Philanthropy’s Focus on the Southern U.S. Border Crisis Is Urgent

Note: This op-ed was published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on December 18, 2018.

By Ana Marie Argilagos and Robert K. Ross
Hispanics in Philanthropy; California Endowment

As Americans gear up for the holidays, a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold at our nation’s border. Over the next few months, an estimated 6,000 individuals — children, women, and families — will continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border after having walked through treacherous conditions for months at a time. Parents on this dangerous trek are aware of the grave risk they expose their families to: crossing rivers swollen from rain, extreme heat, lack of food and shelter, and the toll on the human body. However, the violence they face in their home countries far outweighs these risks.

In recent weeks, we have seen tensions rise at the San Diego–Tijuana border, where hundreds of Central American migrants — including women and children — are fleeing from violent attacks in Tijuana, Mexico, enveloped in tear gas and hit with rubber bullets.

While the images of children being kept in cages from the summer have faded from the headlines, the reality is that every day hundreds of asylum seekers fleeing the worst of conditions arrive at our borders. Nearly half of the exodus is made up of women and children with little access to food, water, or safe places to sleep, according to the Central America and Mexico Migration Alliance, a Hispanics in Philanthropy project based in Mexico.

The families and others at the border are walking north in desperation. But the cruel reality is that under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which is imposing increased restrictions on asylum seekers — and is layered upon a severely broken immigration system — the most vulnerable are being left unprotected and without any options. The White House imposed its policy to deter Central American families from making the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. Under the policy, the government separated thousands of children from their parents, shipping them off to state detention centers with no plan on how they would reunite families.

As grant makers and citizens, we need to take a stand against family separations, against the criminalization of immigrants, against the trauma and loss created by our own policies. And we need to support the organizations that are providing legal representation, shelter, and medical care to these migrants — organizations that are already stretched well beyond their limits.

In-Person Investigation

Responding to this urgent call, Hispanics in Philanthropy, the California Endowment, and other philanthropic leaders, will be traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border later this week.

This past summer, during the beginning of the family-separation crisis, HIP brought together a 50-member delegation of the country’s most important philanthropic organizations to better understand the process migrants undergo as they reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

What we discovered during that first visit left us all deeply concerned. In San Diego, the immigration court system was systematically ensuring that immigrants were criminalized, invisible, and voiceless. The San Diego justice system takes the Trump policy to heart, putting into the works a rapidly moving process of overcriminalization and prosecution of those crossing the border, including asylum seekers. It imposed Operation Streamline — a court procedure that critics refer to as “assembly-line justice” or the “steamroller.” Many of the federal defenders were forced to represent multiple clients with little to no time to speak with the clients to explain the process. Defendants arrived in court from a Border Patrol station where they were denied basic necessities. No legal counsel. No translators. No food. No chance at a fair hearing. No chance at asylum.

We are returning to the San Diego–Tijuana border this week because the situation we witnessed last August has not improved. In fact, it has grown ever more severe. Now migrants are being physically attacked, the U.S. communities that live along the border have become militarized, and U.S. Immigration & Custom Enforcement ended its “safe release” program, leaving detainees alone, confused, and helpless on American city streets.

Nowhere to Turn

Nonprofits on both sides of the border are stretched to their limits trying to support families in dire need. A legal advocacy network, which has been the lifeline for many, is now facing a challenge to handle hundreds of new cases daily. And we realized more clearly than ever that asylum seekers coming to America’s borders truly have nowhere else to turn but to the United States.

The migrants currently walking north are not only facing immense challenges on their journey; upon their arrival, they will also face growing bigotry that is being fueled by our current political climate. This is a profound irony, considering that the current political and economic turmoil in Central America stems from decades of U.S. meddling in the region, destabilizing governments and economies. To compound this, America’s own growing appetite for illegal drugs (over $100 billion annually) is responsible in part for the increased drug trafficking and gang violence throughout the region that people are fleeing.

The United States helped to plant the seeds of poverty and violence in Central America that have grown, unchecked, over the last three decades — resulting in the current exodus.

It is worrisome that as the richest nation in the world, we continue to victimize those who seek asylum or refuge. What began earlier this year as a family-separation crisis at the border has now expanded into one of the most profound humanitarian challenges of our time, and we as a country have yet to identify a response that lines up with our own constitutional principles and ideals.

As we get ready to start a new year, we challenge our brethren in philanthropy to stay the course for the long term with both their money and their access to the bully pulpit. Even when the news media takes the spotlight off the crisis at the border, none of us can forget the families that are walking thousands of miles for a chance at survival.

Will those seeking asylum seekers arrive only to suffer — or will we receive them as our neighbors, embodying our American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Philanthropy can and must make a difference in preserving lives and preserving the very meaning of philanthropy: goodwill to fellow members of the human race.

Ana Marie Argilagos is chief executive of Hispanics in Philanthropy and Robert K. Ross is chief executive of the California Endowment.

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