Bordering the United States, Tijuana is a crowded, bustling Mexican city that looks out over the calm Pacific Ocean and at the same time bears an appalling murder rate. For the second year running, it has been named the most violent city in the world. Here thousands of refugees from failed states in Central and South America gather to seek asylum in the US. They are tired, hungry, and traumatized, but they are willing to run the risks of Tijuana to better their lives in “El Norte.”
An organization founded in 2012 by two attorneys in the Los Angeles/San Diego area of California, Al Otro Lado (“to the other side”) provides legal support to these desperate people. The Humanists of Greater Portland became aware of the organization after a member volunteered there in November of 2019. Her presentation on the experience presented a typical day at the Al Otro Lado (AOL) facility. In a leaky building they shared with a community kitchen, volunteers welcomed long lines of asylum seekers at nine o’clock on weekday mornings, registered them, treated everyone with dignity, offered daycare for their children, and made snacks and lunch available while volunteer attorneys and paralegals offered legal aide. AOL kept a file of their cases through the Innovative Law Lab in Portland, Oregon; organized and photocopied their paper work; and ran clients through mock interviews to demonstrate how they could represent themselves in court. The days were long. Many cases took seven or eight hours to prepare.
In addition, a team went to the border station at 6:00 a.m. every day, Saturdays and Sundays included, to offer services to those coming to the port of entry for the first time. At the close of each day, the staff and directors met to share concerns and successes. Whenever word came back that a client had been granted asylum, the joy was palpable.
The Humanists of Greater Portland (HGP) Board of Directors had been seeking deserving causes to consider for financial help and entertained raising money for Al Otro Lado as long as the money was dedicated to a specific use. Because the development of legal cases involves reams of paper (a case for a family of five can actually run to 500 pages) and the copy machine at Al Otro Lado was frequently breaking down under the strain, the HGP Board decided to dedicate the funds to the purchase or rental of a new copy machine and additional office supplies. We donated seed money and put out the call for donations; a grant of $750 from the American Humanist Association supplemented these funds, creating a total of $6,250.
HGP closed the fundraising at the end of March, but by that time the situation had changed. The Trump administration had closed the Mexican border and was not accepting new asylum cases. At the same time, cities on both sides of the border had either adopted or were considering adopting procedures to control the spread of COVID-19. AOL had to close its own building but was moving into a new one.
Interviews had to be done electronically whenever possible, and cases, though being developed, had to be put on hold. Minimal staff still goes into the new building, and the director of the facility tells us the new copy machine, though currently not as busy as the old one, is being well used. Clients can still come into the building by appointment only and pick up their evidence packets. An easing of the pandemic and a change of administration in the United States are the best hopes for these asylum seekers. Nicole Ramos, director of the Tijuana office, explains some of the results of AOL’s efforts and the importance, on a personal level, of putting together evidence to support people’s stories:
We have seen clients who are going through this process of preparing evidence and receiving coaching on how to use it in court become much more invested in being an advocate for themselves in the courtroom than they were beforehand. Many asylum seekers arrive at the border with very little to no understanding of how the court system they are about to enter works . . . When clients begin to understand that this evidence is not just something that the judge gets to use but is also a tool that they can use in the courtroom, our clients become much more empowered to speak up and advocate for themselves during their court proceedings.
Testimonials proclaim the success of the program in human terms:
“During the months that I was in Tijuana, Al Otro Lado helped me a lot with my translations which were a principal need I had and very necessary for my court process since I went without a lawyer … Thanks to Al Otro Lado you can now find me in the United States. I was granted asylum… I hope that they can continue helping many people that must pass through this very long and hard process.” —Venezuelan asylum seeker, granted asylum in December 2019.
“The translations were a huge help for our case. If it weren’t for all of you I don’t believe I would have been able to reach my goal of being here in the USA. I will never forget what you did for us without us ever giving you even a cent, you were always there to help us.” —El Salvadoran asylum seeker who, with his wife and two children, was granted humanitarian parole and removed from the MPP Program due to the need for medical treatment in November 2019. MPP refers to Migrant Protection Protocols, under which the US sends people who’ve fled violence in their home countries and entered the US through Mexico back to Mexico.
Al Otro Lado welcomes the help of humanitarian volunteers no matter their religion or lack thereof. The Humanists of Greater Portland and the American Humanist Association are pleased to have contributed to these efforts, humans helping humans.