US/Mexico Border Installment #1: The Context

Feeling frustrated about US treatment of migrants and refugees, and with some free time this month, I decided to go to the San Diego/Tijuana border to volunteer. I spent most of my time on the San Diego side. I’m writing a few short reflections based on this experience. In August I will be on the Mexico/Guatemala border and will do the same.

US/Mexico border installment #1: The Context – There is currently a “metering” program in place at the US/Mexico border. Asylum seekers wanting to apply for protection in the United States go to the port of entry in Tijuana and put their name on an informal waiting list. There are thousands of names on the list. Then they wait – getting by however they can, at over-crowded shelters, on the street, selling things on the beach, whatever. I’m not sure how they do it, but they do. When their number comes up, they have 24 hours to show up; otherwise they are back at the end of the line. After applying, a few, with extraordinary circumstances, are let into the United States pending their final asylum determination. The rest are sent back to Mexico to wait while the US considers their case. Only after the final asylum determination will they be let in.

I spent one day in Tijuana with an NGO called Al Otro Lado. They help people prepare for the asylum process. They organize and train volunteers to do much of this work. It is an impressive operation on a shoestring. I talked with a few asylum seekers whose crossing number would be coming up the next day. They were learning about asylum law and the process. Being prepared to share the most difficult details of ones’ persecution can make the difference between protection and deportation.

Immigration opponents often question whether these people are really refugees, or if they are just trying to sneak into the US, gaming the system. What I heard directly from immigrants were horrible stories about extortion, violence, and threats of violence. Whether these examples will qualify under US law, I don’t know.

What I do know from my experience at the border is what anxiety and exhaustion look like. I saw fear and I also found reasons to hope.

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