Welcoming the Stranger at our Border

My Experience Observing and Volunteering in Tijuana, Mexico

January 2019
By Julia Marquez


The Crisis at Our Border

Caravans of Central Americans are fleeing violence, making a long and dangerous journey to our southern border seeking asylum.  Claimed to be a humanitarian crisis by some and a national emergency by others, this flow of refugees to our border is the impetus for President Trump’s insistence on building a wall between Mexico and the United States, causing the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

I am a Spanish-speaking immigration lawyer living in California.  I decided to go to the border to see for myself what was going on.  At the end of January, my 15 year old daughter Leah and I traveled to Mexico to volunteer with Al Otro Lado (The Other Side), a nonprofit legal services organization operating in Tijuana.  Al Otro Lado with a few staff and many volunteers, has stepped up to meet the needs of refugees as both the situation in Central America and US anti-immigrant policies exacerbate the crisis.

Cause of the Crisis

According to U.S. law, those who request asylum at our border are entitled to an interview with a government official to determine whether they have a legitimate claim; if so, they may pursue their case in the U.S. Over the last two years, however, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (the officials responsible for admissions at ports of entry) has imposed a metering system, allowing a limited number of people to request asylum each day.  As a result, asylum seekers are stuck in Mexico for months, living in overcrowded shelters or on the streets. While many are fleeing violence in Central America, refugees in Tijuana also come from Haiti, Iran, Brazil, Venezuela, Russia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon.

Al Otro Lado (The Other Side)

At our first day of orientation, the Al Otro Lado director welcomed us to “Humanitarian Crisis Airlines”, explaining that we are “flying a plane through fire while still building the engine.” What I witnessed, however, was a pretty well run organization with volunteers meeting multiple urgent needs as they arose.

Leah and I were two of about 50 volunteers including a group from Centro Legal de la Raza of Oakland, law students from Stanford University and the University of New Mexico, and the pastor of a Unitarian Church in Maryland.  Each day, new volunteers arrived while others departed.  The director told us that “after 12 hours, you are the expert.”  This proved true.  After one day of volunteering, my 15-year old was put in charge of childcare.  She was responsible for signing in and keeping track of the children and telling other volunteers what to do. At our last debrief meeting, she passed the baton to another volunteer to become childcare lead.


Childcare was called playtime.  As refugees came in to receive services, they checked their children into the play area which included donated toys, books and puzzles. Children could play and be cared for while their parents received legal advice.  Many refugees included families with young children.  Leah recounted that one day a three-year old boy as looking out the window and saw a dog sleeping.  He told her, “The dog has been shot, it’s dead.”  He and another child were upset so Leah took them down to see that the dog was just sleeping.  This child must have seen enough violent death to draw this conclusion.

Asylum Consultations

Seven days a week, Al Otro Lado volunteers provided refugees with lunch, a presentation on the asylum process, and individual consultations with legal volunteers.  Fifteen or so consultations going on in the same room where 20-30 children were playing created quite a racket and made it very difficult to follow my clients’ stories, particularly since these interviews were conducted in Spanish, my second language.  I had to refrain from questions like “now who did you say was shot?” One day, a man collapsed on the other side of the room, police entered and he was taken to the hospital  – I was so focused on my client’s story that I did not even notice.

A little uncertain how to begin a consultation interview on my first day, I explained, “This is the first time I’ve done this so be patient with me.” My client responded, “This is the first time I’ve done this too”, reminding me that I was dealing with someone whose life may depend on winning her asylum claim. It was she, not I, who should be nervous. I interviewed a 19-year old girl from El Salvador, who calmly described how her family received death threats and had to go into hiding.  Yet, her eyes filled with tears when I told her she had a right to request asylum and that the U.S. laws would protect her.  My words must have given her some hope in this arduous process.

Gangs in Central America

While I have read about the gang violence in Central America, I gained a better understanding of the problem through conversations with individual asylum seekers. One client from Honduras explained that once her son turned 12, members of a gang demanded his support.  Refusal to cooperate resulted in threats and attacks on his family.  I learned from other clients that reporting crimes to the police often resulted in retaliation.  Most of the people I interviewed refused to cooperate with criminal gangs even under threat of death. Thus far from being criminals, the individuals fleeing gang violence in Central America risked their lives rather than participate in criminal activity.

Hieleras –  Ice Boxes

While I was in Tijuana I was shocked to learn about the “ice boxes” or “hieleras” – cells where the CPB holds refugees when they are first taken into custody.  The cells are very cold, thus the nickname, and have cement floors and benches – no bedding.  Prior to detention, refugees are stripped of their belongings and all but one layer of clothing and held here for days.   Men and women are separated.   Even young children are held in these cells.

Upon my return to the U.S. I conducted research and learned that these hieleras are not new – CPB has been detaining refugees in these conditions for years.  In 2016, the Federal District Court of Arizona found detention in CPB holding cells to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th amendment of the Constitution.  And yet this practice continues.

Al Otro Lado volunteers routinely advised refugees to wear their warmest layer of clothes closest to their skin to keep them as warm as possible in the hieleras.   One volunteer expressed concern about the refugees going into the hieleras with exposed ankles and feet; the very next morning, a generous donor provided a huge bag of tube socks which we gave to refugees right before they entered CPB custody.

Another volunteer witnessed the reunification of a mother with her 17 year old son when they were released from detention.  CPB had stripped them of their belongings and placed them in separate holding cells for several days before conducting asylum interviews.  The young man had gone through this ordeal alone and did not know if he would ever see his mother again.  When he saw her, he put his arms around her and sobbed uncontrollably.

The List

In response to CPB’s illegal metering system, a group of refugees developed a system that allows asylum seekers to be processed on a first-come-first serve basis.  Each morning, refugees line up to put their name on a list and be given a number.  CPB officers advise the Mexican Immigration Authorities how many people they will process for asylum; this information is passed to the list keepers who then announce numbers with a bullhorn.  Those whose number is called proceed into CPB custody to pursue their asylum claim. Refugees must be present when their number was called or they have to get in line again and be placed at the bottom of the list.

The number of cases CPB accepted varied from one day to the next.  Those who believed their number might be called that day arrived at 7 a.m. with their baggage and children in tow, waiting, wondering, and hoping they could move from limbo in Tijuana to the next step in their long quest for safety in the U.S.

Each morning, Al Otro Lado volunteers gathered at the Chaparral border crossing to provide last minute advice.  We handed out warm socks, lent the refugees sharpies to write important phone numbers on their arms, and had them fill out forms listing their children’s names and birthdates, so that if they were separated in detention, they could later find each other.

Unaccompanied Minors

I learned that the CPB has been refusing to accept asylum claims of unaccompanied minors.  As a result, these youth are stranded in Tijuana and other border cities.  They are vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs, trafficking and deportation by Mexican immigration authorities to the countries they fled.  One evening, we learned that nine youth were kicked out of El Barretal, the main refugee shelter in Tijuana. Not knowing where to go, they came to Al Otro Lado offices.  As a legal services provider,  the organization was not equipped to find them a shelter.   As we left our meeting, we saw these youth, not much older than my daughter, looking lost and alone, milling around the building.

Weddings — yes, weddings

Many refugees’ primary concern was keeping their family together.  Since couples often had never been legally married, Al Otro Lado volunteers researched the laws of various countries to determine if their government recognized common law marriage; they drafted declarations for couples to sign that established the legality of their union enabling couples to fight their asylum claims together.

In addition, volunteer ordained ministers conducted marriage ceremonies on the roof terrace.  Leah and I attended several of these weddings.  One afternoon, the Unitarian minister and I went out to buy roses for the brides of the day.  The children of the bride and groom were brought upstairs from childcare to witness their parents’ marriage ceremony; we handed out chocolates and took Polaroid photographs to give them this memory.  These were touching moments for people in such desperate circumstances.

Love and Rage!

Each evening volunteers gathered for a debrief meeting.  At the conclusion, volunteers would give out the battle cry, “Love and Rage!  Love and Rage!”  I got the love part – listening to the stories of refugees, and doing our best to meet their needs, but rage?  It took me a few days to figure this one out.  But then I realized, the rage is about the injustice conducted by our own government with impunity, and it is anger as much as compassion that motivates the work of so many volunteers at Al Otro Lado.

Why This Matters

CPB’s illegal practices violate both U.S. and international law and strain our relationship with our close neighbor and ally, Mexico.  They encourage refugees to enter the U.S. without inspection rather than wait for months in border cities to be processed legally for an asylum claim, particularly if turning themselves in to CPB custody means days of detention in the “ice box”. Perhaps most importantly, however, CPB practices cause unnecessary suffering of a vulnerable population, including children.

Our system of government both permits and demands our involvement.  When we see violations of human rights, we have the privilege and responsibility to speak up.  In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Let us speak up for justice.

What You Can Do

My week of volunteering in Tijuana hardly solved the crisis.  Yet I am encouraged by so many people working together to make a difference.  Whether you are motivated by love for these brave souls who seek refuge in our country, or rage at the illegal and abusive practices occurring at our border, here are some ways you can channel your emotions into actions:

Go to Tijuana: People of a variety of skills and from all walks of life have been volunteering at Al Otro Lado in Tijuana.  Fill out the application form https://alotrolado.org/volunteer/

Help Remotely:  There are many opportunities to volunteer for Al Otro Lado remotely.  See: https://alotrolado.org

Donate: Both in kind donations and financial donations accepted.  See: https://alotrolado.org/take-action/donate/

Tell your Congressional Representative: Congress is responsible for oversight of the Executive Branch.  Call, email or write to protest the illegal practices of the Customs and Border Protection Officers.