My wife Margaret returned on December 21 from a week's work in Tijuana, Mexico, assisting refugees seeking legal entry into the United States at the Tijuana point of entry. She had been recruited as a translator for medical and legal personnel also volunteering from the United States, though her work would eventually include numerous humanitarian services. She was profoundly moved by her time there and hopes to return next year, if possible, circumstances permitting.
On her return she put her thoughts on paper for her family, and I thought that passing them on to you on this final day of 2018, and on the "Monday Morality Stream" no less, might be an appropriate way to conclude the Cafe's 2018 year of posting.
A week at the border
A week ago I was home getting things ready for my trip to Tijuana. Right now I am sitting in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport trying to process all I have experienced. I think it will take quite a while for all I have seen, heard, and experienced to really sink in and settle within me. I don’t think some of it will ever make sense to me.
The organizer of our group had told us not to go with any preconceived notions. She warned that things changed daily, sometimes hourly. I was going as an interpreter, but I wasn’t sure what that would involve. There were two doctors going in our group, so I brushed up on my medical vocabulary in Spanish. I bought a Spanish-English dictionary that emphasized vocabulary from Central and South America. I thought I might be translating documents such as birth and marriage certificates, so I brought some blank templates with me to make translations quicker. Turns out I didn’t need any of this. The two doctors in our group spoke Spanish and the need for interpreters was much greater than the need to translate documents.
Most of my days were spent interpreting. At 7: 00 AM each day I went to Chaparral. It is a public plaza at the foot of Ped West, the major pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. It is here that migrants seeking asylum go each day to see if it is their turn to speak to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official and begin the process. Hundreds of migrants go there each morning. Some of them have been waiting for their number to be called for six weeks or more. The scene is usually orderly, but the whole process is abominable. According to US law, anyone who presents at the US border and asks for asylum needs to be given the opportunity to present their case. Why are they fleeing their home country? Have they been victims of a violent crime? Are they being persecuted for their political opinions and actions? All these and many more questions will be asked. Most people will not qualify for asylum, but they do not know all the specifics, so they come trying. It is the only path open to them. The poor, uneducated, and marginalized have no hope of receiving a visa since the US has all but eliminated visas for people coming from these countries.
Thousands of people from Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua arrive in Tijuana. Some also come from Africa, the Caribbean islands, and as far away as Russia. They arrive at the busiest border to the USA, one that routinely allows 3,000 people a day to enter. But for some reason CBP says they can only process a very small number of asylum seekers each day. So a list has been formed. It is against US law to have a waiting list, so the US government does not admit that the list exists. The Mexican government also denies that it is keeping a list. But I have seen the list. I know that CBP communicates to Grupo Beta, a supposed humanitarian group, just how many people they are willing to process on any given day. While I was there the number ranged from 20 to 95. There is no way of telling. So the migrants show up at 7:00 AM each day once their number is getting close. If you are not there when your number is called, you miss your chance and go to the end of the list; another six weeks is added to your wait.
My job at Chaparral was three-fold. I was an observer of the process, a provider of information about services available, and an interpreter. As an observer I walked among the people waiting, being visible to the police and Grupo Beta. I was there to make sure that nobody was harassed, that women with small children were safe, and that this extra-official list was being implemented without negative intervention from Grupo Beta. The list is maintained by the migrants themselves, a group of four who pass management of the list to others once their own numbers get called. I was also there to let the migrants know about services available to them. Al Otro Lado, the group I was there to support, offers a talk every day about the asylum process, and volunteer lawyers do one-on-one consults after the meeting. Free meals are provided each evening at 5. Clothing is distributed to anyone who needs it. My job was to let the migrants know that assistance was available for most of their needs. Finally, I was an interpreter. Many of the volunteer lawyers did not speak Spanish. If those of us who were observers came across migrants who were about to be transported to the initial CBP interview and who had never spoken to a lawyer, we helped the lawyer give a mini-lesson on the asylum process and their rights under US law.
Our group of observers waited among those whose numbers had been called and were now on line waiting to board busses. Most were so upbeat and happy to have reached this point, to have passed this hurdle. Because most had been to the talks at Al Otro Lado and because of the incredible rumor mill in the camps and shelters, they were aware that the next step would be going to a detention center in the US. Even going to a detention center was seen as better than returning to their country of origin. What going to a detention center involved was anybody’s guess. It changes constantly. Al Otro Lado tries to prepare people for the worst case scenario. Mothers and children might be separated from fathers. Fathers traveling alone with children might be separated from them. Some might be tagged with an ankle monitor and simply released into the streets of San Diego with no information about shelters or assistance available. Important documents are taken from migrants when they enter detention centers. Sometimes documents are not returned unless the migrant knows to ask for them. While I was there this week, Al Otro Lado began a new service. They scan the migrant’s documents, store them digitally, and give them a card with directions on how to retrieve them. While most of the migrants do not understand the system, there are aide groups in the States that will be able to do it for them and the documents will not be lost forever.
In the afternoon I worked where needed. Most of the time it was interpreting for law students who were volunteering to do Credible Fear Interviews. This was the crucial juncture where questions were asked of the migrants to see if they were probable candidates for a successful asylum claim. If they were not, they were told what their alternatives were. It was not our right or intention to tell people what to do. We were there to give information so that people could make informed decisions. It was a heart wrenching thing to experience.
One afternoon I was not needed as an interpreter so I found a broom and swept the floors and staircases. They had been bothering me since I got there! Two afternoons I gave English classes in a small shelter. The people there were mostly very young, and the person in charge was looking for ways to keep them productively engaged during their long days of waiting.
Without a doubt my favorite task was acting as wedding coordinator/interpreter. Yes, wedding coordinator. Every day that there is a minister available, weddings are held at 3:00 PM at Enclave Caracol. Enclave is a marvelous grass roots cooperative offering nutritious meals to the poor of Tijuana. They also have an all day coffee bar and lounge where all are welcome to come in off the street and rest a while. They own the four story building where Al Otro Lado is operating free of charge. First floor houses the coffee bar and kitchen. Second floor has been taken over as processing center for clothing donations for the migrants. Third floor is where Al Otro Lado offers its legal services. Fourth floor is where Al Otro Lado has its operations center and a lovely terrace looking out over downtown Tijuana. Weddings take place on the terrace.
I had the privilege of interpreting every day for a Unitarian minister who was volunteering for a week. Migrants wishing to get married signed up in the morning or just showed up at three. A volunteer from New Orleans purchased a few flowers each afternoon, and the bride got to have a simple, one-flower bouquet. Someone purchased some very inexpensive rings so there was a lasting symbol of the vows exchanged. One couple had been together for 29 years and their three daughters ranging in age from 16 to 22 were witnesses. Another couple were married in a civil ceremony in their home country but wanted a religious blessing on their union. I had to keep tissues in my pocket to give to brides and grooms who were moved by actually being able to profess their love and vow to be there for each other in the future just as they had been in the past. It was such an honor to be a part of this. Many of the volunteers came up to witness the weddings and experience the most joyful thing that happened at Enclave every day.
I have been so impressed by the people with whom I came in contact. The group from the Florida Immigrant Coalition with whom I traveled and worked were amazing. Such talented, caring women. They were knowledgeable in their fields and insightful and compassionate when offering their services to the migrants. There were two doctors, a psychologist, a paralegal and two interpreters. And our amazing leader who transported us to various shelters, bought and delivered clothing, shoes, and food for the migrants, and made sure everyone in our group was safe, fed, and never alone.
I was touched by the sheer number of young law students who gave up part of their Christmas vacation to serve in whatever capacity was needed. Most did Credible Fear Interviews, but some scanned documents or offered childcare while parents spoke to legal advisors. Experienced immigration attorneys did one-on-one interventions, acted as legal observers at Chaparral , and trained newly arrived attorneys on how things were organized. All was done from the heart. Not what you usually hear about lawyers.
What can I say about the migrants with whom I interacted? Their faces are etched in my memory forever. Their stories will stay with me always. The very sad young mother sitting on the curb nursing her baby in the cold morning, to whom I gave the devastating news that she would not get to present her case for at least six weeks. The upbeat 15 year old who was sure she would get asylum as an unaccompanied minor, and was not aware that CBP had stopped processing unaccompanied minors because of the bad press their treatment was getting in the states. The married couple who were two of the keepers of the list with whom I struck up a friendship, but with whom I will never be able to communicate again. The 20 year old woman ready to give birth any day who had arrived without a plan; she innocently thought she would get preferential treatment because she was pregnant. The mother who decided to give custody of her nine year old son to her niece because he was a US citizen, and she did not have a strong case for asylum. They came from a part of Mexico where gangs run everything and the police do nothing. She was afraid that he would either die from a stray bullet or buckle to pressure and become a gang member himself. I could go on, but remembering them just makes me sad.
This has basically been a recounting of events as they unfolded for me during the week I was in Tijuana. It does not begin to describe my emotions and what I have learned. It will take me a long time to unpack that and let it reveal itself in my life.
Thanks for all your support and love. I am blessed to have such a wonderful family.