The followign is a recount of day 3 of my volunteer trip to the US/Mexican border, where I volunteered by providing assistance to migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
It’s early, around 7:00 am as we head to El Chaparral, San Ysidro West. We arrive twenty munutes later and see that volunteers, journalists and migrants are already there, it is cold and many people are not dressed properly.
Volunteers wait for our supervising attorney before we start talking to the migrants already waiting in line.
El Chaparral is the main pedestrian port of entry into the United States. There is a large Mexico/Tijuana sign in the plaza. This is home of the “list.” Has constant police and Mexican Immigration presence. Plaza leads into a very long pedestrian bridge that feeds down to the main U.S. port of entry gate via a spiral ramp (nicknamed Caracol).
Tamara, an immigration attorney from Los Angeles, supervises volunteers who starting arriving as early as 6:30 a.m. We were there to witness the call out of the “numbers on the list” which the US and Mexico deny, the list is illegal under the Displaced Persons Act passed by the United States Congress in 1948. Asylum seekers qualify for a fair hearing under American laws. In 1980, Congress created the Refugee Act, which outlined a comprehensive system for granting asylum.
How it works
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) calls the capacity to process asylum requests for the day; Mexican immigration officials call out the numbers on the list. There are rumors of corruption, sexual favors and numbers sold associated with the list.
Each morning, a man in charge of the notebook calls out a number, legal name, state of residence, and country. Men, women and children wait with anxious anticipation, hopeful his or her names will be next. When they hear their number, they cry out in excitement and make their way to the man managing the list. They wait to board a bus that will take them to a port of entry to be processed.
I saw grown men and women crying from the sheer magnitude of the moment, the moment they have been waiting for, after weeks of waiting, finally here. For those who left their home in Central America alone or with a family member, joining the caravan of migrants not only provided safety in numbers, but friendships, some said, “we have become a family.” It was difficult to witness the pain as they said good-by to their friends, I heard words of encouragement “Your number will be called soon, don’t worry!” or “We will see each other on the other side.” The emotions were gut wrenching for all.
The volunteers spread out to speak to potential asylum seeker. This group of people was not trying to rush the US/Mexican wall, nor were they trying to cross illegally, they were trying to follow the rules by presenting themselves at a port of entry and requesting asylum.
So, what is asylum?
Asylum is the protection of people that have suffered persecution in their country of origin or that fear persecution in the future in their home country due to a protected reason: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, a particular social group, etc. Individuals that may have taken a stand against gangs, organized crime, human rights activists, children that have survived interfamily violence, sexual orientation, minorities.
As volunteers, our job was to ask the migrants if they had consulted an immigration attorney in order to assess their potential request for asylum. If the answer was no, we would briefly explain the asylum process, and encourage them to speak with one of the volunteer attorneys. We handed out fliers with the legal definition of asylum, and invited them to come to Enclave Caracol for a legal workshop that would cover the asylum process, followed by individual consultations.
Individual legal consultations focused on the following questions:
- Who is persecuting?
- Why are they persecuting?
- Why can your country not protect you?
- Can you live in peace in another part of the country?
How to apply for asylum in the United States
- Need to be in the U.S.
- Tell immigrant officials that there is a fear of returning to home country and request an interview of credible fear.
- Will have interview with asylum official in the U.S.
- If receive a positive and credible fear interview, will need to submit an asylum petition, form I-589.
Volunteers provided information. We were not there to encourage people to go back to their home country or to request asylum in the United States. Once we defined asylum and assessed their individual case, the lawyer was clear and direct about their potential asylum case. For those that did not meet the requirements, they could petition for a work visa in Mexico or go back to their home country.
What I Witnessed
Ninety people were called up that day, yet there were new arrivals adding their names to the list. I walked up to a couple in line, they told me they were from Honduras, it took them five weeks to get to the border, they were there to request asylum. I explained the process, informed them that it could take up to two months before their number is called; they were stunned. They informed me that they had no money, friends or family members where they could stay with. I gave them information on the shelters where they could go.
We left Chaparral by 10:30 am and headed back to Enclave Caracol, volunteer headquarters, to get ready for the legal workshop offered daily at 1:00 pm. As we were walking, I reflected back on the work done that morning. The volunteers had worked hard to speak with all asylum seekers, but it did not feel like we had done enough.
The number of asylum seekers has increased dramatically in the last 10 years (from 5,000 to 97,000); many are unaccompanied minors and families fleeing gang violence, political instability and environmental devastation.
Immigration reform is a divisive topic in the US; it’s time to stop waging war on asylum seekers; separating families, disqualifying victims of gang related violence or domestic abuse, denying due process to those who don’t come in through a designated port of entry.
There is no reason to deploy the National Guard, hire more ICE agents, or build a wall to strike fear of “the caravans of illegals making a run for our borders.” These desperate people are turning themselves in; they are trying to play by the rules!
As Americans, we have a duty to protect our borders, but we also have laws that offer protection to those seeking asylum in America. We should hire more immigration judges and administrators to process asylum seekers, not build more walls.
What are your thoughts on immigration, if you had the power to make policy changes, what would be your solution?
Thank you for reading! I welcome your feedback.