Back from the border: Local activists join ‘Sanctuary Caravan,’ share stories from trip

  • Adelita Simon and Caroline Murray. Submitted photo

  • Adelita Simon talks to a reporter from Mexico during her trip. Submitted photo  

Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2018 11:58:38 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Two people from western Massachusetts recently spent time in Tijuana, on the border between the United States and Mexico, supporting the migrant caravan of thousands of Central American people who are seeking asylum in the U.S. The activists are part of the Sanctuary Caravan, a national initiative launched by immigrant rights group New Sanctuary Coalition that is working to get Americans to the border to support migrants there.

Adelita Simon, a Mount Holyoke College senior studying international relations and geography, and Caroline Murray, the national coordinator for Sanctuary Caravan, spoke about their experiences on the border during a panel on Monday evening, “Report Back From the Border: What Can We Do?”

Simon met Murray, a longtime western Massachusets organizer, at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, where Murray is an adviser and Simon is an organizing fellow.

More than 50 people gathered at The Parlor Room on Monday evening to hear the activists speak during the panel co-sponsored by Pioneer Valley Workers Center and Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

Just earlier that morning, Simon and Murray arrived back from about a week-long stay on the border between Tijuana and San Diego; during that period, they also spent time in both cities. They went to the border in preparation for the first wave of volunteers arriving next week and did a lot of logistical work, Simon explained, such as scoping out possible places for volunteers to stay and connecting with other groups already working on the border.

In Tijuana, they stayed in a hostel, and in San Diego they stayed in the home of a pastor, Simon said in an interview with the Gazette.

Joining them was Carolyn Oppenheim, who visited Tornillo, Texas, and spoke about her experience at a detention center where thousands of teenaged migrants are being detained in a tent city in the desert.

The aim of Sanctuary Caravan, Murray explained, is to “meet, witness and accompany people.”

Among other actions, Sanctuary Caravan will train volunteers to walk people to the border and to help migrants on the U.S. side of the border, in San Diego, get to shelters.

And they’re calling for thousands of volunteers to go to the border. “We view that as an act of non-violent disobedience,” Murray said.

While at the border herself, Simon witnessed migrants waiting for asylum in Tijuana-area shelters. “Due to the conditions right now,” she said, “they’re cold, they’re sick, they’re hungry.” It was hard to see people going through that, she said.

Shelters were overcrowded, Simon said, and medics told her many people were sick with the flu. A heavy rain last week worsened conditions.

“People every day are trying to cross,” she added.

While at a religious service in Friendship Park, a bi-national meeting place located along the U.S. southern border, Simon said she heard migrants “talking about whether or not they should cross on their own,” she said.

Near the border before the port of entry, Simon said she was asked for her documents by the Mexican military. “Even I was harassed and asked for my documents. I said, ‘This is a violation’ … they just kept following us.”

Introducing the panel was Diana Carolina Sierra Becerra, an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in history and Latin American & Latina/o studies at Smith College. To understand why people are migrating, it’s necessary to look at the historical context, Sierra Becerra said.

She noted that the U.S. has played a role in creating turmoil in Central America that is motivating people to migrate. For example, she said, many people in the caravan are from Honduras where violence increased after a 2009 coup ousted president President Manuel Zelaya. The U.S. has long had an influence in Honduras, and an investigation by the Intercept and the Center for Economic and Policy Research last year found that despite some interventions, a warning about the coup on its eve was met with “indifference” by the U.S. embassy.

Climate change also has led to migration, Murray added in an interview with the Gazette. American University researcher Robert Albro recently told The Guardian that many people are migrating because of food insecurity, an issue linked to an unstable climate, he said.

Murray is headed back to the border next week, and Sanctuary Caravan is currently recruiting volunteers to train in San Diego before getting an assignment such as accompanying migrants to the border or driving people in San Diego to shelters.

Meanwhile, Simon is headed into finals at Mount Holyoke. Though her studies are important to her, she said, “It kind of makes me upset that people over here are stressed out for classes and grades — which I know are important — but recently, coming back from Tijuana, it’s been hard to navigate that.”

Next week, Simon will head back to the border for winter vacation.

There’s a lot of work to be done here, too, Simon said.

The panel pointed to “Sanctuary in the Streets,” a program through the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and Massachusetts Jobs with Justice that offers opportunities for volunteers wanting to help “working people, including immigrants and people of color.” Volunteer jobs include driving people in a local ride share program or helping staff a 24-hour emergency hotline “to respond to workplace abuse, raids and deportations, and hate crimes,” according to the program’s website.

“I try to remind people that going down there isn’t the only way you can help,” Simon said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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