A coalition of community activists, lawmakers and clergy from Oak Park, Chicago and other areas traveled to the Mexican city of Matamoros last week to witness what many who were interviewed about the trip described as a human rights atrocity at the U.S. southern border. 

“People are being forced into really dangerous conditions,” said Moni Ruiz-Velasco, the executive director of PASO West Suburban Action Group, an immigrant rights organization. 

“That part of Mexico is designated by the U.S. State Department as presenting the same level of risk and violence as Afghanistan and Syria, because of the murders and kidnappings,” said Ruiz-Velasco, of Oak Park. 

“In that area, people have no running water and no shelter. The only food they have is what is brought across the border from the U.S. side by volunteers.” 

In December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, under the direction of President Donald Trump’s administration, implemented what’s called Migrant Protection Protocols. 

The initiative essentially denies people seeking asylum entry into the United States, forcing them to wait in Mexico, Ruiz-Velasco said. 

“Before this program began, asylum seekers who presented themselves at the border would be detained and processed for deportation proceedings,” Ruiz-Velasco said. “A lot of them were released to other family members in the United States while they waited for court, which gave them the opportunity to find a lawyer to represent them.” 

As a result, encampments crowded with migrants have popped up along the southern border, where children and adults are forced to bathe in the Rio Grande River, and where kidnapping and extortion are regular occurrences, Ruiz-Velasco said. 

“We saw the tragedy of 50,000 people, mostly women and children, living literally in tents — in a tent city — on the Mexican side of the border in Matamoros, because of this policy of delaying the adjudication of their cases and not allowing them to come in while those cases are heard,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, a West Side pastor who travelled with the coalition to the border last week. “You have people fleeing all kinds of violence in Central America and Mexico who are camped out at the U.S. border on the other side. That’s what we saw.” 

In a series of reactions to the two-day trip, which he posted on his Facebook timeline, Rev. Alan Taylor, the lead minister of the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park, described one incident that underscored the humanitarian crisis at the border.

After a prayer vigil that included freedom songs popularized during the civil rights movement (“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”) and collective prayer, a woman fainted, “apparently of heat exhaustion,” Taylor wrote. “She was unable to walk. She looked like she was in severe distress. Several people sent for medical help, but it was 45 minutes before an ambulance arrived.” 

“It’s appalling what’s happening,” said Ruiz-Velasco, who also witnessed the incident. 

“It was heartbreaking to see these children on the ground who were going to this extent to pursue their dreams and get to America,” said Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side pastor. “Nobody should have to live like this. This is not who America is. America is a nation of immigrants.” 

Ruiz-Velasco and others said people should demand that the federal government end the Migrant Protection Protocols program. 

“We need to end this program now,” said Rabbi Max Weiss, of Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion. 

“This program didn’t exist before,” said Ruiz-Velasco. “So we’re calling for our members of Congress in Illinois to vote no on this program during this upcoming vote on the federal budget, to ensure there are no funds from the federal government used to support this program.” 

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