Partner story

Q&A with Joy Olson

Over the years, our US grantees have had to be agile, courageous, intersectional, and collaborative to continually build new opportunities and futures for people fighting against oppressive and racist systems.  As we wind down our domestic work in the US by the end of 2023, we've asked our partners to share, in their own words, their plans for the future, learnings from the field, and how funders can support their continued progress fighting for social justice and equity.

In 2021 Luminate’s US team began exploring ways to address conditions at the US-Mexico border, particularly the security threats faced by migrants who the United States has forced to stay in Mexico to get a shot at protection. In collaboration with Joy Olson, the former director of WOLA who has deep expertise and partnerships in the border region, we started to think about how to deter crime and help the victims of migrant kidnappings in Mexico and its accompanying extortion in the United States. The following is a Q+A with Joy Olson, who has been in regular conversations with government and non-governmental actors about solutions to these crimes.

By Joy Olson

1. What are you working on?

I am trying to get the US government to respond to cases in which migrants are kidnapped in Mexico and held until their families, often in the United States, pay ransom. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, at least 70,000 migrants were kidnapped and trafficked between 2011 and 2020. 

This is a transnational crime involving kidnapping in Mexico, extortion in the US, and illicit money transfers. These crimes are seldom reported and almost never prosecuted in either country. The victims have nowhere to turn because they fear deportation (or worse) if they interact with authorities. It is unaddressed by authorities because it is complicated, involving multiple countries, organized crime, undocumented people, illicit financial transactions, corrupt officials, lack of reporting, and a threat of severe violence. 

This is a problem without a bureaucratic home. Because these crimes go unreported, systems to assist the victims or prosecute the criminals have not been developed. Neither country has a protocol for addressing binational migrant kidnapping or protection mechanisms in place. That said, the Biden Administration has established Joint Task Force Alpha, a new collaboration between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to prosecute migrant smuggling and trafficking. They have confirmed that addressing kidnappings is within their purview but are focused on disrupting trafficking and smuggling, not on the victims.

2. What are the greatest lessons you've learned over the past two years?

These may seem basic, but:

  • No one solves a problem they don’t see. These crimes need to be visible and there has to be a demand on government institutions to address them;
  • The path forward defines itself while walking - especially when you have a “chicken and egg” problem like this one. There is fear of reporting the crime. If the crime is unreported, no one is assigned to address it. If no one is assigned to address it, there is no funding to work on it. Completing the loop, there is no one to call when a victim is willing to report. With a “chicken and egg” problem, there is no clear entry point. We have needed to work all angles to see where to make entry. We are working on documenting, reporting, funding for government response, clarifying institutional roles, and helping victims navigate reporting (creating demand). It may sound a little like throwing spaghetti against the wall, but it has been a great way to raise awareness. It has generated internal conversation between government institutions and people in those institutions have begun to see the problem and their potential role in the solution.  Space is breaking open, and roles are starting to be defined.
Migrants at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, 2017 (By Kristel Muciño)

3. What opportunities do you see on the horizon and what are your plans for the future?

We need to:

  • Make kidnapping and extortion more visible - find ways to expand documentation and reporting of these crimes. We are attempting to gather cases in real time, helping the victims safely report to U.S. authorities. In the next few weeks as migrants are transferred from the main plaza in the town of Reynosa, Mexico, to shelters in that city, information on past kidnappings and extortion will be gathered. We will use that data point to draw attention to the problem’s common occurrence.
  • See established a bi-national response protocol for migrant kidnapping/extortion - A new security agreement called Bicentennial is being launched between Mexico and the United States, and while smuggling and trafficking are on the agenda, migrant kidnapping should be as well. Advocacy efforts are needed to keep attention on the victims as the agreement is implemented.
  • Make someone responsible for responding to the victims - Efforts are focused on clarifying this problem’s bureaucratic home. For example, our Mexican colleagues want two things: a phone number for a US authority who will respond in real time to kidnappings (where there is a US nexus), and assistance from a DOJ official in the embassy to accompany specific cases. We are advocating for both. On the US side, this is being done by accompanying cases and following who institutionally does and does not respond.
  • Facilitate conversations between NGOs, attorneys, and government officials who want to see this issue addressed but need assurance that whatever system is established will not be misused and that those reporting the crimes will not be prosecuted for their undocumented status. We are currently in discussion with lawyers who learn about kidnapping/extortion cases, DHS and DOJ to see if it is possible to provide these assurances, at least in a specific geographic area.
Joy Olson has deep expertise and partnerships in the US-Mexico border region and works to help the victims of migrant kidnappings in Mexico and its accompanying extortion in the US. (By Ernesto Vargas / Festival Ambulante)

Note from Luminate

As Joy shared above, this is a complex issue that must be looked at from many sides. Joy is working alongside groups like WOLA and Human Rights First and with immigration attorney Taylor Levy to solve important pieces of this puzzle, but none of them have designated funding for this work right now. Given the momentum that their advocacy has generated, even small grants could help ensure that bureaucratic shifts are implemented and make a difference in victims’ lives. To learn more about how to support their efforts, reach out to Joy at [email protected].

Read more Q&As with leaders of our US portfolio who are working to move the country toward justice in small and big ways.