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Chelsea Alatriste Reflects on Her Gap Year at TCRP

After seeing an alarming video of a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project being shoved into an elevator by the Department of Homeland Security for attempting to speak to children detained at a Hampton Inn in McAllen, Texas, I knew I had found my calling. As a daughter of immigrants, I saw myself in those children. Though I was raised in Oregon, I was drawn to join the fight for human rights happening in Texas, so I contacted TCRP and began serving as a remote intern in the intake department in Fall 2020.

I went on to join TCRP’s Legislative Advocacy Committee during the 87th Texas legislative session and witnessed the stark lack of concern for the consequences that new policies would have on real people. This energized me to continue being a part of the bold advocacy happening in Texas. Soon enough, I moved to Austin, Texas in the summer of 2021, now as part of TCRP’s Beyond Borders Program, where I began my deep dive into border issues in the Rio Grande Valley.

Chelsea Alatriste with Karla M. Vargas and Laura Peña

Chelsea Alatriste (center) with Beyond Borders Program Director Laura Peña (right) and Beyond Borders Senior Attorney Karla Marisol Vargas (left)

During the Trump administration, I witnessed the slew of anti-immigrant policies South Texas was hit with, including Title 42— an obscure U.S. public health code that allows the government to prohibit entry to “persons who potentially pose a health risk.” Title 42 parallels racist U.S. policies of the past that hid behind public health concerns. For decades, Mexican laborers were required to take “baths” at fumigation facilities before entering the U.S., to “protect” border communities from “dirty destitute Mexicans”. Similarly, supporters of Title 42 claim that immediate expulsions are necessary to protect border communities from migrants carrying COVID-19. Under Title 42, despite opposition from health experts, Trump called for the rushed expulsion of migrants at the border – regardless of their age or reasons for fleeing. And now, the Biden administration continues the use of Title 42 to manipulate immigration law and cherry pick who can enter the U.S.

Unlike the government’s policies, TCRP’s collaborative movement to end Title 42 is fueled by the lived experiences of people. In the early stages of Title 42, the Trump administration detained adults and children and babies in hotel rooms in Texas before expelling them to their home countries or Mexico without following basic immigration procedures. For months, Trump denied hundreds of people their right to request asylum, and expelled them to dangerous environments.

In response, TCRP joined partners to file a lawsuit on behalf of a 13-year-old girl who was expelled under Title 42. Shortly after, TCRP filed another suit demanding the government stop expelling unaccompanied children and challenged the application of Title 42 for families. Through this work, TCRP and partners developed a process where vulnerable families could request an exemption from Title 42, which would allow them to be processed under our regular immigration laws. TCRP then worked alongside partners in Mexico, Haiti and the U.S. to support impacted families seeking an exemption. Through client testimony, TCRP exposed the racist, inhumane roots of Trump’s expulsion process.

Chelsea Alatriste at the Cavazos property overlooking at the Rio Grande River

Chelsea Alatriste at the Cavazos property overlooking the Rio Grande River

As part of this work, I conducted intake interviews with families displaced in Mexico who were seeking exemptions. For three months, I spoke to hundreds of migrants facing desperate situations like kidnapping and extortion, and living under constant unimaginable stress. Almost every client I spoke to shared a fear of being in Mexico or being returned to their home country. The people with whom we spoke were a snapshot into the broader impact Title 42 had in the Rio Grande Valley. I found that the exemption process was a massive relief for those who were approved, but was ultimately a minimum protection for vulnerable families. Only families facing extreme circumstances, such as terminal illnesses, and often with young children, were exempted from Title 42.

Seeing this process up close taught me that without a mutual dialogue between policy-makers and community partners serving directly impacted people, the U.S. immigration system will continue to consist of poor, out-of-touch immigration policies.

I also witnessed how the ever changing nature of policies like Title 42 make it almost impossible for migrants to understand how the law impacts them and their future. In response, I worked with my team to develop a multilingual Know Your Rights online resource for migrants.

⚖️ “Know Your Rights as a Migrant” is a free resource on current risks related to crossing the Texas border, what migrants can expect, and what rights they have under law. Now available in Spanish, Kreyol, and English! Share widely: ➡️ — Texas Civil Rights Project (@TXCivilRights) April 13, 2022

As my gap year with TCRP comes to an end, I leave behind this resource that I hope will empower migrants seeking protection at the Texas-Mexico border.

In this next chapter of my life, I will carry with me the experiences of the migrant families and individuals with whom I interacted, and will advocate with the grit of fellow border activists for policies that are truly centered around people, and humanity.

You can contribute here so that TCRP can offer more fellowships for strong advocates like Chelsea.

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