Robert Holzman of El Centro poses with children housed in a shelter in Mexicali who were part of the immigrant caravans of refugees from Central America that began arriving en masse in 2018 and 2019. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MASSEY
MEXICALI — COVID-19 has not stopped the caravans of Central American refugees heading for the United States border that are fleeing violence in their home countries to seek asylum, say Robert Holzman of El Centro and Sue Massey of Holtville.
Holzman and Massey have taken on the responsibility of helping the multitudes of refugees held up in Mexicali shelters.
Around the start of the pandemic, in mid-March, the United States government stopped accepting any asylum applications from the refugees, although there was not much being done by the President Donald Trump administration to accommodate those requests in the first place during 2018 and 2019.
Families, many of which are just women and children, have fled Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in the tens of thousands over the last three years due to the threat of gang and other forms of violence in those nations.
“We are supporting five shelters in Mexicali. It’s hard to say how many people are in these shelters. It’s probably approaching 1,000 people and there are twice that many people in Mexicali in need of shelters on the street,” said Holzman, who feels the government in Mexico and the United States have done little or nothing to help the refugees.
“These people’s move had nothing to do with economics. Asylum cases are about escaping violence. I haven’t spoken to anybody (at the shelters) who has an immigration case and is not seeking asylum,” Holzman said. “Many of these people have families and a life waiting for them in the U.S., but none of them expected the changes that came with the current administration.”
Despite the termination of the asylum process, there are new refugees coming in from Central America to shelter in Mexicali every day, Holzman said.
“Asylum has always been a slow policy. They can’t wait safely in the country until their application is approved and can’t go back to their own country because it isn’t safe. We wind up creating these people without a country,” Holzman said. “Personally, I don’t know anyone that I have met in the shelters since I started traveling there in fall of 2019. When I talk to people, they may have one or two hearings, but they are still waiting to hear whether their request has been approved or denied.”
“The refugees who are coming to Mexicali are mostly fleeing violence. Teenagers are being forced into the gangs. Gangs approach teens and threaten to kill them if they don’t join the gang. When you ask people, (they) generally tell you they are fleeing violence,” Massey said.
“There are common denominators when it comes to stories among people in the shelters. Most of them came escaping violence related to drugs and gangs or to keep a family member away from the gangs, but they all have a specific background and story which was powerful enough to force them to leave their family, their homes and their country winding up with uncertainty,” said Holzman, who believes most Americans are numb to the refugees’ plight.
“We work with an organization in Mexicali called Cobina. They rent various buildings in Mexicali to be used as shelter for Central American refugees,” said Massey, adding two of the shelters are in previously abandoned hotels in Mexicali near the border.
Cobina is a non-profit human rights organization in Mexicali founded in 1987 that has been dealing with migrants since 2011, Massey said.
“Most of the donations we receive are given to them (Cobina) in cash. Some of the money went to groceries and it also went to purchase and repair a few old air-conditioning units as the shelters did not have central air,” said Massey, who also procured a few children’s pools to put in the courtyard of the hotel to help refugee children escape the summer heat.
The last time Massey went to one of the shelters, a banner from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees hung in the lobby of the shelter.
“They (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) put up isolation tents to have a place for people to put COVID (infected people). I know people have gotten COVID in the shelters, but it seems they doing a pretty good job containing it,” Massey said.
Holzman and Massey have raised $1,815 of their $5,000 goal as of July 7 through a Go Fund Me page. Those interested in supporting the cause visit their page at gf.me/u/xw3gku