Things That Matter

How Working In Ecuador During The Venezuelan Crisis Helps Me Understand The Central American Asylum Seekers

Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

“Señorita! Puedo preguntarle sobre—”

“Ah, lo siento, no hablo español!” (“Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish!”)

Conversations during my first few months in Ecuador often took this tune: brown-skinned and dark curly-haired, I certainly looked the part. But I didn’t yet speak it.

Once my Spanish grew conversational, I could answer the confusion — somewhat. Always in a cab, the taxista would begin his string of rapid-fire questions, beginning with, “Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I’d respond with a knowing smirk, expecting the next comment.

“But I was born in Pakistan,” would be my eventual answer and the driver’s quizzical expression would shortly dissolve out of sight.

I spent two years living and working in Quito, Ecuador, never had my identities challenge me, or take on new meaning, as they did during my time living in South America.

There were, of course, strange — and comedic — blips in this journey. My first friend there, who I met through work, was Indian, and we took on the label of desi gringas together. Desi, the general grouping of South Asians, and gringa, women foreigners in Latin America. Or so we thought.

“You don’t want to call yourself gringa,” my friend from Costa Rica told me one day, stifling back laughter. Gringo and gringa, she explained, were “annoying white people from the U.S.” We dropped that label quick.

A foreigner, but not white, brown but not Latina.

CREDIT: Courtest of Urooba Jamal

I was slowly falling in love with Latin America but I craved something familiar. So, I took refuge in Quito’s desi restaurants. Surprisingly, there were several.

There was Sher-E-Punjab, the biggest one that always came up first on Tripadvisor searches, with its fancy decor, cloth napkins, and smiling waiters. I’d have to reassure several times that I did indeed want my food “extra, extra, extra picante” (spicy) because I was Pakistani and could certainly more than handle it. It was important to add “extra” many times because Ecuadoreans add tomate de arbol — or the tamarillo fruit — to their aji, or hot sauce.

Then there was the one owned by Pakistanis, where the chefs added literal sugar to their mild curries, I assume to make them more palatable to both Ecuadorean and gringo palates.

Finally, there was the one by my workplace, which was, in all honesty, quite average, with most patrons rarely ordering Indian food, opting instead to sip on cervezas and eat a fast-food staple, papi pollo (fried chicken and fries).

I returned often because of the woman who owned the place. She had fled her abusive husband in India almost a decade ago, working as a cook and chef in many different countries before eventually settling in Ecuador.

She lived above the place she owned and had learned Spanish simply by getting to know her customers. She was so happy to speak to me in Urdu-slash-Hindi every time I came in.

On one of my early visits, I asked the restaurant owner why she had chosen to stay in Ecuador. She smiled, then replied with a laugh, “Because they don’t think we’re terrorists here.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

A decade ago, under the former government of Rafael Correa, Ecuador ended visa requirements for foreigners, earning the credit of having one of the most lenient visa policies in the world. Many South Asians, including many Indians and Pakistanis, as well as people from the rest of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, began migrating to the equatorial country for the first time.

According to Ecuador’s National Immigration Office, while only 92 Pakistani citizens had entered Ecuador in 2006, shortly after the policy came into effect in 2008, 178 had entered. By 2010, 518 — an increase of 550 percent in just four years.

Just last year, the UNHCR applauded Ecuador for its then-new Human Mobility Law — which regularized status for all refugees, asylum-seekers and trafficking victims — but it now appears that the new government of Lenin Moreno is set on reversing many of these policies. Blaming an influx of Venezuelans migrating to the country, it still stands to be seen what this means for migrants to Ecuador from other parts of the world.

While I met many migrants from many places in the region, such as Cuba and Colombia, it wasn’t till more Venezuelans started arriving in 2017, that I became aware of a changing tone in the country.

I was taking Spanish classes at a local university in Quito, one of them a conversational class with a fiery, expressive professor who was half-Colombian and half-Ecuadorean. Always impeccably dressed, she led our class — often just me and another young woman from Norway — with no structure. Instead, she would incite class discussions on hot-button topics from abortion to the death penalty. It was hard to place where her own opinions lay, as she wove in tales of everything from family members kidnapped by guerillas in Colombia, to the first time she snuck out from under her Catholic mother’s eyes to go party at a discoteca.

On one particular day, she started off class sharing news of a taxi driver murdered in the country by a passenger. The man who had stabbed him, she explained, was Venezuelan.

“Since Venezuelans have started arriving here,” my professor started off slowly. “Crime has gone up.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

I sat there stunned, unable to string a sentence together in Spanish — or any language for that matter. This story would be the topic of discussion in my grammar class the next morning, where my other professor implied the same. I began noticing headlines from local papers, eyeing newspaper vendors as they snaked through Quito’s traffic, and their use of the same alarmist tone about Venezuelan migrants.

For the restaurant owner from India, along with many other migrants from around the world, Ecuador was a chance to start over. The country that is Latin America’s largest refugee-hosting country became their refuge.

Elsewhere in Latin America, thousands from mostly Honduras and Guatemala are currently fleeing their homes, hoping to escape poverty and violence by seeking asylum in the United States. Their own governments have long been allied with the country they hope to reach, with the United States having backed military dictatorships and coups there. These coups are as recent as 2009 in Honduras, and as early as 1954 in Guatemala. The migrants stay stranded, having been met with tear gas by U.S. border patrol agents, amidst threats of deportation.

Before the migrants had even reached towns bordering the U.S. in Mexico, where thousands are still awaiting their destiny, U.S. President Donald Trump made inflamed remarks against them, chastising the caravan as one “full of criminals.” Residents of Tijuana, Mexico have also marched against the migrants’ arrival — with even Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum echoing Trump’s comments.

As I follow their journey, I often flick through my Canadian passport, stamped with visas from Latin America and the world: my own family immigrated to Canada when I was two years old, leaving Pakistan forever.

Getting my Ecuadorean visa with my Canadian passport my first year was as simple as gathering my forms and picking it up four days later. By my second year, it required several more trips, many more forms, and a couple hundred dollars more; I got it four months later. The lines and wait times had multiplied: many were Venezuelans who may not receive visas at all, in not four days or even four months.

I think about these Venezuelan migrants, fleeing Central Americans, the Indian woman, about my own experiences.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Urooba Jamal

I’m finally reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America,” the classic 1971 literary indictment of five centuries of pillage and plunder on the continent. Galeano once said: “We must not confuse globalization with ‘internationalism’…We know that the human condition is universal, that we share similar passions, fears, needs and dreams, but this has nothing to do with the ‘rubbing out’ of national borders as a result of unrestricted capital movements. One thing is the free movement of peoples, the other of money.”

Despite the despair in his writings, Galeano remained hopeful all throughout his life. On this (open) vein, I probe: What if we never had to escape to find refuge?

A Breastfeeding Mother Being Held By ICE Says That She Hasn’t Been Allowed To Breastfeed Her Daughter In Days

Things That Matter

A Breastfeeding Mother Being Held By ICE Says That She Hasn’t Been Allowed To Breastfeed Her Daughter In Days

screenshot / clarionledger.com

At this point, we sound like a broken record talking about the Trump administration’s immigration policies and the traumatizing effects such policies have on migrants traveling to the U.S. seeking a better life. Every week brings either gun violence against communities of color (made easier under the influence of Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric against these same communities), more cases of ICE raids throughout the country, and even more cases of families being separated at the border. 

The most inhumane part of all of this continues to be the ways the Trump administration completely disregards children.

Guatemalan mother Maria Domingo-Garcia has been in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody for nearly a week. 

She’s the mother of three and has been separated from her 4-month old daughter who she still breastfeeds. Maria Domingo-Garcia ended up in detention since being picked up during an ICE raid at Koch Foods in Morton, Mississippi. She was among the 680 undocumented immigrants that were detained earlier this month. 

According to CNN, Domingo-Garcia is being held at a facility in Jena, Louisiana. The facility is nearly 200 miles from Morton. The Mississippi Clarion Ledger, who first reported the story, followed the 4-month-old baby’s father new journey in having to raise his three young children on his own, after Domingo-Garcia’s detention. However, he’s still facing his own deportation proceedings with his next court date set for 2021.  

Now, the 4-month-old baby girl is left without her breastfeeding mother. According to CNN, when a woman is breastfeeding, the body continues to produce milk and if the milk isn’t “expressed” then it could cause pain and swelling. 

According to an ICE spokesman, all detainees receive a “medical screening upon intake” and if a woman says that she’s breastfeeding or nursing, she may be released. 

However, ICE is reportedly saying that Domingo-Garcia answered “no” when she was asked this question.  

But Domingo-Garcia’s attorney’s (Ray Ybarra Maldonado and Juliana Manzanarez with Justice For Our Neighbors) are saying that “ICE is, once again, lying. She said nobody’s asked her—not even one time—if she’s been breastfeeding.” 

Dalila Reynoso, an advocate with Justice For Our Neighbors and the two attorney’s are working with the family’s immigration case. “They hope the circumstances — the age of the infant, the breastfeeding and the woman’s lack of a criminal history — could convince immigration officials to let her out on bond quickly,” according to the Clarion Ledger.

Many on social media took to condemn ICE and the administration for keeping this mother away from her month-old daughter and other children.

“The Trump administration is keeping a mother from her four-month-old baby, who is still breastfeeding, and two other children after the ICE raids in Mississippi,” one tweet read. 

2020 Democratic Presidential nominee Kamala Harris also tweeted about the abuse of human rights by our own government.

“When will it end?” the California senator tweeted.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Ivanka Trump to share a social post that was severely ill-timed and out-of-touch.

The daughter of the president posted a photo of herself with her kids on the same week the news broke. Editor-in-chief of Rewire News, Jodi Jacobson, was quick to remind her of the mother being detained in ICE custody away from her children. Ivanka’s tweet could have been a coincidence but an ill-timed one at that. 

Twitter user Juan Escalante shared the story, adding that while she’s in her father’s care—her father is fighting his own deportation as he continues to raise the rest of his children without their mother.

According to Domingo-Garcia’s attorney’s, the mother is devastated knowing she can’t properly care for or nurture her daughter. 

Domingo-Garcia, originally from Guatemala, has lived in the U.S. for over 11 years. Aside from her 4-month-old baby girl, she has two songs, ages 3 and 11.

Her lawyers told CNN that the mother is “feeling the effects of having to suddenly stop breastfeeding.” The lawyer’s report, after visiting her in detention, that she’s “really depressed” and in pain from not being able to pump or breastfeed her baby girl.

This abuse of women’s rights in ICE detention facilities isn’t new and it also isn’t the only type. Earlier this year it was reported that nearly 30 women have miscarried while detained by ICE since 2017.

While her 4-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son might not fully grasp what’s happening to their mother right now, her 11-year-old son is a lot more aware and understands that his mother is gone. According to Domingo-Garcia’s lawyer’s, the 11-year-old son has said, “I want my mom back home. I don’t understand why they’re keeping her. She didn’t do anything wrong. We need her here.”

The Homestead Detention Center Just Transferred Out All Migrants Kids But May Welcome New Ones As Soon As October

Things That Matter

The Homestead Detention Center Just Transferred Out All Migrants Kids But May Welcome New Ones As Soon As October

V Kilpatrick / Pinterest

You’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe the Trump administration was reconsidering the way it was treating migrant children who are crossing the boarder. Especially since earlier this month, we’d reported that the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Miami, Florida, was to close. However, it looks like Homestead is set to reopen again – as soon as this October.

Well, that didn’t last long.

Pinterest / Jordan Malone

The beginning of the month saw the last of the children, who were detained at the facility, removed. While it’s difficult to say exactly how many children were originally housed at the detention center due to the overcrowding that’s taken place across holding facilities nationwide, it’s thought that there were between 2700 to 3000 children staying at Homestead. Part of the reason why Caliburn International, the company that runs Homestead, was instructed to reduce its detainees in the first place was due to government compliance issues. That is, the government had introduced new standards in preparation for hurricane season.

We still don’t know where the previous group of children went after leaving Homestead.

Pinterest / Chance Vintage

Even though the children were removed, it’s not clear what happened to the children once they’d left Homestead. The fact Caliburn International is a for-profit company and still required staff to show up for work, despite there being no detainees, has also clouded the issue. At the time of writing, reports say that while 1,700 employees had been dismissed due to the center officially closing, more than 2,500 kept their jobs. It’s not clear what they’re doing at Homestead while they await new inmates.

And because Homestead is an influx center, it doesn’t require a state license. 

Twitter / @marwilliamson

Typically speaking, influx centers are essentially designed to house a large number of inmates, in case the government suddenly finds itself inundated by asylum seekers. These centers are only intended for short stays, which is why they can legally hold a larger number of detainees. Otherwise, Homestead’s population would be capped at 500 children. And while we’re on the subject of numbers – temporary facilities like Homestead are actually more expensive, in the long run. They cost the government around $775 a day per child, while permanent shelters run at about $250 per day per child. Nice to know everyone’s tax dollars are being spent wisely.

Is this all starting to should kinda familiar to you? Yea, us too.

Pinterest / PolitcusUSA

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, it should. The US government recently argued in federal court that it shouldn’t have to provide things like toothbrushes and soap to detainees, since they were only being temporarily housed in the facility in Clint, Texas. Spoiler alert: the judges didn’t buy that argument, since inmates are being held for months at a time at these facilities. Again, these places that don’t provide basic necessities for inmates are more expensive to run than a more permanent facilities. 

But, we digress.

Pinterest / Chance Vintage

Oddly enough, even though Homestead is set to open again in October, Caliburn’s contract expires November 30. At this stage, it’s unclear whether the company will see the contract renewed, or whether a new contract will be opened up to competitive bidding. Apparently the original contract with Caliburn was awarded without competition, which was done so around the same time John Kelly, Trump’s ex-chief of staff, joined the company’s board of advisers. Bueno.

All of this shows that it’s still business as usual.

Pinterest / V kilpatrick

At the same time, even if the contract for Homestead was open to competitive bidding, it’s unlikely that much would change at the facility for the children who will be staying there. Companies and non-profits that promote asylum seeker’s rights and would likely provide safe and comfortable facilities have little interest in bidding for such contracts, since the very policies motivating them are diametrically opposed to the espoused values of these organizations. 

At the end of the day, this is all semantics. Because while it’s definitely important that we examine the ways that we detain migrants, and ensure that everyone receives due process, we’re not asking the most important question of all: should we even be detaining children for seeking asylum?

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