Part two of a three part blog series “A View from the Border: Providing Legal Assistance to Asylum Seekers in Tijuana. Thousands of people from the Central American Northern Triangle and elsewhere – adults, unaccompanied minors, and families – have come to the Mexican towns at the U.S.- Mexican border. Most of them are hoping to request asylum in the United States but have little or no information about the requirements for asylum or the process for requesting it. Thus, legal assistance in preparing for asylum interviews is a critical need, along with the basic needs of shelter, food, and medical care. The non-profit organization Al Otro Lado put out a call to U.S. immigration lawyers to volunteer time at the border to provide this vital informatiion. Santa Clara University, with its concern for immigrants, has a particular calling to support asylum-seekers, and Clinical Professor of Law Evangeline Abriel travelled to Tijuana to help.
We arrive at Al Otro Lado for the daily 10 a.m. meeting and assignment of tasks. There are many lawyers, law students, Board-accredited representatives, and legal observers, from Charlottesville, Virginia, New Orleans, Washington and Lee Law School, and California. We learn that the last number on the list called today was number 1213, and that the list maintainers are now giving out numbers in the 1700s. Since each number indicates a group of ten, that means that there are more than 17,000 names on the list. And that is just for the San Ysidro port of entry.
There are also three American ministers in the meeting. They have been performing marriages, a little bit of happiness in an otherwise dismal situation. The marriages are not truly legal, since Mexico requires a civil ceremony and the ministers have no authority to perform marriages here, but they perform the ceremony and provide a certificate, and the hope is that this will decrease the risk of the couple being separated once they cross the border to the United States.
Luis assigns us each tasks. I am to go to the Benito Juarez stadium to give informational charlas. The stadium has been officially closed as a shelter, and there are no water or other services, because the government is trying to move everyone to another location at El Baratal. People do not want to move there, however, because it is a fair way farther from the border and the list and is not in a very safe neighborhood. So people have stayed in the street outside the Benito Juarez stadium. About three blocks of the street outside the stadium have been turned into a neatly maintained tent city. Each side of the street is lined by tents and makeshift shelters. Despite there being no water, it is surprisingly neat. The street looks like it has been swept. There is a huge pile of trash and discarded belongings, but it is in a pile rather than scattered around. There are children everywhere, playing with broken toys. I did not see any child wearing shoes.
We go up and down the street announcing that we will hold a charla at 1:45. I stand on the street with people gathered around me and explain about the list, about what will happen if they cross the border (short-term detention for everyone in hieleras, then probable continued detention for single men and even fathers, likely release on recognizance for mothers with children), about the credible fear interview process, about the requirements for asylum, about crossing the border illegally being a federal offense that is rigorously prosecuted. I tell them something I have never told a client in the United States – that they and their children should wear clothing adequate to withstand the cold of the hieleras. I advise them to investigate legal status in Mexico, which is granting humanitarian visas and employment authorization, so that they will be able to make an informed decision on how to proceed in their cases. They have lots of questions and they are very grateful. They bless me and my family for providing them this simple service.
While we are at Benito Juarez, there is a small altercation between Mexican citizens and the refugees. Part of the tent city is right outside the wall of an elementary school, and the parents’ association wants the refugees gone. They tell the refugees that if the police do not move them, they, the parents, will. The police arrive and restore peace, but the refugees pick up their tents and move them away from the school.
Back at the Al Otro Lado office, Luis holds a debriefing in which each of us reports back on what we’ve done and observed during the day. Then the three pastors, two from the UCC and one Methodist, gather several minors for a prayer. The boys will be crossing the puente tonight.