Every day, I come across a new article reporting on individuals at the U.S. border, asking for asylum and other forms of protection from the perilous situations at home they are escaping. Individuals are reduced to statistics: flows, surges, nationalities, and other data that depersonalize refugees and migrants as a faceless monolith.
Frequently missing are the personal experiences that compel individuals to leave home and walk thousands of miles – often through the treacherous Darién jungle – in the search for safety and security as they face an uncertain, even hostile, reception. These articles also stop short of presenting a nuanced analysis of how to meet humanitarian needs in a world of complex human mobility.
I traveled to Guatemala in August to explore opportunities for safe and legal pathways for the refugees and migrants behind these headlines. In conversations with service providers across the country, I learned more about their diverse experiences, providing critical context to the somber statistics. I came away with a renewed commitment to developing new solutions.
The dozens of hours I traveled by car across the country paled in comparison to the hundreds of hours that refugees and migrants traversed on foot on the same routes. I drove through rolling hills to the border with Mexico, and from there, ascended on mountainous roads through dense forest up to the Highlands. I traveled through the tropical countryside to the border with Honduras where I saw grove after grove of trees bearing bananas, coconuts, and rambutans, passing roadside stalls with all sorts of other tropical fruit that in the U.S. would be a luxury and here are a staple.
It was hard to reconcile that I was speeding along in a car on the same roads that hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees and migrants walked on foot every day. We passed children, women, and men walking single file or grouped in twos or threes on the edge of two-lane roads. I was acutely aware of my immense privilege while focusing on the fact that their individuality and humanity was the driving reason I was there: to contribute to finding solutions to provide access to safe passage.
I know that there are no simple answers to incredibly complex problems. Yet I also understand, through my years of human rights advocacy, that every effort collects into something bigger and can swell into a movement for positive change.
The reasons for human mobility are long-standing and intricate. Global migration over the decades has remained remarkably consistent, representing a tiny percentage of the world’s population. What struck me in my conversations with service providers was how normalized migration was. One person spoke about their nephew migrating as a given occurrence in the community, one that they approach resolutely as something that simply needs to be done.
But today’s supercharged partisan environment has distorted a human trend and reduced people walking along a two-lane road to an interchangeable and impersonal mass to be questioned or feared. This attitude is not only harmful to refugees and migrants but it also undermines their potential contributions before they even arrive in the United States. It erodes community cohesion, let alone the historic pillars of our society welcoming newcomers seeking refuge.
In meetings across Guatemala, at centers for migrant services to shelters, I heard again and again why people were compelled to leave their homes. It is a necessity, not a choice. Refugees and migrants traveled from Venezuela, Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Peru, and Ecuador. They were fleeing authoritarian regimes, political violence, civil wars, criminal gangs, and failed states. They were driven to walk thousands of miles to safety because their governments are committing human rights violations, and climate change is creating untenable humanitarian conditions.
Standing minutes from the Honduran border, I encountered women and men in bicycle shorts and Crocs, tank tops, and track pants. They were families traveling with children who were four, five, and six. Some carried children in their arms or on their backs; others walked hand-in-hand. A distraught woman spoke of being robbed of everything she owned. Young people walked by me, holding clear plastic bags filled with water bottles and snacks – the only possessions they seemed to have. People seemed laser-focused on just walking, stopping only to get information and medical assistance from mobile units stationed along the road and to pick up those clear plastic bags from a nearby shelter.
Driving to my hotel through one town, we passed groups of people congregated in dusty fields and concrete courtyards, waiting for buses to take them as far as possible before they resumed walking. Some were fortunate to have some money to pay for a ride. Others had tents to set up camp, their clothes hung over concrete walls and metal barriers. In another town, a service provider spoke of people’s strategies for survival, to help them buy food and maybe catch a bus to a border town instead of walking yet more. I witnessed a man in his 40s bent over from pain, seeking help for blisters so he could keep walking. I saw young girls in pigtails being assessed for their mental health, coloring pieces of paper to express how they felt.
None of these individuals would undergo the uncertainty, pain, and danger of this trip unless they felt they had no choice.
As a former human rights researcher and longtime advocate for refugee and migrant rights, this was not new to me. I have worked along the U.S./Mexico border and traveled to other countries to document the complex reasons people are forced to leave their homes against the odds and face multiple barriers in a search for safety. I have interviewed dozens of refugees and migrants who have fled armed conflict, authoritarian regimes, human rights violations, deep insecurity, and the effects of climate change, and met with service providers and a range of NGOs.
Whether in immigration detention centers in the U.S., refugee camps in Jordan, or along migration routes in Guatemala, the human imperative remains the same: people will leave the only thing they know and face an uncertain future because they need safety. They travel with little and put their lives in the hands of strangers, carrying hope that governments will uphold their human rights obligations and welcome them. Not once have I met someone who didn’t want to support themselves and not rely on others, however difficult their situation and the harm and insecurity they fled. And not once have I met someone who sees themselves defined by the harm done to them. Being a refugee or a migrant is just one part of their experience, and their identities and lives are so much more.
Despite the different reasons forcing people to undertake this journey, they are all in pursuit of the same thing: to be able to live life with safety and dignity. They hope to build a new life where their families have settled or find a new community and home. And as myriad conversations have made clear, these individuals do not want to rely on others. They want the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to society.
My observations in Guatemala underscored the urgent need to add new solutions to meet these very real human needs to live with security and dignity. The migration pattern in the western hemisphere is evolving, and the status quo is not holding. Increasing numbers of people on the move in the western hemisphere require increasing operational capacity and humanitarian services, which are insufficient.
While the international protection system provides a legal framework to assess the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, it’s not enough. People need access to more safe and legal pathways because protection pathways such as resettlement and asylum, while necessary, are not sufficient. Not everyone will be eligible for the strict criteria of those pathways, and so people fleeing for humanitarian reasons might not fit in the four corners of a refugee or asylum claim. Other pathways can provide safe and orderly passage, from parole-based family reunification programs to labor visas connecting a person with a job, connecting an employer with talent. But we simply need more safe and legal pathways.
We also need to reach people closer to home so that individuals are not forced to undertake dangerous journeys for uncertain outcomes. The Biden Administration’s new Safe Mobility (SMO) initiative can help by connecting refugees and migrants with safe and legal pathways closer to where they are, which also helps reduce operational pressure on the border.
Of course, SMOs on their own will not mitigate these complex, systemic issues. Many other tools are necessary to address and manage the underlying reality that people will continue to migrate because that’s what people do – move.
Still, the bold promise of SMOs is reason enough for optimism. The SMO initiative recognizes that new solutions are needed to assist the many individual lives obscured by the numbers in the headlines. If we don’t find new ways of doing things, we’ll fail them. And, ultimately, the system itself.