Last Friday I went to Tijuana to work with the migrants who are part of the “caravan.” We left Los Angeles at 5 am and arrived in San Ysidro about 7:30 am. We parked and walked across the El Chaparral pedestrian bridge to Tijuana. It was very quiet with a handful folks headed to the USA, probably for work, and Dennis, my paralegal, and I the only folks headed to Mexico.
After crossing the bridge the first thing we see is a parking lot with a big colorful block sign announcing we’re in Tijuana. In the far corner of lot there are a couple of pop-up tents and folding tables and an orderly line of people waiting. The man sitting at table has a ledger book – this book is La Lista. This is the list of folks waiting to turn themselves into US border patrol to request asylum. Border patrol only interviews about 40 people a day and there are some five thousand migrants in Mexico waiting for their turn. The list is not organized by the US government or the Mexican government although there is some question about this – but by the migrants themselves. Asylum-seekers are given a number. Each number represents 10 people. On this morning the list had reached 1695 (or 16,950 people) and border patrol was due to start at 1170 later that day. This puts the number of folks waiting to present themselves to border patrol at approximately 5,250. If border patrol keeps up their current pace of 40 folks a day – folks at the end of the line will be waiting approximately 4 1/2 months. Keep in mind they’re not waiting at the Sheraton Hotel.
Dennis and I leave the border and head to Enclave Caracol – a restaurant that also serves as the offices for Al Otro Lado – the nonprofit run by US immigration attorney Nora Phillips – that’s spearheading the legal assistance for the migrants. There are about 30-40 volunteer legal representatives from all over the USA at the meeting. We talk about know your rights presentations, consultations and legal observing. After the meeting Dennis and I head over to Campo Unidad Benito Juarez soccer field where many of the refugees are camped out. The field is a muddy mess scattered with soggy sleeping mats and clothing. Children are being children. Adults are talking, making food and waiting. The Mexican Federal police are in numbers but are only observing. There is no visible conflict. In fact on that day buses had arrived to move folks to shelters because the field was such a mess of mud and water. There were media a plenty on hand which creates gaze and representation issues. I’m aware of my role as well – knowing full well that at the end of the day I’ll be at home in my comfortable house in the USA.
One man we met on the soccer pitch distills the current dilemma with his question to me. “Why is Trump doing this to us?” Why is Trump – and many of his supporters – sending troops and tear gas – costing millions of dollars- to meet poor suffering refugees rather than sending asylum officers and immigration judges?
After our visit to the Benito Juarez soccer pitch we head back to Al Otro Lado to do consultations. We met with a Honduran man – traveling with 16 relatives – whose family is being terrorized because of a vendetta from a neighboring family. The real injustice was that this individual was granted asylum in the US in 1998 but was deported in 2005 for simple possession of marijuana. That said this is a problem that might be fixable. I gave him my contact info to follow up.
After this consultation, which lasted nearly 3 hours, it was time to head back to the USA. Upon entering the USA, I was screamed at multiple times by a border patrol officer who was angry because I didn’t obey his commands to stop immediately. He was loud and disrespectful. I was reminded that if this is how they treat a US citizen Anglo male how do the migrants from Central America stand a chance? He was just doing his job? Fat chance. We hear stories of border patrol officers telling migrants that the USA no longer grants asylum. Officers coercing folks to sign documents in English that forfeit custody of their children and their right to apply for asylum. My blood was boiling but I calmed down and left. For now.
The trip reminded me of the starfish parable.
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”. The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?” The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
Until we can make macro changes to our immigration policies we can all do our part and do what we can.