Let me start by reminding you that this is a politically created humanitarian crisis – if the US just assigned an appropriate number of Asylum Officers there would be no human back log and no humanitarian crisis.
A complication of reporting on what is happening is that everything is constantly in flux. The daily evolving nature of the situation makes it hard to report on but more importantly it makes it hard for groups trying to help and leaves the asylum seekers in the dark. We base this report on the week Dec 8 to 17 we were in San Diego/Tijuana for Meta Peace Team so things may have changed.
This is a fairly long report so we have broken it into topics:
- Asylum Application Process
- Politics Over Humans
- Ending the Humanitarian Crisis
- Survival On the Edge in Chaos
- Who are the asylum seekers?
- Why Caravans?
- The Mexican President
- Shutdown of Government
- Border Delay
- Groups that are doing good work
Asylum Application Process
The process in San Diego/Tijuana is that applicants have to get to a border crossing point (at Tijuana/San Diego this is Ped West) and start lining up at 5AM hoping to get an assigned number which establishes their place in line (figurative line) to even fill out the asylum application the very start of the process. Only a limited number numbers are given out on a particular day so it becomes competitive who is in line first. Of course before they get in line the asylum applicants have to find out where to go and what this number getting process is. When they get a number they then have to wait weeks until their number is called. (Each number is actually a group of about 10 asylum seekers). To start their request for asylum they must to be present at Ped West when their number is called. If they miss that moment they must start all over again. But no one knows what numbers will be called on which day. Several civil relief organizations try to mitigate this problem by keeping track of the last number that was called on each day and how many numbers were called that day to try to predict what numbers will be called the next day. Besides the attempts to predict what numbers will be called there is the obstetrical of letting people know what the prediction is. There are numerous official camps and shelters (which get moved periodically), unofficial camps, and language barriers that complicate dissemination of the predicted numbers to be called each day. (Besides Spanish and English there are the Mayan languages and Miskito.) Because many of these people are being hunted by the very people who caused them to flee there is concern about even disclosing where the camps are let alone who is where. There is no way to notify people directly. With the knowledge that your number might be called tomorrow there is maybe a 4 hour walk or 45 minute bus ride with all your belongings and paper work through a foreign unknown city to get back to Ped West first thing in the morning to see if your number is actually called that day. Obviously in both predicting numbers and in appearing people have to err on the side of predicting more numbers will be called than probably will actually be called so applicants are likely to have to make this trip multiple times. When the numbers are called those who respond are Mexican Border Report for Meta Peace Team Page 2 of 6 loaded in a van and taken to start the evaluation of their claim for asylum. If they pass this first test they maybe taken into custody or dumped out on the streets of San Diego with nothing but a form (that is only in English) with a court appearance date.
This number system in illegal on the face because any asylum seeker by international law and US law should be able to approach any point of entry or any border official and file the application for asylum. As the number of asylum seekers amassed the asylum seekers self organized this number system to establish some first-come-first-served element to the process. But many feel the Mexican government, through the Beta Group, are actually controlling this number process and through them presumably the US government has their hand in there too.
Politics Over Humans
If this Republican administration’s goal was to keep asylum seekers out of the US that is simple – process claims expeditiously and assign “hanging judges” to the asylum courts. To see the impact of individual judges compare NYC and Atlanta; 75% of asylum applications in NY city are approved while only 10% are approved in Atalanta. Unjust and in human as this would be it would clean up the humanitarian crisis. Something other than closing the border must be the goal here. The one thing that would justify a border wall in public opinion would be a mass of human beings waiting at the border. If they can appear poor and disheveled all the better. If they can be frustrated better still. And if they can be moved toward aggression that would be ideal. By creating and maintaining a massive backlog at the border that is exactly what they have created. If you apply the biblical saying “You will know them by their fruits” here you might get “Your will know their motive by the fruit of their policy.”
Ending the Humanitarian Crisis
In the middle of a dramatic reduction in immigration from Mexico the US processing of immigrants is backing up – this does not make sense. The human back log was not created by “the Caravan” that Trump talked about, they just joined the continuous applications for immigration and asylum. If the US processed asylum seekers in a timely manner it would clean up the humanitarian crisis in Tijuana. For example if the US just put 1000 Asylum Officers on the Mexican border and they each heard 6 “credible fear interviews” a day. Within one week all of the asylum seeker back log would be in the process and the humanitarian crisis would be over. Those who have applied and have not met the initial test will know that they aren’t getting asylum in the US and will move to other options. Some may apply for asylum in Mexico. Some might go home.
For the Mexican law enforcement anyone who claims they are seeking asylum has a bundle of rights that must be protected and respected. But once their application for asylum in the US has been denied (I have heard that as few as 20% may meet that test) they can be treated like anyone else on the street. This includes simple problems like Tijuana residents having thousands of caravan people trying to stay alive in the streets in front of their houses with no facilities. Just by putting enough Asylum Officers on the border the US could make the accumulated problem go away in weeks.
Survival On the Edge in Chaos
Remember these are people who’s goal is just get shelter from the violence in their home through the US asylum process, a process they know very little about. But day to day they are trying to just survive far from home in a foreign land. And they have arrived here with their resources of all kinds depleted and exhausted having spent a month walking through often hostile conditions.
I joined the Unified Deported Veterans to visit a refugee camp. We made some 250 sandwiches which we took to a group of asylum seekers that live outside an official refugee camp compound. We also had, water, bananas, toilet paper, and blankets. While the Deported Vets do make a critical difference for those they reach they can only reach a drop in the bucket.
One needs a contact in the camp just to get in and the contacts are also important to have any donation process go smoothly. The camps self segregate and regulate themselves into various groups for example by national origin. They share familiar cultures and language. It provides a level of support and protection in a chaotic world. It also divides the camps into enclaves that are competing for limited resources.
On earlier trips the Deported Veterans found stacks of moldy bread. The camp organizers were trying to save some of the bread for later. Which is good thinking given that supplies are limited, irregular, and unpredictable, but not if it is going to mold. At another time camp organizers tried to save fresh chicken for a Christmas dinner in a freezer that didn’t work. These are just examples of what happens in chaotic situations.
The Deported Veterans had spent the week trying to figure out some way to relieve the terrible problem that the asylum seekers outside the Camp had no water and no toilets. A week later when we arrived there was a whole wall of port-a-potties. The Deported Veterans were relieved but with some over all organization the Deported Vets’ energy and probably that of other relief groups could have been working on mitigating one of the many other problems.
To even take supplies into asylum seekers outside the compound we had to have official passes to show the police guards. It makes sense to try to control who is wandering in and possibly victimizing the asylum seekers. Remember there are attackers actively looking for some of these people, that is why they are seeking asylum. Yet before I knew I needed a pass I just walked in the area and walked all around. Arguably this could have been because I am obviously American. But it still points to the chaos.
There are groups like, UN High Commission for Refugees, International Committee of the Red Cross, and Sanctuary Caravan with a regular presence in the camps. But that does little to change that this is masses of human beings just trying to scratch out survival without the most basic supplies. Where we were there is no running water – essential for maintaining health. People precariously holding on to a squalid life. They do have tents, packed in tight rows on concrete under the baking sun and fortunately there is a drought or they all would be soaked. Part of what happened at the sports arena was that when it rained everything anyone one had got packed with mud and molded instead of drying. What we saw is typical of any homeless encampment, all the insecurity, fear, magnified a hundred time by the language issues, by not having residency, and by the frustration from the local residents who understandably want the neighborhoods back.
Who are the asylum seekers?
They have been coming from many places depending on what is happening in their home land – like Haiti and Africa. Right now that main source is the “Northern Triangle”, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Hondurans. Lets look at the numbers for “intentional homicide per thousand people” to get an idea of the violent situations they are trying to escape: El Salvador: 81.2 homicides/K, putting it #1 on a Central and South America ranking of homicides/K and #1 on the UNODC World Wide ranking, Honduras: 59 homicides/K, #3 on a Central and South America ranking and #2 on the UNODC World Wide ranking, and Guatemala: 27.3 homicides/K, number #5 on a Central and South America ranking and #16 on the UNODC world wide ranking. The US has provided Honduras with weapons and military training (think SOAW). People here say that the gangs and organized crime are working so closely with the military that the US weapons and training are being used by the gangs and organized crime. Once on the wrong side of that crime/government alliance there can be no option but abandon everything you have and migrate for asylum somewhere else.
The flow of refugees and asylum seekers traveling through Mexico to the US border stretches back through history. In recent years they have learned to use the protection they can get by joining and traveling together – a caravan. In a group they also can create more awareness of the underlying problem. This Republican Administration has been tried to pull attention away from the underlying problems and on to the caravans themselves.
The Mexican President
People ask whether the new President is liberal. Present López Obrador came in on a people’s campaign. He started office with what he called “radical, ordered and peaceful transformation”, opening the President’s mansion to the public, putting the Presidential private jet up for sale, and changing from glitzy motorcades to a Volkswagen to get around. More substantially he opened a truth commission on the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, put a cap on all salaries of all government officials (no one can earn more than the President then he dropped his salary radically), is rolling back the corrupt educational changes his predecessor put in place. People we talked to seemed to be holding their breath to see if he can actually succeed.
He replaces President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was part of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI controlled the Mexican Presidency for more than 70 years and was seen as very corrupt. For example his wife has been living in a $7 million mansion owned by a contractor who not surprisingly won lucrative government projects. There is a feeling here that out going President Pena Nieto was all too glad use the caravans to create a mess for the incoming President Obrador. The famous day that some immigrants rushed the border and the US tear gassed Tijuana was the very day Pena Nieto stepped down and Obrador took office. Most people here think Nieto orchestrated that.
Shutdown of Government
Across the country there is a huge asylum court backlog, independent of the caravans. The government shutdown is closing many of the asylum courts across the country. Attorneys are saying this has already added years to the resolution of most asylum cases.
Tijuana is English friendly and inexpensive (bargaining is common). Because of the negative caravan publicity tourism is way down so making an effort to spend your money there makes sense. There are plenty of restaurants with no waiting lines. Hotels as cheap as $30US a night for 2. Uber seems generally available. Crossing the border can be fast or slow depending on the time of day, cars can have long delays. You can walk across or bring a car across (check your car insurance for coverage in Mexico.). You will want to extend your cell phone service for use in Mexico, the cellphone seems to know exactly where the border is.
Crossing the Tijuana/San Diego border going north by car can take up to 6 hours. Pedestrian crossings are faster. This is totally unnecessary, it is just a matter of what resources are committed to the job. It should be US policy that any legitimate crossing should take less that an hour. This is just good business, it would greatly increase the business in San Diego and in Tijuana. It would also reduce the human pressure at the border.
All of the groups below are working cooperatively, all of them need money and volunteers just to meet the needs on the ground. Most of them require a training (often in San Diego) before working with them in Tijuana. It helps to see what group needs your skills and arrange to go through the orientation trainings before just showing up at the border. The situation is very fluid and needs can change daily.
Some people feel they can just accompany random asylum seekers through the process. Experienced groups clearly advise against this. Among other things the process is designed so that an accompaniment can’t stay with the asylum seekers. Instead experienced groups track who goes into application process and then watches to see who gets out so they can give the support through the next steps and who disappears in the process so they can find out where they are and why.
Groups that are doing good work
Al Otro Lado is a bi-national not-for-proft doing this work since 2012. Al Otro Lado, is are doing everything they can to protect the rights of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and the greater Los Angeles area. The community they serve includes refugees fleeing for their lives, deported persons separated from their families by inhumane immigration policies, and undocumented persons with serious health problems who qualify for family-based or humanitarian immigration relief. They offer know your rights advocacy, refugee accompaniment to the port of entry, direct legal representation of detained refugees, legal and case management services for deportees, and impact litigation designed to disrupt the system of injustice which violates the rights of the most vulnerable among us. They say, “We cannot do this alone- we need your help!” For questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org Mexican Border Report for Meta Peace Team Page 6 of 6 https://alotrolado.org
Enclave Caracol historically has been an autonomous social space in downtown Tijuana that is used for workshops, art, and community events. During this crisis it has become an important center of support for migrants. Their building is intensely scheduled they house Al Otro Lado and National Lawyer Guild in Tijuana, they are cooking for and feeding migrants, receiving, sorting, and distributing donations, coordinating medical clinics, providing childcare, they provide space for weddings for migrant couples who do not have marriage papers, and the list goes on. They need volunteers that can organize meals, transportation of donations, and help with security/door here at the building, tech help, plumbing/construction help. Volunteers can come to the first floor of Enclave Caracol at 10 am, any day of the week or weekend. They can provide crash course training on what has worked and what hasn't worked, but we need folks that can connect resources to needs without constantly relying on direction from organizers. https://enclavecaracol.wordpress.com/ https://www.facebook.com/pg/enclavecaracol/about/?ref=page_internal
National Layers Guild is calling on attorneys, law students, and other legal workers to travel to the border and volunteer to Legal Observe refugee arrivals, lead know your rights trainings, and staff legal clinics. Volunteers must already be trained NLG Legal Observers, have some proficiency in Spanish, and above all, practice cultural sensitivity and remain aware of their privileged status as a guest in a space in which families are fighting for their lives. Multiple NLG entities are contributing to the effort, including their International and Mass Defense Committees, The National Immigration Project of the NLG , the Military Law Task Force (MLTF) . Volunteers may sign up at this form. https://www.facebook.com/nlgsandiego/ https://www.nlg.org/nlg-al-otro-lado-mobilizing-legal-support-for-central-american-refugee-caravan-atmexico-us-border/
Unified Deported Veterans has built relationship with the migrants enabling them to provide important direct necessity support for migrants. (Incidentally there are two deported vet organizations in Mexico.) They have been supporting deported vets but in this crisis with the help of San Diego Chapter of Veterans For Peace are providing basic supporting the migrants. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Unified-US-Deported-Veterans-Resource-Center/782934635206404
Sanctuary Caravan/New Sanctuary Coalition generally tries to support asylum seekers from their initial interview all the way through the final asylum hearings. For example they wait outside the place where initial “credible fear” interviews are done to try to find those who pass the “credible fear” test and are dumped out on the streets, alone and unsupported. Sanctuary Caravan is looking for communities around the US that will house and support these asylum seekers while they go through the process which can take years. In the camps in Tijuana they offer information to asylum seekers about the process and provide Pro Se Workshops to help asylum seekers know the laws, the process and their rights. Their on-line trainings are a great place to start https://www.sanctuarycaravan.org/training https://www.sanctuarycaravan.org Volunteers can signup to help here https://www.sanctuarycaravan.org/getinvolved