Effecting change, as individuals, by volunteering across the border

GUILFORD — Given all the mind-boggling political events of the day, one might be forgiven for not remembering that there are still so many fleeing persecution and hoping to enter the U.S. We can still be drawn back to 2018 and the outrage we felt over the child separation policy news.

As time has gone by, and while many organizations and individuals continue the fight for migrant justice, on a personal level it's not been easy to effect positive change - not vigils, not demonstrations, not even civil disobedience provide much satisfaction. The plight of those seeking asylum in the U.S. is what it is, unless and until it becomes something else.

In this environment, my husband and I looked around for what we, as individuals, might be able to do, to lessen the trauma of those caught in the asylum nightmare.

Under current policies, asylum crossings have been so drastically deterred that organizations serving newly entering asylum seekers no longer need many volunteers. So, we looked elsewhere - to the other side.

It's comforting to know that there are many, many organizations out there providing humanitarian and legal support. We ultimately signed up with Al Otro Lado (On the Other Side) in Tijuana.

AOL depends largely on volunteers, some longer term, mostly shorter term, and all with a full range of skills and/or interests, to conduct legal observation and outreach at the port of entry and assist migrants and deportees with their issues.

AOL facilitates presentations on the U.S. asylum and detention processes, including the inhumane conditions of detention. The organization conducts one-on-one consults on individual clients' believability in their Credible Fear Interviews. Only those who are able to establish a credible (believable) fear of persecution or torture if returned to their home country are even allowed to apply for asylum).

The agency also creates electronic files for client records and documents, and it provides child care and snacks throughout the day. Continual data entry and record keeping support AOL's litigation activities and civil rights complaints. We all did the cleaning of AOL's modest office space.

During our two-week stint, approximately 40 individuals or families were assisted daily. We saw firsthand the injustices we've all read about, like migrants being denied their legal right to enter to present their case. Instead, we saw them being directed to post their names on a numbered list and to return when their number is called. With no way of knowing when that might be and only a handful of individuals called each day, AOL estimates 10,000 people who have been turned away from their right to cross are languishing in this country.

We heard stories about the first stop in the detention process, the holding center commonly known as “la hielera” (icebox) for its constant 48-degree temperature and dismal conditions. We met individuals who “passed” the Credible Fear Interview but who were sent back to Mexico under the so-called migrant “protection” program or “stay in Mexico” policy to await their court date, effectively sent back to the same fears and dangers they had been fleeing. We saw the asylum-seeking process stretched out over several months, requiring back-and-forth trips to U.S. court.

It's a system full of intentional obstacles, mitigated somewhat by the numerous Tijuana-based organizations that provide shelter and food alongside AOL's legal respite. We were touched by the courage and persistence of the asylum seekers, and grateful for signs of our common humanity in these stressful times.

For more information on AOL or on how to help, visit www.alotrolado.org

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates