands of Border Patrol agents.
Instead of welcoming arms, Border Patrol agents arrested her family and then shoved them into a cold holding cell, telling them they were going to be deported back right away.
They were forced to sleep on concrete floors, drawing as much warmth as they could from a thin mylar sheet.
The lights were on 24/7 and there was little to no privacy when they needed to go the bathroom behind a short wall in the same holding cell.
At no time had they been asked by agents why they had come to the U.S. or whether or not they feared returning to Honduras.
Some of the questions we asked included whether or not she had sought police protection in Honduras, which prompted the mother to talk about how the police was ineffective in dealing with the gangs and were often in cahoots with them.
She then reached across and held her daughter’s hand, paused and said that even if police were willing to help, they probably wouldn’t because her daughter was a lesbian and they had failed to respond to the murder of her “best friend.”
It didn’t take long to note the intersectionality of our social justice movements.
For nearly 2 decades, I have been an activist for immigrant, border and LGBTQ rights, but this was the 1st time I came face-to-face with the courage and profound hope of a young family seeking a better life and whose story stood at an intersection of oppression.
Since that time, I have seen many examples of this courage. And, through this work, I have also seen the intersections of oppression that rob people, including children, of their dignity, well-being and, sometimes, their lives.
Just as the LGBTQ community has been criminalized to rob us of our rights, freedom and dignity, so have immigrant and refugee communities.
In spite of the fact that humans have migrated since the beginning of time, we have treated refugees seeking safety at our southern border – many of whom are members of the LGBTQ community – poorly.
Under this administration, anti-immigrant policies have gotten exponentially worse. They’ve been denied entry, locked up in overcrowded and unsanitary cells for days, provided inadequate or untimely medical attention, which has resulted in 6 child deaths since last November, and sent back to Mexican northern cities to await their immigration hearings for months if not years.
Another despicable practice has been “metering,” which forces thousands of people to put their name on a list and wait in Mexico before they can even apply for asylum at our ports of entry.
In desperation, many attempt to cross at places that put their lives at risk, as witnessed recently with the deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria.
For the LGBTQ community, waiting in Mexico exposes them to violence and larger threats to their lives, because there are few welcoming services and shelters.
When I worked for a civil rights group in New Mexico, we met regularly with immigrants at the Otero County Processing Center near Chaparral, New Mexico, to assess whether detainees were treated humanely and not held indefinitely.
We would also file complaints with Immigration and Customs Enforcement because transgender women were placed in isolation cells for their so-called “protection.”
This is the same facility where Johana Medina Leon, a transgender woman, recently did not receive adequate medical care, resulting in her death.
Under this administration, we experience daily assaults on the LGBTQ, immigrant, people of color, people with disabilities, Muslim and Jewish communities.
The assaults have been normalized by a president who uses discriminatory rhetoric and criminalizes people to make it more acceptable to bring harm and abuse against us. Let’s not forget what he said about Mexicans during his campaign.
As a woman, immigrant, lesbian, Mexican-U.S. dual national and border community member, I understand these intersections well.
My hope is that one day our border communities are recognized for what they are: a place of encounter, hope and opportunity.
In short, we need a New Border Vision that demands good border governance that expands public safety for all, considers human life and human rights paramount, and is welcoming to border residents and newcomers.
How philanthropy can help
Funders can support the New Border Vision by:
At the end of the day, our communities must firmly stand against all the intersections of oppression. We are stronger when we are together.
Vicki B. Gaubeca, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, is the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which brings together rights organizations from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, to promote policies and solutions that improve the quality of life of border communities and newcomers. Follow @SBCCoalition and @NCRP on Twitter.