‘These are human beings’: Lawrence woman helps asylum seekers waiting at the U.S. border

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Cynthia Smith, of Lawrence, holds a photo from her recent trip to Matamoros, Mexico. She traveled to the border to see how she could use her skills as an attorney to help asylum seekers gain legal entry into the U.S.

Cynthia Smith just returned from the U.S.-Mexico border, where she handed out winter coats, socks and peanut butter sandwiches to stranded asylum seekers.

Smith made the trip to see how she could use her years of experience as an attorney working in government relations to help those seeking asylum in the U.S.

The asylum seekers she met from Cuba, Central America and Africa are all stuck in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas. They are staying close to the border, waiting until they receive a U.S. immigration court date.

The numbers at the border have been growing since the Migrant Protection Protocols went into effect in January of this year, Smith said.

photo by: Contributed photo

To make the asylum seekers’ existence more bearable, the Team Brownsville volunteers provide meals, tents and even a street school for children waiting with their families to legally enter the U.S.

According to the Department of Homeland Security website, the protocols are for foreign individuals seeking admission to the U.S. from Mexico. They must wait for the duration of their immigration proceedings outside of the U.S., where Mexico is to provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections during their stay.

“The policy had been those asking for asylum would present at the border and they would come into the U.S. and stay with someone while they waited for their court date. The policy now is they can’t come in but have to wait on the other side in Mexico,” Smith said. “They wait there with nothing.”

Smith currently serves as the Kansas legislative coordinator for Amnesty International USA, an agency that defends human rights. However, she visited the border alone as a private citizen. She connected with Team Brownsville, a large group of volunteers who help asylum seekers who arrive at the ports of entry — the Brownsville bus station and the Gateway International Bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros. The volunteers, who come from around the U.S., provide meals, tents and even a street school for children waiting with their families.

Because the weather is getting cooler, Smith arrived with duffel bags filled with coats and socks to hand out to those waiting to make their case in the American courts. She helped prepare 1,000 sandwiches and delivered them.

photo by: Contributed photo

Every day, volunteers from Team Brownsville wheel wagons filled with meals and supplies across the border to Matamoros, Mexico, for those waiting to receive a U.S. immigration court date.

“They line up for the food. They are so sweet and nice and appreciative. There are lots and lots of children. They don’t want to let their children out of their sight. Matamoros is one of the most dangerous cities in the world,” Smith said.

Humanitarian assistance

The Team Brownsville volunteers purchased 10 portable toilets and pay to have them cleaned. However, that’s not enough for the growing encampment. The conditions are squalid, Smith said. Those camped in tents use the Rio Grande River to bathe and wash clothes and then dry the laundry on the links in the border fence. There is a cinder block shower building, but it has only a spigot instead of a shower head.

photo by: Contributed photo

Asylum seekers camped in tents use the Rio Grande River to bathe and wash clothes, then dry the laundry on the links of the border fence.

Smith said the asylum seekers needed attorneys who understood the law.

“People have to be in danger to seek asylum; that is the law,” she said. “The danger might come because someone in their family got crossways with a gang member and the gang member in retaliation threatens the entire family or kills a member of the family. They are just trying to save their lives.”

However, they may not enter the U.S. before their court date. Despite the fact, Smith said, that Department of Justice statistics show that 90% of the asylum seekers will come to their court dates, President Donald Trump’s administration maintains they will disappear inside the U.S. and never be seen again.

“The data doesn’t show that to be true,” Smith said.

Helping from home

During the trip, Smith met a group known as Lawyers for Good Government, whose members assist those stuck in Matamoros in navigating the legal system.

Now back in Lawrence, Smith plans to help with that, assisting asylum seekers to fill out applications over the telephone.

“It’s a very detailed application, and they have to be sure not to miss a single thing,” she said. “You have to really show you need asylum, why you are in danger and include evidence of a police report. I can help them prepare the application from my home.”

She is hoping to find a local interpreter who will work with her.

The process is lengthy.

“Most don’t get in the country during their first court date,” Smith said. “They have to appeal, and that takes months. So they go back across the border and wait.”

Although Smith is a moderate Republican, she said this is not a partisan issue.

“These are human beings,” she said.


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