"The stakes for asylum seekers could not be higher." These words were penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her joint dissent with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the Supreme Court ruling September 11 lifting a stay on a Trump administration rule that basically ends asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border. “The rule the government promulgated topples decades of settled asylum practices and affects some of the most vulnerable people in the Western Hemisphere,” wrote Sotomayor.
This July my partner, 80-year-old mother, and I met some of “the most vulnerable people in the Western Hemisphere.” We volunteered at the U.S.-Mexico border with Al Otro Lado (translation: “to the other side”). We wanted to witness what is happening at the border ourselves and to offer whatever help we could to those struggling in the trenches. Al Otro Lado (AOL) is a bi-national non-profit providing legal services to indigent deportees, migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. AOL’s Border Rights Project in Tijuana is one of three AOL offices (the others are in L.A. and San Diego). The main task of the Tijuana office at this time is providing legal rights trainings and support to asylum-seekers.
During our orientation Nicole Ramos educated us about AOL and the political situation for migrants in Tijuana. She described AOL as a thorn in the side of both the U.S. and Mexican governments. In addition to the direct service provided in Tijuana, AOL attorneys are involved in a number of lawsuits challenging the U.S. government’s illegal and inhumane treatment of migrants. An expert immigration law attorney, Ramos co-founded AOL with three other women. She directs the Border Rights Project with a keen political analysis and generosity of spirit.
For lack of a better term, AOL refers to those they serve as “clients,” and our experience bore out Sotomayor’s description of them as “the most vulnerable people in the Western Hemisphere.” AOL centers their needs, adapting services often to try to keep up with a constantly changing and precarious political and physical landscape. Because the current U.S. administration is bent on making migration in general— and asylum in particular— as difficult as possible, laws, policies and procedures are constantly changing. In the two months since our trip to Tijuana, the administration has moved to end medical deferrals for immigrants with life-threatening medical conditions, make it harder for immigrants receiving certain public benefits to obtain permanent resident status, and now requiring migrants to apply for asylum in the first country they enter—effectively banning asylum for migrants at the southern border.
AOL’s main goal is to provide the most accurate information possible to empower and support clients in making the best decisions they can about their lives. This includes explaining the repercussions of the new Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or as AOL staff calls it “Migrant Persecution Protocols”), which has led to over 10,000 migrants waiting for months at the border (see this article which references AOL’s work in the San Diego Tribune).
During our week volunteering, clients’ home countries included Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Cuba, Cameroon, Turkey, Iraq, and Russia. Their journeys from these countries took weeks or months, depleted most if not all of their material resources, left them with physical and emotional scarring —and they are the lucky ones who made it… (I am not sharing their particular stories because confidentiality is of paramount importance). Both the adults and the children exhibit various levels of trauma, and still are incredibly patient, grateful, and resilient. Through AOL’s intake process unaccompanied minors and especially vulnerable adult migrants are identified and provided additional services. Staff and volunteer attorneys meet with each client/family to provide information and guidance. Clients are welcomed to come back to AOL’s offices as many times as they need.
AOL also provides a critical service in scanning client documents (birth certificates, visas, passports, marriage certificates, videos showing persecution, etc.) and uploading them to a secure server clients can access from anywhere – what Wired Magazine recently called a “secure cloud-based digital locker.” Because documents are often taken by authorities, lost, stolen, or destroyed by weather, having these back up e-copies can mean the difference between a strong case, and no case at all.
Prior to arriving in Tijuana, we often heard AOL characterized as “the most loving place in Tijuana.” We all experienced that to be the case. My mom worked in the child care area, which received 10-20 children each day ranging from toddlers to teens. In that small make-shift area, clustered together with a few toys and art supplies coupled with loving attention from the volunteers, these children had a chance to be free. My most rewarding experience was witnessing my mom, who has spent her life in service of young children but who officially retired over fifteen years ago, completely engaged and enthralled by these kids. She said she was moved by their creativity, cooperation, and resilience. Many did not want to leave at the end of the day, likely because this was a rare safe space for them where they could just be kids.
We were struck by the warmth, grace, and generosity of spirit that emanated from clients, staff, and volunteers engaged in various tasks while packed into an overcrowded, overheated space. It could be chaotic. There was the din of multiple languages, the loud humming of fans, and, at times, the crying of small children intervening in our attempts to provide a semblance of calm and stability—all within a larger context of arbitrary policies and intentional state-sanctioned cruelty. For the migrants crowded into that room, "the stakes could not be higher." And yet, incredibly, warmth and hope prevailed.
At Friendship Park in in Tijuana, where political art adorns the border fence, a large instillation reads “Eres Mi Otro Yo” (you’re my other self). The migrants practice this, can we?