In early February, attorneys and staff from JFON Michigan and Just Neighbors, our JFON affiliate in Northern Virginia, spent their regular work week volunteering in Tijuana, Mexico, assisting asylum seekers waiting there to cross the border and present their claims to U.S. immigration officials.
El Chaparral, Tijuana: At 7 o’clock every morning, the notebook is taken from its locked box. Sometime that same morning, someone will call off the chosen numbers. They usually call about 20 numbers—each one representing 10 people—a day. But on the morning that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made an appearance, accompanied by a frenzy of media, they called 80 numbers.
“People weren’t prepared,” reports Migladys Bermudez of JFON Michigan. “Many weren’t there to hear their number, and they missed their chance. Most were sent back to the end of the list.”
Now no one is taking any risk of missing their slot. Once only those with reasonable expectations of hearing their number showed up each morning. Now there are upwards of a thousand people waiting on the off-chance that this will be their lucky day.
Most of them come from the infamous Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. But people from Haiti, Albania, Venezuela, Cuba, and many African countries are also in the crowd. And there are thousands more scattered at makeshift shelters and tent cities throughout Tijuana, each of them playing the waiting game and doing their best to survive one day at a time.
Migladys and her fellow volunteers are there early, too. They go up and down the line, giving spot know-your-rights presentations and explaining the process of the credible fear interview clearly and succinctly. The attorneys hold up one hand and click off the five things the asylum seekers must remember to tell their interviewers …what…where…when…why…and how.
They also try to prepare people for the hielera (icebox) where they will spend a minimum of two to three days waiting on freezing concrete floors. There is a separate hielera for men, women and children. Families are not allowed to remain together. There are no exceptions.
The volunteers hand out warm socks. It’s important to put your warmest layer closest to your body, they tell them. Border agents will remove all layers of clothing except for that first one before you go into the hielera.
“But, why?” one woman asks, perplexed, as volunteers make human “curtains” around her so she can change with some amount of privacy.
Migladys shakes her head. “I don’t know why,” she answers bleakly.
Meanwhile, armed with black permanent markers, other volunteers are helping parents write telephone numbers and other information about their sponsors on their arms. Then they take the markers and write the parents’ names on their children. The back of the neck is a good place. It’s less likely to get washed off.
It feels weird and it tickles. The children giggle.
The adults, meanwhile, just want to cry.
Our JFON attorneys and staff are working under the direction of Al Otro Lado, (“to the other side”) an organization that provides direct legal services to indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana.
In the afternoon, the JFON crew heads over to a local community center with two floors dedicated to meeting the needs of the migrants. Two of our JFON volunteers will entertain the children in one corner, while others are running know-your-rights workshops, interpreting, doing intake and providing one-on-one consultations.
At one point, Migladys is put at a registration table set up in an alley. She is there to do legal “triage.” Some people have basic questions she can answer rather quickly; others need consultations. Migladys, capable and unflappable, can fulfill both roles, but it isn’t easy.
“It’s very busy,” says Migladys. “It’s like running a JFON clinic on steroids.”
The first day of the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy coincided with our JFON crew’s first day in Tijuana. Under this new direction, families with children, unaccompanied minors, and other vulnerable individuals who have passed their credible fear interviews, will be allowed to wait in the U.S. for their hearing before a U.S. immigration judge.
Others, particularly young men, are sent back and forced to wait in some of the most dangerous areas of Mexico, with limited access to shelter, assistance, and, most significantly, competent legal counsel that can help them make their case for asylum.
The “Remain in Mexico” policy was on Migladys’ mind as she boarded the plane to return to Michigan. Migladys had counseled many hopeful asylum seekers in Tijuana and heard many heartbreaking stories, but there was one particular young man she couldn’t stop worrying about.
His name was Mauricio. He was slightly built, with boyish looks, and gay. Over the course of an hour—attorneys were advised to keep their consultations to 40 minutes, if possible—Mauricio told Migladys his story.
Members of the local MS-13 gang viciously targeted him because of his sexual orientation. When his brother stepped up to try to defend him, they killed him.
Mauricio was forced to watch.
He blames himself for his brother’s death. Some of his family members also blame him. And then the gang went looking for him again. “They say they need to make a man out of me,” he confessed to Migladys in a low voice, looking down at the table as he wiped tears from his eyes.
“This story was hard for me,” recounts Migladys Bermudez. “Honestly, it was one of the few times I wanted to cry during my trip. I didn’t—it isn’t me and it wouldn’t have been productive. All I could do was tell him that it wasn’t his fault. I told him that over and over again.”
Migladys knew Mauricio had a strong case for asylum, but he still had to go through his credible fear interview. And if he passed the interview, would he be forced to remain in Mexico while his case was pending? How could he possibly be safe in Mexico?
Our JFON crew is back home now, each of them profoundly moved by their time in Tijuana, inspired by the people they met there, and eager to take on even more asylum cases.
Usually, JFON staff and attorneys see their asylum clients after they have come through the border, successfully passed their credible fear interviews and have moved to other places in the country. But Migladys and her colleagues have witnessed, first hand, the bewildering array of barriers asylum seekers face in their desperate quest to find safety. This new understanding of the migrant experience will have a lasting impact on all of them, professionally and personally.
“Honestly, I was humbled from the moment I got there,” Migladys confesses. “I will try to carry that humility with me as I go forward.”
The JFON crew’s day in Tijuana began at 7 a.m. and ended usually after 7 p.m. Here they take a quick break to send us this photo.