Content Warning: Racism, xenophobia, descriptions of state violence

An artistic rendition of the Al Otro Lado Space, drawn from memory, and, because of the sensitive nature of Al Otro Lado’s work, intentionally not including any real people other than me working the computer in the foreground.

For the past week, I’ve been in Tijuana, assisting Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project (donate here), which provides free legal services to asylum seekers as they wait to cross the border into the US. I went mostly to see what was happening, and see how, if at all, I could be of use. These are some of my impressions from my week down there.

A System Of Chaos and Cruelty

I live inside US border and am not especially well connected to immigrant communities. I’ve followed news reports on Central American caravans, and more recently, family separation. And, I tend to seek out more information online— so I understood more about certain isolated parts of the current asylum system. What I’d missed, prior to going down, is the whole picture. I knew pieces, but I didn’t understand the complex Orwellian and Kafkaesque web of processes asylum seekers are put through in total. (yes, it’s both Orwellian — in that it’s cruel and totalitarian — and Kafkaesque — in that it’s inefficient, opaque, and corrupt)

The totality is shocking.

A shot from inside the border crossing I probably wasn’t supposed to take. This is what a democracy looks like?

The first thing to remember is that every asylum seeker has already experienced extreme cruelty and violence before they even reach the border. Every person is fleeing from something if they’re seeking asylum — gang violence, hate violence against LGBT people, violence against ethnic minorities, political violence, domestic violence and child abuse. These are the kinds of suffering that causes someone to decide to travel thousands of miles to seek asylum. The second thing to know is that asylum seekers come from everywhere. There is a ton of coverage of Central Americans, but currently there’s also a huge influx of seekers from Cameroon (https://psmag.com/social-justice/people-are-being-killed-like-flies-denied-asylum-in-the-u-s-cameroonians-fear-increasing-violence-back-home). While I was there Al Otro Lado’s legal services clinic saw people from twelve different countries in a single day. People travel literally thousands of miles by land and sea, often going long distances on foot. Many suffer further violence along the route to Tijuana. Then they arrive, and they encounter the first of many illegal obstacles to asylum.

By US law, every person has a right to cross and request asylum. You’re not supposed to have to wait. But this isn’t what happens. There’s a bizarre, informal, highly corrupt, and officially unacknowledged metering system known as “the list”. CBP prefers to process about 40 claims per day. So when you get to the border, you put your name on what is literally a paper list. The list is administered by a collection of completely unaccountable Mexican officials known as Grupo Beta and a handful of migrants themselves, selected by Grupo Beta. CBP knows of the list but won’t acknowledge it’s existence. People receive a list number and show up every morning when they think their number might be called. Most people are stuck in Tijuana for like 3–9 months waiting. Corruption is rampant. Racism towards black people is rampant — most likely at the behest of CBP, the Mexican officials frequently intentionally deny Black people the right to cross, even when their number is called. Reports of bribes and extortion are common, and often the amounts depend on the color of your skin. (For more about the list: https://www.thenation.com/article/notebook-border-tijuana/)

Assuming your number is called and you actually cross, you are put in las hieleras or “the icebox” — a holding prison where they keep people for 3–10 days while they decide what to do with them. It’s called an icebox cause they keep the temperature at 50 degrees and you’re only aloud a single layer of clothing. They keep the lights on 24 hours a day. You don’t receive medications if you need them. You usually lose all of your belongings when you go in and usually don’t get them back. Many of the deaths in CBP or ICE custody can be blamed entirely or partially on las hieleras. (more about las hierleras: https://www.thecut.com/2018/12/what-are-las-hieleras-iceboxes-used-by-cbp-at-the-border.html)

When you’re through las hierleras, one of three things happens. If you’re very lucky and have a full time sponsor in the US, you get sent to them, with an ankle bracelet for tracking. More likely you are sent to an ICE detention center inside the border. At these centers (where is where the family separation occurs), asylum seekers receive a “credible fear” interview where a judge asks them questions to decides if they have a case. During this interview, which results in deportation if it doesn’t go well, seekers have no guaranteed right to legal counsel. If it does go well, asylum seekers still face another year of processing before their claim is potentially granted.

Since February, there is a new outcome for asylum seekers who’ve made it through las hierleras; they can be sent back to Mexico to await their asylum court dates. This bizarre program, given the particularly Orwellian name “Migrant Protection Protocol” (MPP), essentially outsources housing detainees to south of the border. These seekers, usually Spanish speakers from Central America, end up back in Tijuana for several more months or years while they try to make it through the asylum process. Since February, a grand total of one person who’s been sent to Mexico under MPP has been granted asylum in the US. MPP is yet another probably illegal program the Trump administration has created to try to make asylum harder (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/07/18/trumps-migrant-protection-protocols-hurt-people-theyre-supposed-help/)

There are a million other upside down aspects to the asylum process. Unaccompanied minors in particular are supposed to be able to cross at any time and have a really good shot at asylum. The solution there: CBP just blatantly lies to minors who try to cross in an effort to deter them — so that you have to ask three or four times before they finally relent. Meanwhile, the Mexican government tries to catch any minors who look like they’re about to cross and force them into a youth shelter where they can later be deported. All this behavior, like everything else, is illegal, but largely unacknowledged by CBP & the Mexican government.

Border wall. Yes, we already have one, we’ve had it on parts of the border since the mid 2000's.

Reconceptualizing Asylum

Like many liberal people in the US under Trump, I wondered to myself a couple times — “everything is so fucked up here — why even come?” I know each time I think this that it’s truly a function of first world privilege to believe nothing could be worse than the US under trump. And yet, it’s easy to be disconnected from the reality and to have trouble understanding why people make these survival choices. But, I also think it’s important to understand asylum seekers are not naive. And in choosing to face the US asylum system, they assert their dignity as well as their right to survive. The world has in so many ways told these folks they have no value, that they can be safely forgotten. When they refuse to give up, when they don’t accept the proposition of their worthlessness, in the face of overwhelming obstacles, they make a statement that those of us with the privilege of citizenship need to listen to. While asylum seekers may be personally motivated by survival, their actions are nonetheless political protest. Their attempts to engage an extremely hostile immigration system challenge us to live by our own laws, to respect the rights we say we believe in. The question then is will those of us with privilege to spare will finally be willing to risk what those with none already do daily.

An Organization Thriving Under Siege

Al Otro Lado has been in Tijuana for some time, but the legal services clinic has only been in existence since November 2018. Nevertheless, it’s quite a little operation they have going down there — they offer multiple clinics every week and manage dozens of new volunteers on a weekly basis. They give free legal consultations to folks stuck in Tijuana waiting — which includes both people waiting to cross, and now the new MPP group of those who cross and then were sent back to wait for the formal asylum hearing. For an operation that is almost all volunteer run and highly under resourced, they are quite together. And there are several long term volunteers who somehow find a way to devote multiple weeks of service. But they also manage to receive a bunch of new volunteers every week, train them, and have them serving clients fairly effectively in just a couple days. Whatever your skillset, you can usually be quite useful. For example, my computer skills proved incredibly useful in working with the documents they handle.

Al Otro Lado has, not surprisingly, faced a number of attacks from almost every direction — from the Mexican government, to CBP, to many of the organized gangs some of the asylum seekers are fleeing. Their staff members have been harassed and detained. They specifically asked that we not share information about their personnel or specific details of their work, and certainly not their clients. Even building safety is a concern.

The riverbed that runs through Tijuana, with parts of the wall, and on the right (right under the freeway), Ped West, the enclosed bridge you cross to get back and forth by foot (which checkpoints on both sides).

Conclusions

I’m glad I went, if only to see, and I intend to go back. It helped me understand the raw bravery, resilience, and tenacity of asylum seekers, and to get a picture of what is required of those with citizenship privilege if we are ever to push back against this travesty of an immigration system. There is not an easy sense of hope to be found here, but I believe there is hope in the struggle, if we can all commit to it.

If you would like to donate to Al Otro Lado, you can do so https://alotrolado.networkforgood.com/projects/63833-al-otro-lado-fund

They also need volunteers for September! Please sign up here: bit.ly/AlOtroLadoTijuanaTrips