More often that not, I feel like I live in a dystopian novel. Unfortunately the events of today are real. Over the past year I have been hearing about the numbers of people at the border seeking asylum. I could not believe it was true. Yet, according to Physicians for Human Rights, as of August 2019, there were 60,000 asylum seekers waiting at the southern border waiting to apply for political asylum. One third of them were located in Tijuana, Mexico.
One of the reasons for this large number is a program that was started in January 2019 by the Trump Administration called the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” (“MPP”). Pursuant to this program, asylum seekers are expected to apply for asylum at the border but then are returned to Mexico to wait for their hearings.
Like everyone else, I watched on television and listened to the radio about the numbers of asylum seekers and could not believe what was happening. I started receiving requests to volunteer and I felt I had to go; I could not stay here and do nothing.
I went to Tijuana in October of 2019 and volunteered with Al Otro Lado, a legal aid organization with offices in San Diego, Los Angeles and Tijuana. I found my experience both horrifying and rewarding at the same time. I am going to describe some of what I experienced here.
On my first day of volunteer work, we received an orientation and training by the volunteer coordinator of Al Otro Lado. She described the method by which asylum seekers are required to apply for asylum at the border. I kept interrupting her, asking questions because I could not believe what I was hearing. I saw it the next day for myself.
Essentially, asylum seekers who are trying to enter the United States from Tijuana first line up at the pedestrian entrance at the border called El Chaparral. They are given a number on a small piece of paper and their names and numbers are recorded in a spiral notebook. The asylum seekers are then told they must wait for their number to be called (in a few months) and when their number is called, they will be taken to the US by Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) for a “credible fear interview.” (An asylum seeker is given a credible fear interview first, before being permitted to apply for asylum.) Every day, CBP decides how many people are to be let in for the credible fear interview and that number varies. It could be 20 or it could be 70.
The people maintaining the spiral notebook, writing down numbers, giving out numbers, and announcing numbers are not employees of the US government. They are not even employees of the Mexican government. These “list managers” are volunteers. They are asylum seekers themselves. They are volunteering with Grupos Beta – supposedly the humanitarian section of the Mexican Immigration Services. CBP tells Grupos Beta every day how many numbers to call and in turn, Grupos Beta tells the list managers how many numbers to call. A list manager, always a woman, then walks to the front of the line and with a bullhorn reads off numbers, along with the names. So much for confidentiality.
It is currently a 4-5 month wait for people between the time they receive a number and when their number is called. Asylum seekers from countries other than Mexico do not have the right to work and the right to remain in Mexico. They do not have a safe place to live. People do not know the date their number will be called and many people have either missed hearing their number being called or have found another way to enter the United States in the meantime. Tijuana is a dangerous place and no doubt some have been the victims of crime/trafficking/prostitution.
I was appalled when I heard how this system; I had to go see it for myself. I went on my second day of volunteer work to observe. I saw people waiting in line to receive numbers and then I saw another line of people who were being called to enter. The people who were called to enter were carrying all their possessions, wearing layers of clothes and carrying suitcases. When they were allowed through the gate, they were told to place their suitcases in a truck and then sit in a van. I wondered if they were ever going to see their possessions again.
My first reaction when I heard about this “system,” and then when I saw it in action was to think of Nazi Germany. The Nazis assigned supervisory and administrative duties in the concentration camps to Kapos, who were themselves prisoners. Seeing the “list managers” in action working for Grupos Beta who are in effect working for CBP reminded me of that “system.” The analogy does not end there. Seeing people – men, women and children, line up with all of their belongings, suitcases and then acting as if they are going on vacation, well it reminded me of pictures of people lined up to go into cattle cars and being told they could take their belongings with them…..
Of course, the United States is not Nazi Germany, but what happens next is in my opinion is close. The asylum seekers are taken by CBP, told they must strip down to one layer of clothing and then are detained in cell blocks which are permanently kept cold. The lights are kept on 24/7. The asylum seekers remain there anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks before they are given a credible fear interview. They do not know how long they will be held there, they do not have their possessions, are not given edible food and may or may not be separated from their families and children.
If they manage to pass their credible fear interview, they are returned to Mexico (assuming they are not Mexican citizens) along with a notice of a court date. They will again wait a few months for this court date and will be taken back into San Diego to appear in Immigration Court. If the asylum seekers are Mexican citizens, they will be taken elsewhere, to a permanent detention facility where they will remain until their court date. If the asylum seekers do not pass their credible fear interview, they are deported back to their country.
Call me naive but I could not believe our government detained asylum seekers in what they called “ice boxes.” After my second day of volunteer work, I went back to my hotel room and started looking up “ice boxes” and CBP, online. Sure enough, I found numerous Human Rights Reports including one from Human Rights Watch documenting these horrible conditions. I usually look to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International when I am researching country conditions for asylum applications. It was the first time I ever looked up country conditions in my own country. I was very distraught. We can and should do better. If we are going to detain people we should at least detain them in humane conditions so that are not starved and freezing when they try to present their case.
Al Otro Lado conducts daily workshops during which they inform asylum seekers of the process and dangers they will face. After the workshop concludes, a volunteer does an intake and then the potential asylum seeker meets with a volunteer attorney for the attorney to assess whether there is a case and to offer some advice. I probably talked to at least 20 potential asylum seekers while I was there, from various countries from around the world – Africa, Cameroon, Cuba, Mexico, Honduras. While not every person had a good case for asylum, every person had a horrible experience or multiple life threatening experiences either happen to them or a family member which caused them to flee their home. I did not meet a single person who just wanted to come to the United States for the heck of it. And indeed, I met some people who had tragic cases and who I hoped could find an attorney.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my experience was horrifying and rewarding at the same time. I have already explained the horrifying parts. What was gratifying? The gratifying parts were to see acts of kindness. The staff and volunteers of Al Otro Lado were amazing. They work under difficult conditions and are extremely dedicated. The volunteers who I had the privilege of volunteering with were awesome. I also saw random acts of kindness from total strangers. I met a woman at El Chaparral who goes there every day with a few other people and gives out hot oatmeal to the asylum seekers waiting in line. She also bring crayons and coloring books for the kids so that they have something to do while waiting in line with their parents. And then I also saw two people stop by who handed out juice boxes to the children. All of these people just do this every day. There is no payment involved. They were not seeking publicity or fame. They did it out of the goodness of their hearts. They made a terrible situation seem tolerable.
Al Otro Lado could use more volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering, please send me an email through my contact page and I will respond with contact information. I hope to go back too. The need is too great.