This fall, national news was dominated with stories of a caravan of asylum seekers, making their way from Central America to the U.S. border.
While the U.S. government prepared Army troops to meet the asylum seekers at the border, a call was sent out by the New Sanctuary Coalition, a New York-based immigration activist organization.
“Asylum seekers and refugees fleeing violence and persecution need safe passage, but they are being met instead with tear gas, hate speech and a militarized border,” the New Sanctuary Coalition stated in a news release. “We invite you to stand for justice by joining the Sanctuary Caravan, a call by New Sanctuary Coalition to thousands of loving-minded people, to spend 40 days and 40 nights at the border to meet, witness and accompany the exodus of people fleeing to the U.S. for sanctuary.”
In Port Townsend, three women heard the call. From Dec. 22 to Jan.1, they forewent holiday parties and Christmas celebrations to travel to the U.S.-Mexican border at Tijuana to help asylum seekers eat, regain strength and find hope.
“I joke that I was born with a social justice gene and I can’t help myself,” said Nikki Russell, who works in nonprofit management and lives in Port Townsend. “Wherever I see blatant violations of human rights, I’m just drawn in that direction.”
Russell was joined by Jessica Randall, an acupuncturist, herbalist and artist, and Julia Cochrane, who describes herself as a full-time activist.
“I really understood the United States’ culpability in creating the conditions in Central America that are causing people to flee,” Russell said. “It is not OK for us to be treating people at our borders this way, people who are seeking safety and security.”
Randall, who lived in Honduras in the 1980s, and Cochrane, who works to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients and undocumented people in Jefferson County, felt a similar call.
“I am in disagreement with our presidential policies around asylum seekers,” Randall said. “I noticed that they’re illegal, actually. Rejecting people who are seeking asylum and should be able to qualify for refugee status and making them into criminals, to turn Americans away from them.”
Besides feeling outraged at the federal government’s response to asylum seekers at the border, the three activists also wanted to see for themselves who the people in the caravan were, and what the conditions at the border were like.
Meeting up with volunteers in the New Sanctuary Coalition’s Sanctuary Caravan group, the women spent their days at the border, helping in different ways.
Cochrane remained on the U.S. side, helping train volunteers and working with the Border Angels, a nonprofit that focuses on preventing deaths of immigrants at the border, to place water in the desert for refugees.
Cochrane went to see what the current border wall — the nearly 300 miles of fencing that exists along parts of the border in California, Arizona and New Mexico — looked like.
“The whole thing is barren and ugly, hostile and threatening,” Cochrane said. “You can see through the wall, because it is slats. … There are all these people on the other side of the wall that you can see. Like, hundreds.”
On the Mexican side of the wall, Russell and Randall worked with asylum seekers who were waiting to cross the border. Russell helped serve meals, and Randall used her skills as an acupuncturist and herbalist to provide health services.
“We prepared over 3,000 meals in a day,” Russell said. “You put every bit of love you can into that food. … And you get a sense that these are people, just like me, who are living on cement floors, trying to support their families.”
Russell witnessed the number-calling process, where New Sanctuary Coalition volunteers walk with asylum seekers when their number was called by border patrol at the El Chaparral border crossing at Tijauna. As soon as they approached a border patrol officer after their number had been called, the asylum seekers were handcuffed, put into a van, and transported — likely to a detention center, Russell said.
Despite the possibility of being moved to a detention center, Russell and Randall heard many stories from asylum seekers who said coming to the United States was better than staying at home.
“You could see an intense need to stay positive despite all of that,” Randall said. “They had to make a choice to come here. Part of the joy they had was that their lives weren’t as dire as they had been when they chose to leave.”
All too soon, their time at the border was done.
“Our history is one of migration,” Cochrane said. “We are in such deep denial of our nature, and our effect on this planet and on each other.”
The activists find hope in inspiring others to volunteer their time, and in the community response they received before and after their trip.
“The three of us couldn’t have done this on our own,” Russell said. “Knowing that I had a community of support behind me, that gives me hope. That we could put the ask out, and the community responded immediately.”