Accompanying Migrants in Tijuana

Story author
Em McManamy
Em McNamany in Tijuana

Image courtesy of Em McManamy

In January, I and other members of my family spent a week volunteering in Tijuana: my husband John, a doctor; daughter Laura, who already had experience working with immigrants; my son Evan, and me. Laura, Evan, and I all speak Spanish; I also speak French and Haitian Creole. We were there to provide accompaniment to migrants waiting to present their cases at the U.S. border.

We each gravitated to the organization that seemed most appropriate to us. Some prepared food at World Central Kitchen, some provided emotional support to migrants through the temporary Sanctuary Caravan. I focused on legal (and emotional) support at Al Otro Lado—“to the other side.” This very impressive non-profit has been working since 2012 offering legal support to migrants. They have been open every day since Thanksgiving 2018 and since then have completed 1,200 private consultations. They currently run a daily workshop, with 30 to 50 volunteers per day.

Not being a lawyer, I wondered at first how I could be of assistance through this organization, whose main mission is helping migrants prepare for their Credible Fear Interview with an ICE judge—the first hurdle that migrants must pass in order to be allowed to request legal status as refugees. I should not have worried. The goal of the work is to help migrants represent themselves at the border. Many lose their documents or have them stolen or destroyed by rain, so they must be able to summarize their case from memory in this interview. My job, and that of most of the volunteers, was to help individual migrants organize their traumatic experiences and fears of future persecution into a story to present to the immigration judge.

Officially, I helped to plug a gap in the services for French-speaking and Haitian-Creole-speaking migrants. Unofficially, I helped to provide the “glue” frequently needed to keep a volunteer organization running. I roamed the building, bringing people to medical or legal areas, addressing minor issues as they arose, and mostly being available to hold a hand, say a prayer when one was asked for, or simply listen.

The roof of the building housing Al Otro Lado was a hub of activity all day long. This open area serves as spillover interview space. I generally brought migrants here for their introductory lecture about the process, the intake interview, and credible fear interview preparation. It was easier to converse in French or Haitian Creole here than in the crowded Spanish classroom space below. Migrants are required to relive trauma they have experienced, over and over, in order to receive protection in the U.S. Some trauma was experienced at home and was the impetus for leaving. Other trauma occurred nightly in Tijuana. Not just young men, but middle-aged women and older couples report being threatened or robbed in the city. They came in each morning with fresh injuries and fearful stories.

As one of the few French speakers available, I worked with a large number of Africans and Haitians. However, the largest numbers of migrants were from Central America, and especially from the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—where drug cartels have nearly overwhelmed the governments. One way for me to process this experience, and to honor the people who have been forced to face this journey, is to tell some of their stories. I hope you will join me in holding these individuals in your prayers or in whatever way you choose to remember our fellow humans who are suffering. As Luis, one of the leaders at Al Otro Lado, said, “We run off anger and love here.”

The very first day we arrived at Al Otro Lado, a woman was brought in by a volunteer from another non-profit. A middle-aged woman traveling alone from Honduras, she had had no place to stay the night before and nothing to eat. She had knocked on a door and been allowed to sleep on someone’s floor, with no bedding. A diabetic, her first complaint was that she might be having an insulin reaction. We brought her to the medical clinic area and her story spilled out of her.

It often happened that piece of the story would come out, followed by another and another. Emotional trauma makes it harder to tell one’s story in sequence. She had not taken her insulin medicine because it was in her pocketbook which she lost when she grabbed the wrong bag—while escaping from thieves who had had tied her up and held a gun to her head. She quaked and cried as she repeated her story. This was our first experience at Al Otro Lado, before we got a chance to take the volunteer training.

Her medical crisis over, she was invited to take a nap on the couch in the sunshine. It was warm and quiet there. When she awoke, she told me that she believed in God and that God would take care of her. I sensed that she wanted to pray, and we prayed together, my mind expanding into the verbal prayer that is foreign to me but seemed to be comforting to both of us, praying aloud in a duet.

I also worked with G, a journalist and politician in the opposition party from an African country. He had been thrown into jail and tortured, and a member of his family had been killed because of G’s political activities. Forced to flee, he went first to another country in Africa, then to Chile and finally to Mexico, where he planned to seek entry to the U.S. under the UN Convention on Torture. He was able to quote from memory the exact dates and names pertaining to his case. He has collected extensive files that will help him tremendously. A friend in the U.S. has contacts with an immigration attorney. He will need one.

I met two sisters from a small town in El Salvador whose family had a small business. Because they were unable to pay extortion demands from the gangs, three family members had been killed. Family members sought help from the police but received no help or information. They had to abandon the business and head north.

J is a young man from Honduras who lived with his parents and was attending university. His brother had been forced to join a gang and when he was put in jail for his activities, he was forced to continue to provide services for the gang from prison. Eventually he was killed by the gang. J and his parents were forced to leave their home and flee to another city, where they rented a place they could not afford. J had to leave university to support his family. He had been threatened by a gang member with a machete when he went to secure their abandoned house.

M was a political prisoner in the Central African Republic. He fled, leaving his wife and two children in hiding. He reminded his fellow migrants to ask the immigration officer for asylum without fear, as is their right. He suggested avoiding looking at the officer in the eyes but to look elsewhere so as to claim his story and not to lose his nerve.

A 21-year old man I met in the medical clinic was very cold, shaking. He was traveling alone, and said he could trust no one. We found him a hat and helped him to change into donated dry socks and boots. He told me he was looking for a job as a cook in Tijuana. I sat down with him and helped him with a to-do list, to work towards this seemingly impossible task.

Every single one of the migrants I met had experienced, and were experiencing, trauma. I asked people “How are you doing?” and immediately I saw tears spring to their eyes. They opened up to me, telling me their case. Why were they so willing to trust, having been hurt so much? I think it is because people crave community; they need love more than anything else.

Guarded faces collapse into tears when a hand is held, a smile offered. A couple from Africa was stony-faced until I showed them the bulletin board that offered “Welcome!” in many languages. I asked them to write it in their language, Wolof. They smiled and carefully wrote on the board, “Dendale.” Then they began to trust me with their story. Sitting on the roof overlooking Tijuana to the south and San Diego to the north, they told me their experience of racism, forced marriage, and death threats from a brother. We worked together to order the facts into a coherent story.

Some people held their stories tightly, not ready to share their pain with me. I explained to two men traveling together from Haiti how certain categories of people receive protection under U.S. law. I mention protected classes including race, nationality, religion, and social groupings such as homosexuality. In hearing the process they were likely to experience if they decided to try to cross the border and ask for asylum, one of the men grew weary and finally leaned back on the couch, almost asleep. Was he tired, sick or just discouraged? His partner seemed ready to cope, mentioning a friend in the U.S. and a ready understanding of the requirement to prove their need to enter the US for safety. I provided the best information I had as to the trip ahead of them. I can still see him and his partner weighing silently the risks of going ahead or staying back. I told them that they will likely be separated at the border.

Those from Central America mostly reported suffering threats from gangs and cartels. Africans were more likely to report government corruption, abductions, being thrown in jail with no trial, torture. We could offer the hand of friendship, support and some information, of unknown reliability, of the path ahead. We don’t know, but what we hear is that if a migrant makes it past the first interview, they will be put in a cold detention center for an unknown period, allowed to keep only one layer of clothes. Single men are often detained for long periods, while families might be dropped off before midnight at a McDonalds in San Diego. Knowledge is spotty among both volunteers and migrants. I asked a woman from Africa who had traveled up from Brazil, “Did you come to join the caravan?” “What caravan?” she asked.

We volunteers know little about the shadowy organization of the number system, “the list,” by which households are chosen to cross the border. It was apparently created by a group of Haitian migrants in 2016, and is now managed by an organization connected with the Mexican police. Connections with the US government are unclear. Migrants wait 6 to 8 weeks at the border, trying to stay safe and warm while checking at the desk frequently to make sure they do not miss the call.

An unpredictable number of families is called each day; the number is much smaller than the need and is clearly intended to discourage those seeking immigration legally. Volunteers from Al Otro Lado report back the important facts: how many numbers are called, who is separated and who is allowed to travel together, what is the last number called each day. If a household is not present on the day their number is called, they may have to start again with a new number. Maybe there will be a second chance for those who missed their number, or maybe not; those who are present each day complain that others are given two chances and they are given none.

Once a family is called, they are put in a bus and driven to the automobile crossing a couple of miles away. Waiting for the bus is agonizing. Evan and Laura befriended a family with two children and spent the morning offering piggy-back rides and otherwise entertaining the children so the parents could have a few moments’ peace. Later, Laura received information via Facebook that the family had been released and were headed north to their sponsor family member, someone with papers living in the U.S. Evan did some research on ICE records and found that a woman he had worked with was in detention. These are the only people we were able to receive information about once they’d entered the U.S.

Like the fragments of information available in Tijuana, the border crossing is cobbled together with different structures: a three-story building topped with concertina wire;  a huge outdoor spiral staircase with an open-air zig-zag stair on the other side; a labyrinth of one-way doors, hallways, new and old together. Rules change every day. One minute there is no line for pedestrians to cross, then the next minute there are 20 on line; a new form must be filled out. We are in a stream of travelers, most of whom seem to make this transit daily to go to work. We are among the lucky ones with permission to cross the border at will.

So many people are committed to this work; it was an honor to be among them for a
few days.