The Immigration System Must Change to Accommodate Disabled People

CBP uses VACIS to inspect all vehicles entering Raymond James Stadium in Tampa FL.

At migrant shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border, disabled people continue to struggle daily to survive in inaccessible living conditions. As reports from the migration crisis at the border become overshadowed by other news stories, it remains critical to amplify stories of migrants, especially those with physical and mental disabilities, to ensure that future shelters are more accessible and healthy to live in. 

Disparate treatment of disabled individuals is a very serious and ongoing problem that is often overlooked when discussing immigration. Physical barriers that create inaccessible living spaces in migrant shelters include: steep flights of stairs, remote bathrooms, housing in tents on the floor and many more. 

Disabled people from various countries in Central and South America migrate to the United States to obtain better medical treatment and to face less discrimination; however, when they arrive at the border, they are faced with increased adversities in shelters.

Herbert Ramos, a migrant from Guatemala, shared his experience with a physical disability in an interview with Human Rights Watch. “In this place there is no bathroom and we have to use one that is two streets away from here. We are charged five pesos each time we use it,” explained Herbert regarding his experience in the El Barretal shelter in Tijuana. El Barretal was a shelter created from a converted rundown nightclub that hosted thousands of migrants in late 2018. Although this shelter no longer exists, numerous stories have reported on the experiences of its disabled residents.

In the shelter, people are given two meals a day, but obtaining a meal often involves up to four hour-long lines. Daniel Folgar, another El Barretal resident, explains to Human Rights Watch that it is nearly impossible to stand that long with crutches.

 In addition, the dirty conditions of El Barretal made it unsanitary for any human to survive. The soiled grounds of El Barretal are covered with mud and puddles from the rainy winter. People bathe in this grimy courtyard—making cleaning counterproductive and spreading diseases throughout the camp. This is especially troubling for children with asthma, as cold nightly temperatures and muddy floors create severe illnesses.

Life for migrants with psychological disabilities is also extremely difficult, as most do not have official documentation of diagnoses. At the San Diego-Tijuana border, a dried-up river bank was used to shelter over 5,000 people—many of them with mental disabilities—who would reside on the concrete. After officials recognized this as a humanitarian crisis, migrants were forcibly removed from the riverbank to the edges of Tijuana. 

This past May saw the largest caravan ever recorded, with roughly 15,000 people walking to the border. These migrants must be provided along their journey with access to accessible restrooms, places to sleep and meals. 

Advocacy groups and NGOs are fighting for policy changes to provide disabled migrants in caravans with the necessities they need to survive. The American Friends Service Committee provided 5,000 migrants meals, first-aid kits and asylum in 2019. Other groups including Al Otro Lando provide legal assistance to migrants at the US-Mexico border.

As bigger caravans bring increasingly larger groups of migrants into contact with the US immigration system, multiple class action lawsuits are being created. Many of these cases reference the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This protected the rights of disabled migrants and gave nonprofit organizations the right to examine the insides of immigration centers.  However, migrants with disabilities are often denied the right to speak to advocacy organizations or placed into solitary confinement for the duration of the checkup run by nonprofits.

One such lawsuit is Fraihat v. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This case pointed out ICE’s failure to provide resources to disabled people including mobility and hearing aids. In addition, the suit claimed ICE discriminated against disabled people by denying them health care. This was exacerbated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as Fraihat argues that ICE did not follow public health recommendations for containing the spread and placed high-risk individuals in danger of getting the virus. 

The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), among multiple other treaties and institutions, strongly condemn these actions. In February 2022, Human Rights Watch submitted a memorandum to the United Nations, hoping that it will “inform the Committee’s consideration of the Mexican government’s compliance with the CRPD”. 

While treatment of migrants at all levels requires reform and greater recognition of human rights, specific change must happen in consideration of disability accommodations. The Mexican and United States governments should listen to international organizations and promptly act to create accessible spaces for disabled people, as well as ending discrimination against them. With almost 200,000 encounters with US border patrol in July 2022 alone, we should begin the conversation of making sure disabled individuals are ensured basic forms of human rights.


Raegan Lusk

Raegan Luján Lusk is a freshman majoring in international relations with a minor in human rights and on the pre-law track. She is currently involved in Jumpstart teaching preschool students how to read, and in the Society of Women in Law. She is also currently learning Korean and knows some Spanish. Growing up in San Diego, she enjoys going to the beach and exploring museums. Raegan decided to join Glimpse from the Globe in order to make international affairs more accessible and to give people the resources to help others.