Every year, the immigrant advocacy group Hope Border Institute releases a report documenting what it calls the militarization of the border in El Paso and southern New Mexico. Researchers observe immigration court hearings, interview detained migrants, and survey immigration lawyers; they collect data and report on new trends. But this year’s report had a slightly different focus.
Last year’s report rang some of the first alarm bells about the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on the border. It included the story of a mother who’d been separated from her child - before family separation became a widespread practice - and documented new obstacles asylum seekers faced on the border, in detention, and in court.
This year’s report is slightly different. “There’s been this entire strategy from the Trump administration to inflict as much cruelty as possible on migrants, to demonize border communities and to divide us,” says Dylan Corbett, the executive director of Hope Border Institute. “So we thought that it was important this year to provide not only the data, which we do, but also to tell a story of hope. A story of resistance to everything that’s happening.”
The report outlines many new policies and practices from the past year: turning away asylum seekers at ports of entry; tightening restrictions on who qualifies for asylum; forcing some migrants to remain in Mexico while they wait for their asylum hearings. But it also documents how border residents are responding to these changes.
“Things right now are bleak,” Corbett says. “We have to admit things are not good for our border communities and especially for the migrants that are coming. When you look at the policies, one could give into the temptation to despair. Border communities are standing up. Border communities are fighting back in ways subtle and dramatic. They’re providing hospitality, they’re advocating, they’re coming together, they’re organizing.”
Corbett shared these stories - and his organization’s findings - at a report release last week. Dozens of community members gathered at the Centennial Museum in El Paso. Corbett chose this location for a reason, its temporary exhibit displaying children’s artwork from Tornillo. That’s the tent facility the government built in the West Texas desert in 2018 to house young migrants; it was later dismantled.
“There’s an exhibit here of all of the artwork those children in that detention center in Tornillo produced and it’s beautiful,” Corbett says. “It’s colorful, it’s vibrant. It’s art that’s inspired from the things they would have found in their homeland: churches and plazas and the birds, the Quetzal from Central America.”
The Quetzal is a resplendent red and green bird and symbol of freedom. It features prominently in the artwork on display. Corbett says this exhibit underscores the report’s central themes: hope and resistance.
“You can clearly see that these children, despite everything that they were enduring - situations of isolation, situations where they were separated from their family, situations where they were deprived of their language, their culture, their food - they had the inner resources to deal with it,” Corbett says. “They had hope. And that gives me hope.”
Johana Bencomo is with the advocacy group New Mexico CAFé. She spoke on a panel with Corbett at the museum. “The enemy of hope is despair and if we get overwhelmed and just sink down in the hugeness of all of this, we lose hope,” she says.
Bencomo says it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the government’s ever-changing policies, especially along this part of the border.
“Being in a responsive environment has put us in a place where we are exhausted,” she says. “And it almost feels like it’s on purpose. It’s tiring out advocates and leaders so that we aren’t aware of the thing that is coming down the line. I hear from my colleagues that the border is a laboratory for injustice and that has felt so true. It’s like we practice and we try out these- the government tries out these experiments on our community and they realize it works and they blow it up across the whole southern border.”
But Bencomo says she’s seen her community mobilize to push back against these policies and welcome newly-arrived migrants.
“Honestly it’s been both beautiful and exhausting,” she says. “The reality is there’s people everywhere, regular people who are standing up and not just marching - and marching is important - but it’s the people who are volunteering and donating and coming to the meetings and sending letters to their members of congress and doing all these acts of resistance individually and collectively that has been the most inspiring things to see.”
Corbett and Bencomo hope the report doesn’t just document what they view as harmful policies, but also highlights the best of border communities, opening their arms to asylum seekers.