Volunteers Become Witnesses for Immigrants

Pablo (center), an orphan who lost contact with his immediate family after crossing the border, found new hope in his adopted country: “I believed I had no family, but when I visit places like this, like New Sanctuary, with people like you, I know I am among family. And I know that I am not alone.” Photo by Stanley Wlodyka.

By Stanley Wlodyka

Pablo was already an orphan when he decided to make his journey to the United States. His mother had died when he was seven and his father sometime before that, but he still had his brothers. It wasn’t until he crossed the border that he lost them too. He generously shared his tragic story with an audience of would-be volunteers for a program run by the New Sanctuary Coalition, the non-profit organization based out of Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square Park that advocates for undocumented immigrants. “Accompaniment Training” readies volunteers to accompany undocumented immigrants to a variety of different official government proceedings such as deportation hearings and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins.

Pablo’s native Honduras is perhaps the most dangerous country in the world, with the highest per capita murder rate anywhere. The abundance of natural beauty there is offset by rampant political instability, widespread poverty, and atrocious violence committed constantly and indiscriminately. The assumption is that the drug trade is responsible for these horrors, but there are vested interests in and out of the country that have a stake in keeping Hondurans in a state of debilitating fear.

Pablo comes from a coastal city named Tela, known for its gorgeous picturesque beaches. Visitors come from everywhere to enjoy the white sand, palm trees, and warm waters, but always within the safety of gated, all-inclusive resorts. Outside of those gates the general population is terrorized. A large portion of Tela residents, including Pablo, belong to an ethnic group called Garifuna—who were brought to Central America from West Africa on slave ships. There is now a mass exodus of the Garifuna people, endangering the survival of their culture, as they emigrate to places like the United States. Meanwhile, transnational businesses and billionaires are moving in to these gorgeous coastal areas and carving out a chunk for themselves that would officially be exempt from Honduras’ laws and constitution, thereby enabling them to negotiate treaties with foreign governments. This neo-colonial experiment, known as ZEDEs—Zonas de Empleo y Desarollo Economico (Zones of Employment and Economic Development)—is popularly referred to by Hondurans “Model Cities.”

The Model Cities program was conceived by American economist Paul Romer. He is a 2018 Nobel Prize recipient, SVP of the World Bank, and member of an advisory group that has included Grover Norquist who started the Tea Party movement in the United States, which sparked an ultra-conservative fervor that many have noted ultimately paved the way for the election of American “billionaire” Donald J. Trump in 2016.

The Model Cities proposal was initially rejected by the Honduran Supreme Court in 2012, but a few months later, the country’s congressional body deposed four of its five judges. At that time, the president of the Honduran congress was Juan Orlando Hernandez, referred to, colloquially, by his initials “J.O.H.” (pronounced “hoh”). The new Supreme Court promptly passed the Model Cities proposal, and tossed out a request for a recount of a presidential primary earlier that year in which JOH’s victory was contested by his party rival. JOH went on to win the presidency in 2014, and his subsequent re-election in 2018 aroused international suspicion of foul play.

Among many Hondurans, there is no question as to whether or not Hernandez stole the election. The question, rather, is whether it was right for JOH to steal the election. Some believe that the unwashed masses, who rarely have access to more than an eighth-grade education, should not be trusted with choosing the president. This is the same sentiment that led to the 2009 military coup that deposed Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected leader who some feared was becoming too aligned with the majority of citizens, defending indigenous rights and related concerns, and, therefore, labeled him communist. The coup was rationalized from that standpoint.

So, while foreign interests are moving in, the Garifuna minority group are moving out, in a startling parallel to gentrification, as widespread violence and the effects of environmental degradation and climate change are making Honduras unlivable for Hondurans. This is proving to be a good investment for foreigners, however, as Honduras has some of the most precious coastal areas in the entire world. In fact, it has the second largest barrier reef after Australia, which is now seeing its extraordinary natural resources go up in smoke.

Pablo was part of the mass exodus. He, his older brother Pedro, and his younger brother Yasser crossed the border through the Arizona desert. While crossing, they encountered smugglers and were held against their will. Pablo’s older brother tried fighting but was killed. His younger brother attempted the other extreme and ran away, but Pablo fears the smugglers might have caught up with him. He hasn’t heard from Yasser since. He was helped to locate the remains of his older brother in the desert and has been campaigning for authorities to search the surrounding area for the remains of his younger brother, if there are indeed any to be found.

At a recent Accompaniment Training, a volunteer lawyer with the non-profit said that he believed immigrants die in the desert because of “a policy choice,” pointing to a 1994 Clinton–era immigration strategy, known as “prevention through deterrence,” which essentially uses the desert as a weapon. In an official progress report, issued following its implementation, “death of aliens” was seen as an indicator of the plan’s effectiveness. According to that criteria, it has been massively successful. The U.S. Border Patrol estimates that an average of 375 migrants die every year during crossing attempts, approximately 7,000 people since the mid-1990s; other groups estimate that the actual death toll is exponentially higher.

Accompaniment Coordinator Ambien Mitchell says that the New Sanctuary Coalition operates in accordance with the guiding principle that there should be no borders. Acknowledging that there are those who believe that borders are necessary because resources are limited, Ambien responds, “If you’re asking for my opinion, it’s primitive, it’s scarcity-mentality, it’s lizard brain stuff. It’s like, ‘If anyone else has anything, it takes away from my ability to have.’ Which is not true: we live in a world of abundance. However, that is a legitimate part of our biological programming that has to be reckoned with as we move forward as a species and attempt to find more humane ways of interacting with one another.”

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