Isis Irizarry goes to Mexico
“I’m my mother’s daughter,” said new lawyer Isis [pronounced Ee-sis in Spanish] Irizarry when explaining why a local woman now working in Connecticut would go to the West Coast, and then to Tijuana, Mexico, to help asylum seekers.
Irizarry is the daughter of Olga Negrón, a Bethlehem city councilwoman and high-profile spokesperson for the Latino community in the Lehigh Valley.
“She’s not one to sit idle while there is an injustice,” Irizarry said of her mother in a recent interview.
Irizarry, a 2006 graduate of Bethlehem Catholic HS, decided to take direct action. She flew to the border at Tijuana, Mexico, to help at-risk immigrant asylum seekers when the opportunity arose late last year. She appealed to friends via social media for help and raised most of her expense money for the trip.
She found the organization, Al Otra Lado (translated to English as On The Other Side), which put her to work as a volunteer.
Isis Irizarry tells her story: “It was an honor to be with these beautiful people. I love Maria Meza is family more than I expected could happen in a matter of days. [Maria was the woman whose photograph of her and her children running from tear gas made international headlines.] I helped get them medical attention, put calamine lotion on their chicken pox-covered bodies. I held them in my arms as they slept. I sang them lullabies that my parents sang to me when I was small. I talked about their futures with them. I kept them hidden from those who sought to harm them. I shared sweaters and cookies and laughter with them.
“I looked out at the ocean with them, smiles and eyes wide (all of us) as we watched a surfer do terrifying things in waves bigger than I had seen in my life. I talked nonsense with them as we walked towards the port of entry, making firm eye contact so we would not conspicuously stare at the federal police officers around us. I smiled and my eyes watered once I saw they were all sitting on U.S. soil. I sat on the cold pavement with them, late into the night, as we waited for them to be called. I wept openly when the moment came, shouted goodbye across the bars that separated us as they walked away, calling goodbye to me. What fortune blessed me, that these babies, this family, learned my name and cared to use it in this the most beautiful of moments.
“I am beyond happy that everyone in Monday’s group is in the US. And thrilled that the two families have been released from detention (also known as jail), and that the father of the luckiest family wasn’t separated from his wife and children.”
What happened to the others Irizarry met on her mission? She continues her story: “But the rest of the group? We don’t know where they are. Meaning, they’re likely in detention. And nobody knows how long they’ll be there (wherever that is).
“And the amount of work it took to even find the two families? Unreasonable and unnecessary.
“And those who traveled with them to Mexico? They’re still in Tijuana (or their home countries, for some exodus members gave up and returned). They’ll have to wait for their numbers to be called.
“That’s right, there’s still a waiting list to apply for asylum. Many continue to face harm while they wait. Several will die. Some already have, bless them.”
What have these asylum-seekers experienced? Let Irizarry describe it.
“Nobody deserves this. I can only imagine what they’ve lived. Imagine it with me, if you will.
“Imagine a living hell. Whatever that is for you. Picture living that every day, or seeing your children or parents live that every day.
“The police won’t help you – either they’re causing the hell, or they’re allied with (or bought by) the ones who are causing it, or you’ll end up dead if you talk to them. Or they can’t help you: they’re under threat as well, or they’re too far away, or you have no proof, or it’s only been threats by masked strangers so there’s not enough to even investigate.
“You can’t go anywhere else in your own country: they would follow you and find you; maybe they already did.
“You reach a breaking point and decide to do something absolutely crazy: leave. Leave your home, leave your country, leave everything you have, everything you’ve ever known.
“You’ve heard you can apply for asylum in the U.S., and set your eyes on that. Even though you know part of the problems you face are a result of U.S. foreign policy. Even though you know there’s a crazy president there who hates immigrants. But there’s no other choice: to move to the neighboring countries would be the same, perhaps worse. So, it’s settled: The United States.
“But you have no money for a flight, and no way of getting permission to board in the first place. So, you do the unthinkable: you walk. You walk for days and days. They turn into weeks and weeks. They turn into months. You’re hungry, exhausted, and have long given up on the memories of a bed, a shower, a toilet, a warm meal, your morning coffee. You keep walking.
“When you’re finally a 30-minute walk from the U.S., you’re told you have to add your name to a list.
“Why? you ask.
“In order to apply for asylum,’ you’re told.
“This doesn’t make sense. Why is there a list?
“Why do you have to wait to tell an officer your story? You’re not just afraid to return next week or next month – you’re afraid today. What about the ones who created your living hell, what if they find you?!
“Shouldn’t you just be able to turn yourself in?
“Yes, you should be able to. The law says you have that right.”
So, why is it so hard? Why is it such a problem for the United States to comply with its own law?
Again, Isis Irizarry, the newly graduated immigration lawyer explains the problem:
“But the ones who are tasked with enforcing and upholding the law are doing neither.
“They decide only to allow 30 people per day to present for asylum. On a good day, the number is as high as 80. Good days are incredibly rare.
“‘Thirty people?!,’ you think. ‘But there are thousands here!’
“You’re given a number. 1755. Today, they took number 1336.
“You do the math: about 419 to go, at a rate of 30 per day, means you’ll be called in about 13 days. You panic at the thought of living in a tent on the street for nearly two weeks. But you’ve waited this long; you can wait another two weeks, you decide.
“Then someone gives you the bad news. Each number represents about 10 people.
“You feel your legs tremble beneath you. You sit on the cold curb beside the EZ-up tent where you were just given a number – what you thought would be the key to freedom now feels more like a jail sentence with no set release date.
“You look around at the thinning crowd. Some went back to the camp. Some, the lucky ones, walk toward the van that will take them to freedom.
“(In reality, it will take them to the “hieleras” – the detention center, kept so cold they’re dubbed ‘ice boxes’ – where they will stay for 2-6 days, sometimes more. The lights stay on 24/7. Often, a TV will replay the same movie for days on end. They’re allowed to shower every other day, at 2 a.m.
“If the children aren’t quiet, they and their parents are scolded. If they’re lucky, after the 2-6 days, or more, they’ll be released with a GPS tracker that will stay on their ankle for months. If they’re not lucky (if they’re traveling alone, don’t have someone with lawful status to receive them, or have entered before), they’ll be transferred to another detention center. Some are facilities that used to be jails. Some simultaneously operate as such.
“As you sit, you continue looking around the crowd. You think you see a familiar face. The face of the person you fled. It strikes fear into your heart and your head begins to pound. They didn’t notice you, so you slip away before they get the chance.
“You return to your camp. You enter your tent, still wet from the recent downpour, muddy from all the times you’ve lain [in the] open on grass and dirt. You try to get comfortable, despite the fact that you’re basically laying on cement. You’re thirsty, and look at the nearly-empty bucket you lugged across the length of the abandoned concert grounds. The trip to the List has made you too tired to go for more water. You had to leave before the breakfast delivery came, and your stomach rumbles. You hope someone brings dinner tonight. You hope you’re safe here. You hope the wait won’t be long. For food, for the List, for your turn to ride that van, for whatever challenges will follow. And in the midst of these hopeful thoughts, you drift into sleep.”