The escuelita in Ciudad Juarez. Photo courtesy of Sigrid Gonzalez.
Editor’s Note: January 29, 2020, marks the one-year anniversary of the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or as it is more commonly known, the “Remain in Mexico” policy. This policy has pushed back more than 60,000 individuals and families to dangerous Mexican cities to wait, often for months, until they can return to the United States for their immigration hearings.
This policy has caused a humanitarian crisis on the Mexican side of the border. Individuals and families returned to Mexico are often victims of kidnappings and violence by cartels and gangs who prey on these vulnerable groups.
Sigrid Gonzalez is an advocate for humanitarian response with years of experience both in Washington, D.C. and at the U.S./Mexico border. She previously worked for the Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR) helping social workers with background checks for Unaccompanied Children (UAC), as a Congressional staffer for Congressman Reyes (D-TX), and joined the Obama Administration as a Special Advisor for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
In June 2018, Sigrid decided to leave D.C. and return to El Paso where she served as a community volunteer for Annunciation House. She assisted migrants by running emergency shelters. During the peak of the humanitarian crisis, she provided logistical help to the more than 5,000 migrants passing through El Paso every week. However, after the implementation of MPP, she shifted her volunteer work to Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros.
To learn more about how MPP has affected families at the border, Save the Children Action Network’s Manager of Federal Government Relations, Santiago Mueckay, asked Sigrid a few questions about what she has seen.
SM: What impact has this administration’s policies – such as MPP, and asylum bans – had on your work?
SG: My volunteer work has shifted from first helping on the U.S. side at shelters to now helping on the Mexican side due to MPP and metering. The dangers of being a migrant in Mexico have escalated, especially for women and children. More help is needed on the Mexican side by providing basic needs upon arrival, identifying the vulnerable and giving them the dignity and respect that every human being deserves, especially after they are released from detention facilities.
SM: Can you tell us more about the work you are doing in Mexico?
SG: I started the “Sandwiches for Migrants” initiative, which coordinates volunteer groups in El Paso to make humanitarian food bags with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, snacks and water. We provide these bags to people upon their arrival in Mexican immigration facilities after being returned to Mexico from U.S. detention facilities.
In September 2019, a new wave of Mexican migrants arrived in Ciudad Juárez seeking asylum in the U.S. due to a rise of violence in Mexico. Almost 3,000 Mexican migrants established themselves at three ports of entry due to metering, a practice that limits the number of people allowed to approach the U.S. port of entry to apply for asylum. More than 50% of the migrants were children, with an average age of 5 years old.
While talking to parents, I began to identify patterns of infancy depression. Children would only leave their “casita” or tent to eat. Some became aggressive or would cry endlessly for no reason. This is when I noticed a need for education, so I created the “Escuelita” (little school) for migrant children in Ciudad Juarez’s refugee camp by building a safe place and providing daily bilingual education programming for the children. As temperatures became colder, I built a structure with pallets covered by foam camp pads and protected by a tarp under two canopy tents with colorful walls. We had a small “library” with reading books and coloring books with storage drawers full of crayons and color pencils.
The first class was for the little ones where they learned numbers, the alphabet, colors and basic words in Spanish and English. The older ones had class right after, where I only spoke English to them while teaching numbers, letters, words and phrases. I then focused on math equations during the second part of class and challenged them to do one-step higher than what they already knew from school back home.
SM: Can you share any stories about the impact that your work has on children?
SG: I had five rules in school:
- Wash your hands
- Pay attention
- Raise your hand before speaking
- Respect your classmates
Children would ask their parents to wash their hands so they would be allowed to attend school. Parents then decided to shower the kids before school. During the school hours, the parents would prepare lunch in order to have it ready when the children got out of school. The families would then eat, and the children would do their homework and play after lunch. This gave the children a routine and a sense of “normalcy” while they were at the refugee camp in Ciudad Juarez. There were reading books and coloring books with crayons and color pencils that the children were allowed to use at any time. No adults were allowed inside the Escuelita, only children. At any given moment, you would see kids sweeping the tarp or wiping the library with disinfectant wipes. It was their space, their safe area, THEIR Escuelita.
The work that Sigrid is doing in Ciudad Juarez showcases the needs that children have in these encampments. The policies that our current administration has put in place have real impacts on children and families who are fleeing violence and poverty at home.