World Refugee Day
Editor’s note: The author is a winner of the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and a two-time finalist for the National Book Award.
June 20 is World Refugee Day, and we should honor this day by demanding that our government do more to protect those who exercise the universal human right to seek ayslum.
When “Amelia,” a mother of three and an asylum seeker from Central America, was apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in the Texas Rio Grande Valley last February, she had no idea what to expect. But what she encountered was even worse than she could have ever imagined.
For years, Amelia tried to leave her abusive husband. He threatened to kill her if she reported the abuse to the police. Terrified for her life, she fled to the United States.
When they arrested her, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers told Amelia that she was being taken to the “hielera” — the icebox. She soon found herself in a holding station, in an ice-cold cell with about 25 other women. There were no chairs or beds, just a single sink and toilet sitting in plain view.
Over the course of the next several days, she was so cold that her face peeled. She was not provided with access to a bath, shower, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, soap or a change of clothes. She was fed no more than a single sandwich once or twice a day. The only water available was provided in a single thermos shared by Amelia and the other detainees.
Lights in the hielera were kept on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making sleeping all but impossible, especially when lying on a freezing cold concrete floor. While she was in the hielera, she shared the cell with dozens of other women, who were subjected to the same conditions — women like “Annie,” a diabetic with cardiac problems who was held in the hielera for 13 days.
When Customs and Border Patrol officers arrested and detained Annie, they took away her insulin and other medications. After one day in the hielera, a day with insufficient food and no medications, Annie vomited, passed out and hit her head. She was taken to an area hospital, where she overheard a doctor telling the Customs and Border Protection officers who’d brought her in that she needed insulin. They responded that there was no money available for it, despite the fact that she had been carrying insulin with her when arrested.
Annie’s story is one with which I am too familiar. Like Annie, my 81-year-old uncle had his medications confiscated by the Department of Homeland Security when he entered the United States in 2004 and requested asylum. When he became gravely ill, the medications were not returned to him, and because he was not provided with timely medical care, he died shortly thereafter.
My uncle, Amelia and Annie have endured extraordinarily inhumane treatment, though they were exercising their universal right to seek asylum.
The Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Customs and Border Patrol should work together to protect the lives and rights of those who seek refuge here.
This day, more than any other, should remind us that everyone seeking asylum deserves to be treated humanely.
Edwidge Danticat is a short story writer, novelist and essayist whose latest novel is “Claire of the Sea Light.” Her nonfiction book about her uncle, “Brother, I’m Dying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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