Last fall, Tides Director of Special Initiatives Roxana Shirkhoda joined a delegation of 50+ cross-sector advocates on a trip to Tijuana and San Diego on the United States-Mexico border. She captured her experiences in an original perspective piece, where she shares about what she learned and highlights six migrant groups to know about, including insights she learned from their experiences. This piece was originally published on Medium.
My parents separately migrated to the United States 41 years ago from Iran. Upon arrival to his residency program in New York, my father’s first boss asked him to change his name from Ali to Al. My mother, who came to attend college in Washington D.C., sat in class while young white men around her sang, “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iraaan.”
I find it ironic that my parents, like millions of migrants today, fled their home to start a new life in the very country that helped instigate the challenging political climate that led to their departures in the first place. In a conversation about the Muslim Ban and the 20+ Iranian students recently denied re-entry to the U.S., my mother remarked, “I didn’t expect history to repeat itself in my lifetime.”
Ali & Shahrzad Shirkhoda, circa 1982.
The truth is, history never really stopped repeating itself. Immigration, especially in border regions, has continued to be a complex topic in the United States for decades with a recurring pattern of oppression, marginalization and othering of those whose existence challenges the status quo of white wealth, nationalism and power. To be clear, this nation’s DNA was coded in the 15th century by European migrants who stripped Native peoples of their sacred indigenous land, rights, and humanity. The same European migrants who created and spread the vile system of race based slavery and indentured servitude of Africans across the United States.
I have engaged in the immigration space as a champion for nonprofits led by migrants and people of color. My focus is on routing capital and capacity building resources to groups oftentimes flying under the philanthropy-radar, whose work is having a significant impact on either (or both) immediate service delivery needs, and long term policy change.
Last week I joined a delegation of 50+ cross-sector advocates on a trip to Tijuana and San Diego, a city with over 700k immigrants. As we stood on Mexican soil with the border wall towering over us, I wondered if it was coincidental or fortuitous the trip was planned on the 30th anniversary of the Berlin wall falling. History indeed continues to flatter itself.
Below are 6 migrant groups you should know about, including insights I learned from their experiences. I also share about deliberately induced trauma, and nonprofits you can support immediately.
Some facts are particularly challenging to square. Please note I share detailed and challenging examples below that migrant communities are facing. I also want to highlight the importance of not exploiting stories of migrants, but instead writing narratives that underscore migrant resilience and perseverance.
- LGBTQ: We visited a safe house for LGBTQ individuals seeking shelter after experiencing violence in their home countries or along their migration path. We learned about queer men being stabbed for their sexual orientation, transgender women being forced by Catholic groups to cut off their breasts in exchange for support, and lesbian mothers needing extra protection to stay with their children.
- Indigenous: Many indigenous individuals from across Mexico and Guatemala, including the Mixtec, Zapotec, and Mayan, are discriminated against in Mexico. With 68 language families outside of Spanish, indigenous peoples are often ignored. Indigenous farmworkers in the United States work in the most labor-intensive crops, but are paid the least amount of money. A Zapotec woman called out that Indigenaity is having a moment. She warned us not to be inclusive to this community just to check a box. Tired of the constant misidentification, she lamented: “Call me whatever you want, at this point I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”
“If I don’t organize, I will die. My people will die.”
- Black: Heightened xenophobia towards black migrants was raised many times, particularly for Haitians, Jamaicans, Cameroonians and Cubans. These individuals are specifically targeted by the Mexican National Guard and immigration officers, experiencing higher incidents of persecution. When asked why he devotes himself to organizing the black community, one Nigerian man responded: “If I don’t organize, I will die. My people will die.”
Speakers from California ChangeLawyers, Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project, General Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Bionacionales, and Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project.
- Women: 4/10 women experience rape on their migration journey, in detention or at a shelter designed to provide respite. Mothers, out of fear they will be separated from their children, are using Sharpie[s] to wrote their names or phone numbers on their son’s and daughter’s arms for reunification purposes.
69,500 children were detained by Customs & Border Patrol in 2019 alone, and 4,250 children have been separated from their parents since June 2017 and are still pending reunification.
- Children: There are over 2 million U.S. citizenship children that have been de facto deported with their parents, who end up undocumented in Mexico with no access to school and no sense of stability. 69,500 children were detained by Customs & Border Patrol in 2019 alone, and 4,250 children have been separated from their parents since June 2017 and are still pending reunification.
Three factors (not exhaustive) leading to the plight of these groups:
- Gangs: A Honduran pastor denounced any misconceptions about migrants fleeing gang violence. He detailed the system in which gangs establish themselves in parallel to the government and demand that community members pay them taxes. The threat to those who do not pay is death. At schools, gang members recruit youth to be scouts, drug dealers and eventually gunmen. The threat to those who decline participating: “Work for us or we will kill you.”
- Death: There has been a 40% increase in suicide rates predominantly among Latino communities. Deaths in detention centers has increased; we heard the story of a Cameroon migrant who fell out of his top bunk bed and died from brain damage (despite the issue of top bunks needing railings being raised by human rights advocates). Over 7,000 unidentified bodies remain in border regions needing to be claimed.
- Corruption: The process of metering is being exploited by the current U.S. administration to limit the number of people who can request asylum. CBP officers stationed at U.S.-Mexico ports of entry tell asylum seekers they have to turn around, get on a list (known as “La Lista”) and wait. Mexico officials have willingly participated in this illegal process, leaving over 26,000 individuals waiting in limbo.
Jardin de las Mariposas, Tijuana’s first rehab center and safe house for the LGBTQ migrant community.
One of the most dangerous tactics being deliberately deployed on migrants is the infliction of irreversible trauma.
Once they apply, migrants could wait several years before their case is seen before a judge — the uncertainty is often too much to bear.
Confusion, overwhelm, and fear are all tactics. From family separation to detention conditions; from ‘remain in Mexico’ to mass deportations; from DACA, to public charge, to census fear mongering — no one person can be expected to understand every nuance, or stay abreast of every policy change. This is all part of a deliberate strategy, more on that below.
- Direct trauma: It was consistently shared throughout our trip that the immigration system as we know it was intentionally designed to break people down, to shake them to their core, to drain any semblance of hope, all in an effort to prevent other migrants from leaving their home cities. For example, the 4–6 month waiting period just to apply for asylum leaves people in limbo. Once they apply, migrants could wait several years before their case is seen before a judge — the uncertainty is often too much to bear. Right wing activists come to shelters and incite fear, volunteers are targeted in the hope they stop coming. Incidents of strategic psychological torture through harassment and intimidation are rampant.
Generational trauma is real; epigenetic research tells us that toxic stress is handed down from parents to children. While shelters provide individual and group therapy, the trauma can be so difficult to work through that some fall back into drug addiction to relieve the pain. One man described his experience migrating from Cuba — he traveled through 8 countries, saw over 50 people die trying to cross a river, and was stuck in a jungle for 2 days with no food. This man was a civil engineer in his home country, a judo black belt and when asked why he did all this, his answer was simple: “I just want a better life for my two children. I move forward for their future.”
- Secondary trauma: The delegation was a safe space that fostered honest conversations about burn out for staff working in direct or indirect service, and the real need for trauma therapy across organizations. Vicarious trauma, the ‘transformation of your world view as a result of doing your work, from seeing the suffering of others, often accompanied by intrusive thoughts and imagery’ resonated with many. This was a critical point of inflection for myself as I’ve reckoned with my own trauma exposure and its impact. We know anxiety is the their goal — we know they want to overwhelm us and the migrant community into feelings of depression and ultimately submission. Yet reversing its impact is far more work than acknowledgement alone can accomplish. To sustain this fight, we must do this work.
To negate these tactics, we need to move money quickly to small groups led by people of color. Groups on the ground are repeatedly calling for more funding, more unrestricted funding, and more multi-year funding. We discussed the need for a holistic perspective on what is resourced — naming that we cannot lawyer or litigate our way out of the current situation, a bi-national and ecosystem approach is needed. Money has to flow to NGOs based in Mexico, we can no longer treat the border crisis as one-sided. Moreover, funders need to stop placing restrictions on what counts as impact, and lift the burdens of reporting so groups can focus on delivering said impact.
- Organizations: I want to lift up the following groups led by migrants and people of color whose lived experiences drive their community solutions. Derechos Humanos Integrales en Accion, Espacio Migrante, the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, and Fianza Fund. Please let me know if you have questions about these, or other nonprofits.
- Coordination: A recurring theme was the need for coordination of both funders and groups on the ground. Many donors are distributing millions of dollars in funding without aligning with other donors to understand where to best leverage dollars. Similarly, nonprofits lifted the need for third party support to bring organizations together for proactive strategy development — is is not fair to expect this to happen organically.
Border wall in Tijuana, known as Friendship park, where families gather on the Mexico and U.S sides under strict surveillance to connect briefly between the fencing.
As we traveled out of Tijuana, it was not lost on me that we breezed through security check points to re-enter the U.S. My little 3.5×5 American passport was never questioned, just stamped and I was ushered forward. To know millions have come before me, walked those same exact steps, only to not succeed creates a dissonance that is difficult to reconcile. One local activist described a time they were trying to cross into the U.S and authorities began chasing their group of children. He said: “The minors that ran the fastest got into the U.S., and those that were slow were apprehended and kept in Mexico.”
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I came home with a broken heart struggling to reconcile how hatred can claim so much power and do so much harm. But importantly I also came back inspired. Inspired deeply by those who are prevailing in the face of all odds (people of color have survived and thrived — standing on the shoulders of those who came before for centuries). I was also inspired by those who came together from many countries and areas of focus (government, law, organizing, philanthropy, asylum) to share together, learn from one another and commit to making progress with migrants around the world seeking a safe and just life.
The 6 groups I discussed are just the start. The demographics of our country are shifting (the U.S. is projected to become “minority white” by 2045, reaching a “minority majority” status in 2020 for those under 18), and our collective conscience continues to grapple with transitioning to a values-based economy from an exploitation-economy. Amongst it all, I have tremendous hope for a country that is inclusive, generous, and equitable.
I owe everything I have to my parents and their sacrifice in coming to this country alone four decades ago. It’s important to acknowledge that arriving here, and being able to stay here, is half the battle. While my parents navigated and ultimately were successful in securing citizenship, and together worked tirelessly to provide a nurturing home for me and my sister — growing up we experienced, and continue to face, challenges as a non-white immigrant family pushed to assimilate in America. Yet, we still prevail.
I leave you with words from Pastor Douglas: “Together we are more. United we are more.”
The views, information, or opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of Tides and its employees.