This Q&A is part of series of profiles of people Refugees International has met on trips to the U.S.-Mexico border. Each profile puts a human face on those seeking asylum at the border and the people who support them and highlights their recommendations for reform. This is especially important when most border policy discussion focuses on the effectiveness of deterrence to reduce the number of encounters and when many policymakers lack familiarity with the realities at the border and how the asylum system works.
In Yuma, AZ, there are no CBP One appointments available for asylum seekers to use at the official port of entry. Asylum seekers—many from Africa and Asia—who wait to be picked up by Border Patrol after crossing onto U.S. soil near Yuma are (unbeknownst to most) ineligible for asylum because of the Biden administration’s asylum ban.
To learn more, Refugees International’s Yael Schacher spoke with Fernando “Fernie” Quiroz of the Arizona-California Humanitarian Coalition in Yuma. The following is adapted from that conversation.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and how it has inspired your work?
A: I come from a migrant farm-working family. I grew up going back and forth from Yuma to Fresno when the seasons changed. In Fresno, we picked grapes and tomatoes, in Yuma, lettuce and melons. I helped my mom in the fields on weekends and in the summer. The schools were set up with migrant education programs, so I could enroll each time we moved—I’m thankful for them. And, in retrospect, I’m glad for the time I got to spend with my mom, who had a big heart that rubbed off on me.
We were poor. I grew up in public housing. I remember going to community health centers with mom and being her interpreter there. I was the youngest of 13 children and the first born in the U.S. and my mom pushed me a little harder. I saw my mom cry when we visited an older brother at “juvi”—and told her she would only cry tears of joy for me. My final years in high school were here in Yuma, and I was president of my class. I was the first in my family to go to college. When I came back to Yuma afterwards, I wanted to give back and pay it forward. I chair a housing entity that builds section 8 low-income housing, and I am part of the Arizona interagency farmworker coalition—a group of community leaders and entities that help migrant farm working families and gives college scholarships to their kids. I sit on a community health center board—same one me and my mom went to. I used to run a nonprofit, American Beginnings, that assisted people to become citizens, apply for their family members to come to the U.S., and take English classes.
We, as Americans, a lot of us have forgotten who we are. I have friends for whose parents I did immigration paperwork and they have forgotten where they come from. And they don’t see the asylum seekers coming to the border today as humans. This really bothers me. In my current work, I tell asylum seekers I support: remember where you came from!
Q: What is the focus of your work now with the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition? How has it changed over time?
A: Back in February 2021, the Border Patrol (BP) began releasing asylum seekers into the streets of Yuma, which has no shelter to take them in. I scrambled to put some people in hotels and brought some to my home. Then I talked to Border Patrol and raised some funding to provide the released asylum seekers with COVID tests and meals and hire busses to take them to shelters in Phoenix, Tucson, and near Palm Springs. After I did this for about a year, the Regional Center for Border Health began bussing asylum seekers released by BP directly from Yuma to the airport in Phoenix.
That’s when I started going to the border and was blown away by what I saw. Nobody was providing initial aid to individual asylum seekers who came to border. They would arrive and wait for hours for Border Patrol who then told them to drop everything and get in line for processing. Nobody was picking up any of the belongings they had to leave behind, and this was fueling the false narrative of “dirty people trashing our country.” I called my brother, got my truck and a flat-bed trailer and, for two weeks, cleaned up 28 miles of border from the initial fence all the way to San Luis. Then I got a grant to do clean up at the border every morning and afternoon and to provide water and snacks to asylum seekers waiting to be picked up by the Border Patrol. Many spend several hours waiting in the cold and the heat.
When I see waiting asylum seekers, I let them know that they are in Yuma, Arizona; that they might call their families now, before Border Patrol arrives to detain them and takes their phones and valuables that can fit into a small plastic bag. I try to give them a smile and ask their country—I’ve mastered many greetings. The populations have shifted—we used to have a lot of Cubans, now we have so many people coming from Africa who speak French. I know their journey has been tough, and I hope to get a smile from them.
I see my mother’s eyes in a lot of the mothers and the steps they had to take and what they had to leave behind to seek something better. I see families that, when they finally get to the border, drop to their knees and pray. They think this is the promised land—they think America will be a new beginning after the hardship, struggle, and suffering they had to endure. It’s tough sometimes, when you see a young father with three kids, and he breaks down and says he lost his wife along the way. The asylum seekers have to leave most of their belongings behind and so, on my rounds, I’ve collected hundreds of bibles and crucifixes; recently I’ve picked up leather charm belts that some asylum seekers wear to keep them safe on their journeys and many prayer rugs.
Q: What do you think most needs to change and what are your suggestions for reform?
A: In the past I have tried to tell asylum seekers a bit about what the asylum process is like and the importance of attending court dates and getting a lawyer because asylum cases are difficult to win. More information is needed, in different languages, explaining CBP One and perhaps including a QR code that can connect asylum seekers to agencies and accredited attorneys that can help them.
The biggest issue is that the individuals I see are asylum seekers—they are fleeing persecution, violence, war, horrible circumstances—and should be given a chance to seek asylum at a port of entry. They all should have legal guidance and proper assistance throughout the asylum process. And reception at the border that is compassionate and recognizes the humanity of asylum seekers.
Many today want to say that they should not come and that America is no longer a beacon of hope where asylum seekers can start a new life. But, to them it is, and we can’t change that. What we can do is remember where we came from and meet them where they are.
Featured Image: Fernie shows a prayer rug that he picked up among belongings that people seeking asylum are forced to leave behind at the border in Yuma. Photo by Yael Schacher.