At long last, we reached the wall. Its glinting metal and sharp wire stood in stark contrast to the greens and golds of the Polish forest in autumn. And its towering presence transported me to another wall: the tall steel pillars that stretch into the Pacific Ocean dividing San Ysidro and Tijuana. As a long-time immigrants’ rights lawyer in the United States, I traveled 6,000 miles to Poland’s contested border with Belarus only to be struck by how familiar it all felt: the walls, the violence, the humanitarian resistance.
Walls and other ways of turning away asylum seekers are long entrenched at the U.S.-Mexico border, but are relatively new in eastern Poland. In May 2021, Belarus’ authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko began encouraging migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere to come to Minsk, his country’s capital, to facilitate their crossing into Poland. His policy was politically calculated to provoke the European Union, which had imposed sanctions on Belarus following Lukashenko’s corrupt reelection in 2020. And it worked.
The Polish government initiated violent “pushbacks,” forcibly returning migrants to the Belarusian side without assessing claims to humanitarian protection and in violation of international law. That practice has deep echoes of Title 42, the United States’ version of a pushback policy cloaked as a public health order, which has slammed the door to migrants seeking asylum at our own border for nearly three years. The similarities don’t end at the border wall and pushbacks, either. Like the U.S., the Polish government reserves its aggressive treatment primarily for Black and brown migrants. Indeed, while a wall was erected to the north, Poland welcomed millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war just to the south.
On a sunny morning in October 2022, I set out for the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its ecological beauty, and the heart of the Poland-Belarus borderland. My professional and personal interests in the region intertwined; my own family’s forced migration began at Poland’s eastern border at the dawn of World War II. In these dense forests, where Jews once hid and were massacred by the Nazis, I wanted to see and understand the plight of today’s migrants for myself.
Colleagues from the University of Warsaw’s Centre of Migration Research picked me up at the tiny train station in the eastern town of Hajnówka. They had packed their car with homemade jars of soup, which we delivered to a base operated by Grupa Granica (“Border Group”), an activist association formed last summer in response to the crisis. The base felt eerily familiar, like the shelter for people seeking asylum I had visited just months before in San Diego, with rooms full of boxes of clothing neatly sorted by size, sleeping bags rolled up in piles, and bins of packaged food.
Word arrived shortly that two men from Sudan, one with a cut on his belly, needed food and medical care; two volunteers packed rucksacks and headed out to help. They hoped to find the migrants before dark. They do not use flashlights for fear of alerting law enforcement—Border Guard, Polish Army, Police, and Territorial Defense Forces—which now patrols for migrants to push back and humanitarian aid workers to prosecute.
After the activists headed out, we did too, in search of the border wall. We hiked for several miles along Browka Road, a muddy way that until last year was limited to environmental preservation vehicles. A large Polish army truck pulled alongside. Officers questioned us and let us go, then drove back and forth several times, keeping watch, as we crisscrossed gray ponds—the width of tires carved by army tanks—where dead frogs floated.
We finally reached our destination, and I was transported to that other wall stretching into the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. Unlike the weathered red-brown barrier that divides California from Mexico, which was erected 30 years ago, the Polish wall’s silver shines. Still, both are man-made borders, glaringly artificial in contrast to the natural world flowing continuously around and beneath them.
While the border wall felt artificial, its grave human consequences did not. I spent the night at an eco-lodge rented out at a discounted price to Badaczki i Badacze na Granicy (“Researchers at the Border”). There, I talked late into the night with Natalia Judzińska, a Holocaust scholar who uses visual methodologies to document migrants’ journeys. Judzińska photographs places where migrants have built hideouts, had violent run-ins with law enforcement, or (if they are lucky) left their warm clothing behind to travel onward by car, often to Germany. These photographs—of piles of discarded clothes, personal objects left behind—create a visual connection between Poland’s past and present; one that she argues informs how Polish scholars and activists are responding to the current crisis.
That day, Judzińska had discovered a pile of documents from a Syrian man—identity card, vaccination records, a medical diploma, family photographs, two stamps—strewn on the ground. She photographed and carefully collected the documents, with hopes of returning them to their owner. Having worked with countless people seeking refuge, I knew just how precious such belongings are—not only as personal mementos, but as evidence in support of an asylum claim. The likelihood that this man could find safety without his documents was next to nothing.
The things I saw at the Poland-Belarus border made clear that the Polish government and our own are drawing from the same playbook—erecting physical barriers and enacting policies that block access to asylum. Activists, scholars, and migrants in both hemispheres, too, follow similar paths, countering these harsh measures by providing life-saving aid, fighting for legal protections, and documenting human rights violations. That spirit of resistance made me feel right at home in this far-off borderland, which my grandparents and so many others since have traversed in search of safety.