This week, the Advocate begins a three-part series by Luis Fieldman about asylum seekers who have made it to western Massachusetts, and those who have helped to get them here.
Political stability is something we in the United States take for granted. Even having the disruptive presence of Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern history, we still mostly maintain our rights to publicly dissent, speak freely, and peaceably assemble — all guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Elsewhere in the world, there are dangers of getting assassinated or having your family killed for speaking your mind or getting on the wrong side of government. For those individuals experiencing political persecution — or other life-threatening dangers including domestic violence — there exists a process to seek asylum in the United States. Similar to refugees, asylum seekers put themselves at the mercy of the United States because they face dangers in their home countries. But asylum seekers perhaps have an even greater urgency, as they have often had to flee their homes already, before they are able to apply for entry.
The fact that the United States offers asylum to those who speak out for truth and justice in their home countries is a badge of honor. By providing safety to these political dissidents, we show the world that free speech is a powerful and important right.
The Trump Administration has done its best to appeal to the worst in people — egging on his supporters to nurture xenophobia and racism against huge swaths of people across the world. As soon as he came into office, Trump instituted a ban on travelers coming into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and also signed an executive order to detain all migrants crossing the border rather than releasing those determined not to pose a threat to the country. Further orders have included forcing those wishing to enter the country into a longer wait and instituting a controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy that has forced migrants into dangerous situations living in Mexico, where many do not speak the language and risk robbery, rape, and even death.
Two asylum seekers — whose names and exact countries of origin the Advocate is not publishing due to the dangers they face — spoke to Fieldman about their harrowing experiences getting to the U.S. border, and the wanton cruelty they experienced from border officials and during months of detainment once they got here. We’re calling them Ramon and Santiago.
For Ramon, who escaped his village in West Africa after his country’s military killed his brother and burned down his home, and Santiago, who managed to flee in the early morning hours after getting tipped off by a former professor that he was on what he feared was his government’s death list in Central America, getting to the United States was a matter of survival. “If I survive, I survive, and if I don’t, then it’s OK. But it’s better to die trying than to just stay,” Ramon told himself as he slipped through Central American jungles, encountering dead bodies on his way to the U.S. border.
Rather than a celebration of their escape from authoritarianism, the U.S. detained them both, placing each in a packed cell migrants refer to as the “icebox.” Ramon reported getting a paper-thin blanket to keep warm; Santiago recalled a belligerent guard who told him his life wasn’t important.
Part 1 of this series focuses on Ramon and Santiago. Part 2 will focus on local advocates for asylum seekers, some of whom have organized a group called the Western Massachusetts Asylum Support Network and are working to help bring people safely into this community and protected from the hostile situations they face at home. Another group, specifically focusing on trans asylum seekers — the Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network — will be highlighted in Part 3 of the series.
The world must remain safe for political dissidents; authoritarians can not be allowed to stamp out those who disagree with them. That’s why it is important to learn about — and support — the asylum seeker system that we have, and the people these systems protect.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at email@example.com.