The flood of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has slowed dramatically since the spring, when more than 100,000 people crossed each month. Most were families seeking asylum after fleeing violence and poverty linked to historic drought made worse by the climate crisis. The decreasing numbers of arriving refugees is due to a number of factors, including new U.S. policies requiring those at the border to await their asylum hearing in Mexico, and new agreements with El Salvador and Guatemala that migrants passing through those countries must first request asylum there before going through Mexico.
In mid-October, one of the early activists supporting immigrant rights in the border region delivered a sermon and gave a workshop on the border crisis at Yale University’s Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. The Rev. Randy Mayer has been the pastor at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona since 1998 and is co-founder of the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans. The group leaves water, canned foods and other life-saving supplies in the desert for passing migrants to find.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus, who spent ten days in the Arizona/Sonora borderlands last spring, spoke with Rev. Mayer outside the chapel at the Divinity School, about how things have changed over the two decades he’s worked in the desert and the role the U.S. can play in addressing the root causes of the border crisis.
THE REV. RANDY MAYER: So, there’s been quite a lot of change. You know, in the early years, we had lots and lots of people crossing. The Border Patrol was not as large and so we would give humanitarian aid to … we’d find hundreds of people in a day. Those numbers are pretty low now compared to those days.
That’s the heartbreaking thing – it’s that they’ve created these programs like Wait in Mexico, where they have to declare asylum in a third country. These countries are very dangerous, like El Salvador and Guatemala. It’s heartbreaking because their lives are on the line, yet they’re being told to seek asylum in El Salvador, which, people are fleeing El Salvador because it’s so dangerous. It really makes no sense and it’s very difficult. What it does is forces people — when the legal system asylum programs are cut off, then people try to cross through the desert, and it’s very dangerous.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So, I just heard that Kevin McAleenan, who just took over as head of the Department of Homeland Security, has left, or is leaving, after six months. But one of the things he was talking about being proud of was establishing some kind of relationship with those countries in Central America. And I guess it was accepting people passing through there to claim sanctuary?
THE REV. RANDY MAYER: If you’re crossing from Honduras and you have to cross through El Salvador or Guatemala and those countries have asylum programs, then you have to ask for asylum in those countries first. That’s the issue, that those countries aren’t safe. They can’t even take care of their own people. People are fleeing those countries because they are so dangerous and now they are claiming that they can receive people and keep them safe, and that’s not possible.
BETWEEN THE LINES: But did it also involve — because Trump was talking about awhile ago — about basically cutting off any U.S. aid to those countries in Central America. I guess under the Obama administration they thought that would be the best way to reduce the flow of migrants if there were programs in place to help people. So I’ve been trying to find out if those cuts actually happened, if there is no more funding going to those countries, if it’s been redirected in a way specifically toward immigrants from other countries. Do you know?
THE REV. RANDY MAYER: I think some of the arrangements were cut their aid, then it was pressure for them to sign these agreements to receive asylum seekers. Yet the aid we were sending wasn’t enough to help them, and so, that’s the whole problem. You know, we raped and pillaged these countries over the last hundred years and they have no economy. The landowners and the oligarchy don’t even live in those countries and they have all the wealth. So, that’s the danger and that’s the difficulty. You have to address the root causes. You can’t just go in and try to make some quick agreement where they’re going to receive asylum seekers. It has to be a deep-rooted program that creates vital communities in these places just communities.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you see the future holding in that regard, or in any other ways that might go to the root of the problem?
THE REV. RANDY MAYER: That’s where we’re at as a world, is that at some point the first world has to say, what we’ve done in the past and how we’re living today is not working, and we somehow have to share the resources and we need to have vital, vibrant communities in all countries. It’s not just, this whole America First only siphons wealth out of everywhere else and brings it here. We want wealth everywhere. We want people to live sustainable lives everywhere, and so we have to work for that. It really is beginning to see that our brothers and sisters are suffering, and we’re part of the problem.
For more information, visit Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans at gvs-samaritans.org and on FaceBook at facebook.com/groups/664786850266517 and about Randy Mayer at gvs-samaritans.org/randy-mayer.html.