Throughout 2019, NJFON sent volunteer teams of staff and attorneys to Tijuana, Mexico, to work with asylum seekers waiting there to cross over to the United States. Under the auspices of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, JFON volunteers would run Know-Your-Rights workshops, interpret, help complete intake forms, and provide one-on-one consultations in 30 minutes or less.
When Alba Jaramillo, executive director for Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, visited Tijuana and saw the legal counsel they were providing for asylum seekers, she knew this was something she wanted to see happen in Arizona.
“Along our section of the border,” she says, referring to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico and its sister city Nogales, Arizona, “there was no organization doing this work.”
But in designing their own legal program for asylum seekers at the border, and applying for a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Alba knew they needed to take a more thorough and holistic approach.
Partner Cruzando Fronteras(Crossing Borders), an interfaith border ministry run by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona in alliance with other faith-based organizations, offers food, shelter, medical care, and a variety of services for asylum-seeking families in their Nogales, Mexico shelter.
Arizona JFON offers legal rights presentations without the rush—in small groups, so that asylum seekers staying at the shelter can ask the legal experts their many questions.
“Some of these asylum seekers have no idea what asylum is,” says Alba. “They know that they can present themselves at the border and that is all. And those who do know something have lots of misinformation. For example, they don’t realize that they may have to fight their entire case in Mexico or from a detention facility. So they need to understand the realities of how difficult this is. Then they can make the determination whether they want to proceed.”
The second difference with the Arizona program—and it is a significant one—is that, unlike in Tijuana, attorneys here have time to assist asylum seekers in writing their declarations. The keyword here is “assistance.” JFON attorneys help the asylum seekers put their words in a logical order so they are better prepared for their credible fear interviews with an immigration official. They do not write it for them.
“The declaration is the most important document to accompany the asylum application,” explains Alba. “The effects of the trauma they have experienced often make it difficult for them to tell their story on the spot. So we get them to think about the timeline, the facts of their story, the events that occurred, and the things that aren’t going to change, even as our laws change daily. “
Asylum seekers are carefully screened to ensure they have a chance to gain asylum. “We have to be honest with them,” says Alba. “We aren’t going to help draft a declaration for someone who doesn’t have a claim. But I haven’t seen anyone at the shelter who isn’t fleeing persecution.”
When Arizona JFON received its UMCOR grant for its program earlier this year, there were an estimated 3,500 asylum seekers in Nogales, Mexico.
And then the coronavirus descended upon the shelters.
“Many asylum seekers went home,” says Alba, “many of the shelters closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and asylum seekers who could not afford hotels were forced to live on the streets. The Cruzando Fronteras shelter is the only one that has not experienced a single case of COVID-19.”
La Casa, as residents call their temporary home, is located in a former school, where families can have their own rooms in the dormitories. Staff members follow strict CDC guidelines, including social distancing, frequent temperature checks, and a two-week quarantine for any new arrivals. There are presently 63 families living at the shelter now, and they are expecting another four families within days.
These are men, women, and children who need our help.
So the work continues, but like everything else in these days of the pandemic, it has gone virtual. This may not be ideal, but the connection between volunteers and asylum seekers is a strong one—even over Zoom.
“The extra empathy we offer is the important piece,” says Alba. “I always start out telling them how brave they are. Immigration law is not very friendly in the U.S. But here there is a network of people, rooting for them, and wanting to do anything they can to help.”
One day, the border will open up again. Some of these asylum seekers may be paroled into the U.S. while their asylum case is pending. Some may end up close to a JFON site. And there they can find the welcome and support they first experienced at a House of Mercy.