The following is a reflection provided by LIRS Executive Vice President, Annie Wilson, following the Board of Directors study visit to Detroit.
The Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge border crossing is a hopping place. Five thousand southbound trucks pass through the US Customs and Border Protection checkpoint at the end of the bridge every single day, along with several hundred Canadian nurses working just over the border because of shortages in our hospitals, and many many passenger cars, including – last week – a car containing three LIRS board members, the director of Freedom House, and me. Driving across the bridge on a gray snowy January day, looking down at the ice-clogged river, there was no mistaking the importance of the trade partnership between the US and Canada, as our little rental car was encircled by rumbling truck traffic on all sides. We sure felt insignificant in the midst of all that diesel fume.
As part of our board’s study visit to the Detroit area, our group met with border officials on both sides, and asked what happens when a refugee – a person wanting protection – presents himself or herself at the border. It was easy to see how a massive operation, focused primarily on commercial traffic and the movement of goods (legitimate and not) could make a human being feel insignificant, too, and how it would be possible to get lost in that vast system. We met officials on both sides of the border who want to do the right thing by refugees. Unfortunately the laws they enforce aren’t shaped to the real stories of peoples’ lives. Just blocks from the Ambassador Bridge, on the Detroit side, 42 asylum-seekers from Africa wait out the months of their asylum application process, voluntarily imprisoned in their shelter for fear of apprehension by immigration enforcement. One of those weary, hopeful residents is a young woman from Rwanda who along with her two sisters was being raised by an aunt before she fled to North America. One of her sisters had left earlier, and is living just across the border in Canada. But there is no way for the sisters to be reunited, and so they each sit in the winter cold of their new homes, divided by the bridge, pursuing their separate paths to legal protection in different countries.