By Lynn Levey
Children separated from their parents, families traveling on foot for months to get to the U.S. border, people fleeing rape, gang violence, government brutality, torture, and murder - we were horrified by the stories we had been hearing about the situation at the southern border. So earlier this month, my daughter and I traveled to Tijuana, to volunteer and support asylum-seekers there. We knew thousands of migrants had arrived in Tijuana without resources, facing a standoff at the border where, in violation of U.S. and international law, they are not being allowed to cross into our country to seek asylum.
We volunteered with the Border Rights Project of a wonderful organization, Al Otro Lado. Based in Tijuana, they provide legal orientation and know-your-rights training to migrants seeking asylum, while also conducting human rights monitoring at the San Ysidro port-of-entry.
People call Al Otro Lado “The Most Loving Place in Tijuana” and it certainly felt that way. Their staff, along with a dedicated group of long and short-term volunteers, give their time and energy to provide everything possible to the migrants on the ground while also collecting data to launch lawsuits against U.S. immigration policy and the repressive tactics of U.S. and Mexican Border authorities. Even though the stories we heard were brutal and the circumstances the migrants are facing are horrifyingly unjust, the atmosphere at Al Otro Lado was empowering, caring, and all-embracing of everyone who walked in the door. They provide asylum-seekers with a meal, childcare during their visit, and secure digital preservation of their precious documents. An affiliated group, locating one floor below, provides basic medical services.
The majority of the asylum-seekers who come to Al Otro Lado speak Spanish. However, on any given day, there were 6 - 7 languages being spoken in their counseling room — Haitian Creole, French, Russian, English, Turkish, among others. While we were there, people came from at least 11 different countries, including ones in Africa and Eastern Europe.
As volunteers, we received a 3-hour orientation, and then assisted with Al Otro Lado’s services for migrants – from helping with know-your-rights workshops to buying and preparing food, from copying documents to providing childcare. Children ages 1-16 are cared for in an 8’ x 14’ corner of the room where the trainings and interviews are taking place. On one of the afternoons when we were there, there were 17 kids in childcare, enjoying a momentary refuge from the trauma and dislocation they'd experienced.
As volunteers, we also did an initial consultation with each asylum-seeker or family, obtaining basic information, listening to their stories, and writing a brief summary. We also had to inform them that they might be separated from their children in U.S. detention. Al Otro Lado has created a form for them to sign at this intake that might help prevent this.
After our conversation, we gave the summary to a volunteer lawyer who joined us to answer legal questions and advise asylum-seekers on how to prepare for their “credible fear interview” with a U.S. official. Using testimony and documentation of their plight, it is in this interview where a migrant has to persuade the official that they face such danger or hardship that they deserve a court hearing on their asylum appeal. But getting this interview is a lengthy and frustrating process that violates U.S. and international law. Legally, asylum-seekers should be allowed to cross the border at any time to request asylum.
Instead the process goes like this — everyday at the Tijuana border, immigrants seeking asylum go to an outside plaza called El Chaparral. There they have their name recorded in a cheap composition book and, if lucky, are assigned a number which determines when they might be able to cross the border. This book is held overnight by the Mexican Border Patrol and Grupos BETA, a service provider from Mexico’s National Institute of Migration. The next morning, the book is brought back to the plaza and turned over to an asylum-seeker who has been appointed to manage it by Mexican authorities. Grupos BETA officers—aligned with U.S. strategy — often give asylum-seekers misinformation about the process to discourage them, but Al Otro Lado volunteers are on hand to quickly counter this.
Migrants seeking asylum might be on the list for 6 weeks before their number is called and if they aren’t present at El Chaparral when their number does come up, they can lose their spot on the list and have to start all over again. So every morning at 7:00 am, the migrants return to the plaza, hoping they will be among the 30 or so people who are escorted by Grupos Beta to the border that day. If they aren’t one of the lucky ones, migrants continue to wait in Tijuana, where many fear the gangs and government forces they fled will find them in Mexico. They also are faced with trying to find housing, food, medical care, and work, all while needing to prepare for the next step.
Those migrants who are allowed to cross the border, after informing U.S. border guards that they are seeking asylum, are taken to a Department of Homeland Security facility where they are caged in holding cells called las hieleras (iceboxes) because the temperature is exceedingly cold. Much of their clothing is often confiscated as part of their on-going brutalization. Some people have reported that las hieleras are small, cement rooms packed with people, devoid of beds, and with silver polyethylene sheets as the only blankets made available. People are not permitted to bathe and are frequently denied medication if they become ill.
Later, often many days after their detention has begun, some asylum-seekers are released on humanitarian parole. The rest are sent to immigration detention where they have their “credible fear interview.” During this, they are usually in a detention center visiting room by themselves, speaking into a phone to make their case for asylum. This involves recounting the most traumatic events of their lives and making sure to use the exact language that will show that they fall into one of the categories the U.S. deems deserving of asylum. They usually do not have a lawyer present. If their case is determined to be credible, they are assigned a city for relocation where they will appear in an asylum court for the final determination of their status. The city to where they are sent will be the most significant factor in the outcome of their case — 95% of cases heard in San Francisco are granted; only 2% of cases heard in Atlanta. This wild fluctuation demonstrates vividly the arbitrary and capricious nature of this system.
Al Otro Lado has helped thousands of migrants understand and navigate the inhumane and constantly-changing process of seeking asylum. Their work is done overwhelmingly by volunteers. When we were there, we were among about 15 volunteers who were there for 5 days to 3 weeks. Several had been there for a month or more and planned to stay even longer. But more volunteers are needed – people of all backgrounds, abilities, and language fluencies to help provide these services along with monitoring for human rights violations, filing, doing data input, escorting clients, among other tasks.
The migrants are in a tremendously vulnerable position. They are fleeing dangerous and violent circumstances, made to wait unknowable amounts of time in an unfamiliar place and at the whim of an ever-changing, ad-hoc, prejudiced, (il)legal process. Al Otro Lado provides a meal, precious legal counsel, kindness, and a safe haven from the dangers migrants face. In a sea of uncertainty and injustice, our experience at Al Otro Lado showed us the potential goodness and humanity we are all capable of providing.
In the face of our government’s inhumanity and brutality, how can we show up in solidarity? Here are four things you can do right now:
1. Donate to Al Otro Lado (100% of funds raised will go to support their work).
2. Consider volunteering at the border, even for just 4-5 days.
3. Sponsor an asylum-seeker.
4. Work with SURJ or other local organizations in solidarity with asylum-seekers. To work with SURJ or to get information about being on an accompaniment team, contact SURJ Bay Area’s Mobilization Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynn Levey is active with SURJ Bay Area’s Mobilization Committee. She traveled to the border with her daughter Maraya Karena Massin-Levey in early April 2019.