Episode 6: Asylum at the Border

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:08] The so-called migrant caravan has made it to the US-Mexico border. Thousands of asylum seekers from across Central America are gathering in Tijuana, waiting, hoping for their chance at the American dream. They've spent weeks getting there leaving behind lives marked by poverty and gang violence.

News presenter: [00:00:34] They came in the night. Bus loads of Central American asylum seekers.

News presenter: [00:00:39] U.S asylum seekers arrived in Tijuana by bus this week.

News presenter: [00:00:44] A breakaway group of a few hundred migrants from the caravan.

News presenter: [00:00:49] Fake Central American migrant caravan.

News presenter: [00:00:50] This caravan of migrants.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:55] In the run up to the November 6 midterm election, it was the story dominating the headlines.

Donald Trump: [00:01:02] Marching toward our southern border. Some people call it an invasion.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:01:07] Turbocharged by President Trump's heated rhetoric that most political observers say was aimed at firing up his base.

News presenter: [00:01:15] The president has been especially focused in recent days on a caravan of about 5,000 migrants traveling north across the U.S. border, a group he has darkly characterized as gang members, violent criminals, and unknown Middle Easterners. A claim for which his administration so far provided no concrete evidence.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:01:35] I'm Imtiaz Tyab, and this is The Take. Migrants, asylum seekers, invaders. We've heard all these words used in the news coverage of the caravan. Those words, the choices behind them, they have power. At Al Jazeera, we've made the editorial decision not to describe these people from Central America coming to the U.S. as migrants. Instead, we're calling them asylum seekers. There's a lot of reasons why, which we're going to get into in this episode, but first we want to hear from our team in Tijuana.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:02:18] My name is Heidi Jo Castro. I'm a correspondent with Al Jazeera English based in Washington D.C. But I lived in Texas for more than 10 years. That's a state bordering Mexico. And immigration is one of my beats.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:02:35] Heidi is one of a team of reporters Al Jazeera has on the caravan story. She's been in Tijuana since people first started arriving at the border with the U.S. and the scene there was pretty intense. On the Mexican side, there were protests. On the U.S. side, there were soldiers reinforcing the wall. And Heidi and her team were in the middle of all of it. We knew it was going to be hard to get her on a microphone, so we shot her a message on WhatsApp and asked her to tell us what was going on.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:03:18] So I am presently walking through a camp that the city of Tijuana has set up for the Central American asylum seekers. It is inside of a public park. Sort of a stadium. It is covered in makeshift tarps. It's definitely an interesting atmosphere because while it feels quite peaceful here, just outside the fences and the gates of this community complex, maybe a hundred meters away, is a mob. It is a mob of people from Tijuana who are against the Central American asylum seekers in their city and they are being held back by a police barricade. I'd say maybe as many as 300 of these protesters have gathered. They're waving signs that say things like, "Invaders get out of our country," "Tijuana united." They've been chanting, "Our poor first." They're upset because they say that their government isn't doing a proper job of registering the many asylum seekers who have come through. So it's interesting. Really to be honest, all all they're missing is the pitchforks.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:04:48] I should give you an update. Just now I'm seeing police officers running outside of the migrant shelter. They're running toward the barricade. There's a lot of movement now. Oh shoot they're- The asylum seekers are approaching the fence. They're yelling. The women and children- the women are quickly gathering up their children right now. They're dragging them by the hands, by the shoulders. There's definitely a lot of anxiety here. You see it on their faces.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:05:28] Is it crazy, you said?

[00:05:31] {Short exchange between Heidi and an asylum seeker in Spanish}.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:05:47] He said that people are scared. This is a man standing next to me. He's holding his little boy in his arms in diapers and he just said that, it's ok, that it was a false alarm.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:06:04] A point here. People from Latin America trying to cross the U.S. southern border is nothing new. They've been doing it for decades. Some through due process. Others by sneaking in. That's why the first section of what's become known as "the wall" went up in 1994 under the Clinton administration. It's a dangerous journey so people have been banding together to protect themselves against criminal gangs and smugglers. But it's not often we see a group like this arrive all at once.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:06:35] The negative word they're choosing to use to refer to these asylum seekers is invaders. And that is a pretty new phenomenon here. Working with our Mexico City bureau staff, they say that it's a- it's usually a pretty welcoming place in Tijuana for Central American migrants and the fact that people feel compelled to protest in public, and on social media, the presence of this caravan is really startling. Previous caravans have numbered maybe in several hundred at a time, but the fact that there are now 3,000 people from Central America in Tijuana, and that the numbers are only expected to grow, and so to have ten thousand strangers you know in their town- they feel threatened by that. By the unknown.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:07:29] Here on the ground when you ask them to describe themselves they'll say something like, oh we're simple- we're simple migrants, you know. We're leaving our home countries for a better life. Because that's how they define the word "migrant." Migrants in the view here in Mexico where there's such a long and deep tradition of migration itself, it's not seen in a negative light. So "migrants" is the term that most people here use for themselves and for the newcomers to their country.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:08:05] Now I want to take you back to 2015 to another story. The word "migrant" took on a clearly negative tone at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe when millions of people from the Middle East and Africa crossed the Mediterranean.

Barry Malone: [00:08:24] You had media in the UK and in France and in other European countries who were using the word in a way that felt pejorative.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:08:36] Barry Malone is a senior journalist at Al Jazeera. He runs a TV show called The Stream. But back in 2015, he was an online editor. And the word migrant was getting under his skin.

Barry Malone: [00:08:48] Instead of telling the stories of these people or interviewing these people or allowing these people to speak for themselves, it seemed that the word told you everything that you needed to know. That there were people who were coming to your country for money. They were coming with no good reason. They were bringing criminality. They were a problem. And so I started to see every day at Al Jazeera, headlines that said "migrant crisis." And the truth was that if you looked into the numbers, most of the people who were crossing the Mediterranean at that time, August 2015, were fleeing war. You had people coming from Syria, you have people coming from Libya, people coming from Iraq, Somalia. And so when you looked into the numbers, it seemed to me that it wasn't a migrant crisis. Rather it was a refugee crisis. So I brought this suggestion that Al Jazeera would stop calling it a "migrant crisis" and start calling it a "refugee crisis" to our director of news Salah Negm. And thankfully he agreed.

News presenter: [00:09:56] The channel will use the word "refugee" to describe those leaving their home countries and reaching the continent.

Barry Malone: [00:10:02] And he changed the policy and asked me to write a blog explaining why we were doing it.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:10:08] Tell me about the blog. What was in the blog?

Barry Malone: [00:10:10] It was called "Why Al Jazeera-" Oh. Thank you. It's just been handed to me. Um, "Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean migrants." So it started with, "Imagine waking your children in the morning. Imagine feeding and dressing them. Imagine pulling your little girl's hair into a ponytail, arguing with a little boy about which pair of shoes he wants to wear. Now imagine, as you were doing that, you know later today you will strap their vulnerable bodies into enveloping life jackets and take them with you in a rubber dinghy through waters that have claimed many who have done the same. Think of the story you'd have to tell to reassure them. Think of trying to make it fun. Consider the emotional strength needed to smile at them and conceal your fear."

Barry Malone: [00:10:53] And I think the reason that I started in that way was because the story had become a story primarily of numbers. We were talking about 10 migrants dead, 50 migrants dead, boat overturns a hundred migrants dead. And it felt like we were maybe not often getting behind the headlines and getting that human story across to people. And so I felt it was important to try and put people in that situation. I remember at the time there was some criticism of both the decision and the blog in which people said to me, "Why are you becoming an activist here? You know, migrant is, you know, a perfectly accurate term to describe people who move from one place to the other." And I think as journalists it's our job to tell the truth as we see it, not to always be slaves to a government definition or government language or official language or even NGO language.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:11:58] This article went viral.

Barry Malone: [00:12:01] It did.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:12:02] It went big.

Barry Malone: [00:12:03] Mmhm. I had messages from people in other newsrooms around the world. Friends in places I'd worked before. People I didn't know in places like the BBC and CNN saying to me, "Wow this has really made us think about the terminology that we're using." "Hey we had a discussion in our morning meeting about your blog to decide what we would do, if we would follow." And not everybody followed the decision that we took. Some did. Many didn't. But even if they didn't, they were at least now thinking about it and talking about it. And I think that was a very very valuable thing to happen.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:12:41] "Migrants" is back. The word. But in this context, it's away from Europe. It's away from the Middle East or in North Africa. And it's on the border near Mexico. What are your feelings about this phrase "migrant caravan?"

Barry Malone: [00:12:58] I think every situation has to be looked at individually. There are clear differences between the story that we were covering in Europe in 2015 and this story that is in the headlines in the United States in 2018. However, I do think that there are similarities. And the big similarity that I can see, is that you have people in power who are using particular words, particular rhetoric, in order to achieve particular political goals.

Donald Trump: [00:13:31] These caravans and illegal migrants are drawn to our country by Democrat backed laws and left wing judicial rulings.

Barry Malone: [00:13:41] And for the media covering that story, similarly to 2015, you have to look at the language that's being used by a president, by a government, by anybody in power, and you have to decide whether or not you are going to use similar language when framing this story.

Donald Trump: [00:13:58] The biggest loophole drawing illegal aliens to our borders is the use of fraudulent or meritless asylum claims to gain entry into our great country.

Barry Malone: [00:14:09] The job of the media is not simply to parrot the language used by others. It's to consider that language carefully and to try to figure out the motivation behind the use of certain language. I mean you can go back in recent news history and see many occasions when the media has decided not to use the language being used by government. So a big one was "collateral damage." Some military people like to use the phrase "collateral damage." What does that mean? It's the deaths of civilians. It's the killings. It's the killing of civilians by a military. "Extraordinary rendition." When somebody is snatched from the street by a military, loaded onto a plane, and taken away often to a secret prison, it's "kidnap." An "airstrike," that implies precision, what we should call them is "bombing raids." So again, it's about the media not being lazy and examining the terminology that's being used.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:15:15] Let's talk about asylum here. It's not a characterisation, it is- it is legal term. Here's what Heidi has to say about it.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:15:22] So the international definition of asylum is pretty wide. It basically says that if a person is at risk of persecution in their home country they may qualify to apply for asylum in another country. But if we just narrow that down, the U.S. definition is a much harder hurdle to cross. Because not only does the applicant have to prove that they're at risk of persecution, but they have to also prove that this risk arises from belonging to at least one of five protected groups under U.S. law. And those groups are based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:16:08] So most of the people from the caravan who are now in Tijuana, they're not going to qualify under that second requirement under U.S. law that says they have to belong to one of these protected groups. Because these are families who are fleeing poverty and gang violence. Gang violence specifically was disqualified by the Trump administration as a qualification to get asylum in the US. So when you look at asylum from that perspective for these Central Americans, they're asking for asylum from a dead end life that they see no other way of escaping. And they say, even if they are rejected by the United States, they'll feel that they've at least tried and they feel that they haven't lost much.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:17:00] What are your thoughts on that?

Barry Malone: [00:17:02] It's not for me to say whether or not their asylum claims are valid, but as a journalist I can say that they are asylum seekers. And if you look at the numbers of people from previous caravans who have presented at the U.S. border, the majority of them do claim asylum and go through the proper process and end up rejected. But that doesn't mean that they don't have a right to try.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:17:30] And you know for a lot of them, they know they don't tick the boxes, but they are desperate. You know they live in crushing poverty in their home countries. Poverty that's made worse by all this violence and instability. And of course remember what Heidi said which is for a lot of them, this word "migrant" isn't a bad word. That migration is a part of their history. You know, they call themselves migrants.

Barry Malone: [00:17:53] I think it's really interesting. I think that it goes to show what I said earlier which is that you have to consider these things on a case by case basis. Every story is different. The terminology used in every country is different. I think that that is not how many people in the U.S. see the term migrant unfortunately. It's seen as, again, somebody who is traveling purely for economic reasons. Purely for monetary reasons. You know, if you're- if you're in the American media and you're writing stories that are going to be largely consumed by a U.S. audience, then I think you'll be serving that audience better if you use the term "asylum seekers." Really what we're talking about are people, you know. We've been having a discussion where we're saying, "Should we call them migrants? Should we call them asylum seekers? What should they be called?" They're people. They're men, women, and children.

Barry Malone: [00:19:00] Speaking as a journalist, I do think that it's important, and I think I said this in 2015, that we do better as a profession at thinking and talking about the impact that we have. You know, now journalists are under so much pressure to produce content across all different platforms at all different times of the day. We have to keep feeding that beast. And I think that sometimes the impact of that is that we don't have the time to sit back and think about the impact that our work is having. So it would be great if the media could do that a little bit more and be a little bit more attuned to the power that we have, and to wield that power a little bit more responsibly. And a big part of wielding that power more responsibly is thinking about how we frame stories. And what's really at the heart of that framing, is very often the language that we use.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:19:57] Barry Malone, thank you very much.

Barry Malone: [00:19:59] Thank you.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:20:03] The people at the border have been through a lot. They face an uncertain future. We went back to Heidi and asked her for a final thought at the end of her assignment in Tijuana.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:20:16] When you ask them, just how do you manage to do this? To, you know, against all odds get past the U.S. border, win your asylum case. The one answer that practically all of them say is: "Con la ayuda de dios." "With God's help." And you see that theme repeated over and over again. They are invested 100 percent in this blind faith that Providence has guided them away from their homes, and is leading them through this journey. And if they are turned around at the U.S. border and they end up settling in Mexico or something, they'll see that also as God's will being accomplished. And in a sense that's what's giving them strength to overcome all of these obstacles.

Heidi Jo Castro: [00:21:13] I'll end on a thing that I saw today when I was at the migrant shelter. There was a mom and she had a little girl who looked to be just about one years old who was just barely taking her first steps. And the mom was holding her hands and it just struck me when I saw that this little girl, this little person, is taking her first steps in life at a refugee camp. And who knows how much further those steps will take her. Will they take her across the border? That's a huge, huge unknown. And realistically, most likely not. She along with the vast majority of these asylum seekers, will most likely be rejected under U.S. law under Trump's administration. And so we'll just have to see where those steps take her.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:22:19] That's it for us this week on The Take. There's a link in the show description of this episode. It's for a survey where you can tell us your thoughts on the show. Morgan Waters produced this episode. She had production help from Kyana Moghadam, Jasmin Baoumy, Jordan Marie Bailey and me, Imtiaz Tyab. The show's lead producer is Graelyn Brashear. The sound designer was Ian Coss. Special thanks to Heidi Jo Castro, Amparo Rodriguez, Gustavo Huerta, and Barry Malone. We'll be back next week.