At the Border

A report from Tijuana.

This July, my partner, my 80-year-old mother, and I volunteered at the U.S.-Mexico border with Al Otro Lado (AOL), a binational nonprofit providing legal services to deportees, migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. AOL’s Border Rights Project in Tijuana is one of three AOL offices (the others are in Los Angeles and San Diego). The main task of the Tijuana office is providing legal-rights trainings and support to asylum-seekers. During orientation, Nicole Ramos ’01 educated us about AOL and the political situation for migrants in Tijuana. An expert immigration law attorney, AOL co-founder, and director of its Border Rights Project, she described AOL as a thorn in the side of both the U.S. and Mexican governments. Their attorneys are involved in a number of lawsuits challenging the U.S. government’s treatment of migrants.

As the current administration makes migration in general—and asylum in particular—as difficult as possible, laws, policies, and procedures change constantly. So AOL aims to provide the most accurate information possible to empower and support clients in making the best decisions they can. This includes explaining the repercussions of the new Migrant Protection Protocols, which have led to more than 10,000 migrants waiting for months at the border.

During our week volunteering, the clients we met came from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Cuba, Cameroon, Turkey, Iraq, and Russia. Their journeys had taken weeks or months; depleted most, if not all, of their material resources; and left them with physical and emotional scars. And they were the lucky ones who had made it. Both the adults and the children exhibited various levels of trauma and 
were still patient, grateful, and resilient.

Through AOL’s intake process, unaccompanied minors and especially vulnerable adults are identified and provided additional services. Staff and volunteer attorneys meet with each client or family to provide information and guidance. AOL also provides a critical service in scanning client documents (birth certificates, visas, passports, marriage certificates, videos showing persecution) and uploading them to a secure server that clients can access from anywhere. Because documents are often taken by authorities, lost, stolen, or destroyed by weather, these back-up e-copies can mean the difference between a strong case and no case at all.

Before arriving, we often heard AOL characterized as “the most loving place in Tijuana.” We found that to be the case.

My mom worked in the childcare area, which received 10 to 20 children—toddlers to teens—each day. In a small makeshift area, clustered together with a few toys and art supplies and supported by volunteers, the children had a chance to be free.

My most rewarding experience was witnessing my mom, who spent her life in service of young children but who officially retired more than 15 years ago, completely engaged and enthralled by these kids. She said she was moved by their creativity, cooperation, and resilience. Many did not want to leave at the end of the day, likely because this was a rare safe space where they could just be kids.

We were struck by the warmth, grace, and generosity of spirit of clients, staff, and volunteers engaged in various tasks while packed into an overcrowded, overheated space. It could be chaotic as the din of multiple languages, the loud humming of fans, and, at times, the crying of small children fought our attempts to provide a semblance of calm and stability—all within a larger context of arbitrary policies and intentional cruelty. Despite this, warmth, smiles, and hope prevailed.