After my week in Tijuana volunteering with Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, urgent questions continue to roil my mind. Come along with me and see if you have answers. Then I’ll walk you through a typical day.
- Who thought it would be a good idea to block asylum-seekers from approaching the US/Mexico border at Chaparral?
- Why would the US need a barrier of concrete or steel when Mexican officials and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers form a human wall with their bodies and with lies (such as There’s no such thing as asylum or The US is now full and no one else can come in or You can only apply at certain hours and on certain days), with new (illegal) regulations such as No unaccompanied minors will be admitted?
All that is illegal of course. If you’re fleeing persecution and you fear violence in your home country, you have an absolute legal right under US and international law to present yourself at a port-of-entry (or elsewhere on US soil) and ask for the protection of asylum. That does not mean asylum will be granted. You are simply entitled to a “credible fear hearing”, a first step in the process, in which you must convince an official you have grounds for asylum and a significant possibility of its being granted in immigration court.
- Who decided that desperate people should put their names on a list (an illegal practice), and wait for weeks or months to be called.
- How come they are housed in distant shelters in territory controlled by organized crime?
- Is it reasonable that, to find out if their numbers are called, they have to travel 2-3 hours by bus to reach the waiting area?
- By what arbitrary means does CBP determine “capacity” for the day, so that sometimes 20 people will be transferred by van to Tijuana’s older port-of-entry at San Ysidro, CA, and sometimes 40 and sometimes none?
I didn’t see an invasion. I saw a cruelly devised and intentional bottleneck. How can that be fair?
I didn’t see an invasion. I saw a cruelly devised and intentional bottleneck. I saw the injustice done to the people of Tijuana (and all of Mexico) as they are forced to cope with the chaos and desperate need caused by the US government. How can that be fair?
- What happens after that van ride? Maybe that’s what shocked me most.
- Whose idea was it that those finally allowed to present themselves get sent for days to la hielera—the icebox—holding cells where the temperature is kept down to 45oF? It must have taken a very special mind that decided to strip migrants (including babies) of all their outerwear, leaving only a single article of clothing on their vulnerable bodies before hustling them into the icebox.
- Who thought they could do this with impunity and no fear of ever being charged with crimes against humanity?
If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana, I would not have known about Chaparral or how Al Otro Lado volunteers show up at 7:00 AM with blankets or towels to create makeshift dressing rooms. Migrants get a chance to change their clothes—or receive new warm clothes from the volunteers—so that the warmest sweater, fleece-lined pants, whatever will protect them most in la hielera, is closest to the skin and will not be confiscated. Volunteers also provide Sharpies so parents can write their contact information on the children’s skin in case of separation. (Yes, the illegal kidnapping of children from their parents is still happening.)
If I hadn’t gone to Tijuana I would have relied on the NY Times where I read on the front page an article suggesting Mr. Trump’s hard line has been successful in deterring migrants. The article cited the approximately 1,000 migrants who’ve received work permits to stay in Mexico. In fact, these permits—humanitarian visas—simply guarantee that for one year the migrants will not be deported back to their home countries and can earn money while they await the chance to present themselves to a US official. The news also reports that there are fewer migrants in Mexico and they must have given up and returned home. If only. Migrants are being disappeared. Some are abducted. Some are hunted down by the very people who caused them to flee their countries—and who regularly threaten Al Otro Lado volunteers with death unless we turn over the clients or give information about their whereabouts. The office phones are now unplugged because while the threats keep coming by other means, at least no one has to listen to them all. The more visible volunteers also face regular harassment from both Mexican and US border guards.
Al Otro Lado knows of at least one case in which a truck pulled up at a migrant shelter offering a day’s paid labor. Men eagerly clambered aboard. They had no idea they had just delivered themselves into the hands of organized crime. They were taken, as reported later by an escaping survivor, to the site of a massacre. He came back to tell the story. The others were never seen or heard from again.
I never felt unsafe in Tijuana. For migrants, sheltered in the most dangerous neighborhoods and with targets on their backs, it’s another story. That’s why Al Otro Lado has joined in the lawsuit to block one of Trump’s latest outrages: people who pass the credible fear interview are being sent back to Mexico to wait there for their full hearing before an immigration judge which may take weeks, months, or even years to schedule.
Since November, the Border Rights Project has assisted thousands of migrants from at least 37 countries. My own experience was with people from Cameroon, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. All this is accomplished with only a single staff person, who is dedicated these days to litigation. All day-to-day operations are in the hands of volunteers as the Border Rights Project currently receives no grants or foundation support and has to rely on individual donations. During my stay, we received orientation from a volunteer who’d been on-the-job for 89 consecutive days.
It was easy enough for me to take a bus to the border and cross on foot, but experienced and committed immigration attorneys as well as other volunteers traveled at their own expense from all over the country. While I was there, a team of medics from Alaska flew in to staff the onsite clinic. The preponderance of gringo volunteers does not indicate a neocolonialist agenda. The migrants need to consult with US attorneys expert in US immigration law. Local tijuanenses, some with dual citizenship, were also there to volunteer on behalf of the vulnerable newcomers to their city.
Because new people are regularly rotating in and out, we spend time each morning in training and organizing assignments. There’s plenty for English-only volunteers to do: registration and security checks at the entrance and on the stairs, tech and data entry, lunch set-up, childcare in the playtime area, intake with Anglophone Africans, documentation and more. Everyone helps with cleaning. In the afternoon, clients begin to arrive for the free clinic and for lunch. If they’ve already met with a lawyer once and have follow-up questions or have additional documents with them, they can be seen again. Newcomers attend the charla, the know-your-rights workshop (in whatever languages needed) that provides an overview of the asylum process.
My role usually started after the charla. I’d do intake interviews with Spanish-speakers, explain again that the attorney would offer suggestions and advice but could not offer representation. Some had immigration questions not related to asylum and I’d get answers from one of the lawyers. For someone traveling with their biological children, we had them fill out a form with the kids’ names and birthdates and a statement they would not under any circumstances agree to be separated. The signed statement is not always honored, but we know it did the job at least once when a CBP officer put a pen in a woman’s fingers and tried to move her hand to sign a document agreeing to have her children taken. She resisted and produced our form. (Through a parallel program, Al Otro Lado is working to bring improperly deported parents back to the US and reunite them with the children the US government managed to lose.)
For particularly vulnerable clients—for example, with serious medical issues, or someone speaking only an uncommon indigenous language—we had a special form to try to keep track of their treatment.
During intake, I’d get some basic information about the person, including contact information for them and for anyone in the US willing to serve as sponsor. We went over background and the reasons they feared being sent home. One of the lawyers would then join us and get a better idea of whether a person had a strong case. Some did not, and were told this in a straightforward but compassionate manner, while suggesting another opinion might be different. Then followed the two most important parts of my job as first I helped prepare people for their credible fear hearings.
In my interviews, traumatized people spoke in disjointed, confusing ways, without clear chronology. We didn’t put words into their mouths but tried to help people get the chronology straight and tell their stories in a logical way, highlighting what’s relevant, what actually happened directly to them instead of resorting to euphemism or speaking in general terms. We role-played so they could practice their words and think hard about them. People are sometimes awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning—and who thought that would be a good idea?—taken from the hielera for their hearing in a state of total confusion, so they need to be well prepared.
Finally, I accompanied the client to the documentation table where even new volunteers became the most precise, detail-oriented helpers you could imagine. Here we copied all the important documents the person carried, e.g., identification cards, marriage certificates, birth certificates, medical reports, political party membership cards, photos and videos of injuries and State-sanctioned attacks. All this gets stored in a secure site in the cloud where it can be accessed by the client if the originals are stolen, lost, or—as shouldn’t happen but does—confiscated by border officials and trashed.
Volunteers remain onsite to finish up and debrief each evening though we need to get clients out the door early enough that they can travel back to their shelters before nightfall.
My admiration for the courage of the migrants and the commitment of my fellow volunteers goes beyond what I can easily express. Because of confidentiality and security concerns I can’t share individual stories of asylum-seekers. I can’t give a shout-out to extraordinary volunteers who deserve recognition.
As for me, I heard about Border Rights Project because the Program for Torture Victims, my home base and social justice family, is part of the Rapid Response Network, receiving calls to action when immigrants and refugees are at risk. I expected to be the oldest person traveling to Tijuana and I was already patting myself on the back when I met the woman older than myself who’d spent months camping out at Standing Rock, and the three seniors so committed to social justice they pack up and go wherever there’s a need.
I returned to LA profoundly inspired by so much resilience and passion.
But…at the Ped East border crossing to San Ysidro, as I got in line with my US passport, I saw the cage holding people whose numbers had been called that morning. I saw Central American families with little children and CBP officers barking orders at a group of English-speaking Africans. Their next stop would be the hielera. I wanted to wish them good luck and courage. I wanted them to know there are people who care, but my line moved too quickly past them.
The CBP officer looked at my passport and asked only one question: “What are you bringing from Mexico?” Grief, I thought, and anger, and hope. “Nothing,” I said. I told him nothing.