A diary from Christ Church member, Ayo Gansallo, senior staff attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania and adjunct faculty at the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School , volunteering with Al Otro Lado, or AOL, an organization that works with refugees seeking asylum and protection
Photos by Ayo Gansallo
January 21, 2019, email rec’d 2:30 a.m. January 22
“Tijuana Day One–
And so it began.
This morning, seven students and three faculty from the University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Legal Clinic traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to volunteer with Al Otro Lado, or AOL, an organization that works with refugees seeking asylum and protection from the lives they left behind. Our work today did not include going to the border between Mexico and the United States itself. That will be tomorrow. Instead, we dived right it, doing whatever work was needed and our skills would allow.
Our orientation was relatively brief, perhaps 90 minutes in total. But in that time, we learned about the work, the guests we would serve, the area where we were located, and the dangers inherent in working with a population that both the Mexican and U.S. governments have deemed undesirable: men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by the violence that surrounds them, seeking protection within a system that has closed its doors to all but the very few.
Once the work began, we found ourselves in a room about half the size of Christ Church Neighborhood House’s Great Hall, filled to the brim, waiting to be of service in myriad ways. In one area, a “know your rights” presentation was being delivered in Spanish and English to over 60 people, while 19 children ranging in ages from 2 years old to their mid-teens played raucously in another space. It was hard to hear and focus, but the competing needs somehow did not overwhelm.
At the same time, volunteers moved busily, preparing their stations, the largest of which would be for consultations for those seeking legal advice about their chances of claiming asylum. At another station, scanners were being readied to preserve official and other documents that have made their way here from corners far and wide. Because it is widely known that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers routinely divest owners of the most precious documents that serve as evidence of their lives, scanning and saving them in a safe repository makes sense as a permanent reminder of who they are or once were. In yet another space, meals prepared for the guests were delivered by World Central Kitchen, or WCK, an organization whose aim to provide smart solutions to hunger and poverty has led it to create a presence in many countries around the world. At the same time, it is mindful of the needs of federal workers affected by the government shutdown for whom WCK has established a food kitchen and cafe.
Once our orientation was complete, the work of listening to and sifting through people’s lives began as we tried to provide guests with the best options available to them, in conditions that were less than ideal. The notion of privacy – with guests sitting cheek by jowl in cramped open spaces, the persecuted sometimes sharing space with their persecutors – and attorney-client privilege clearly became luxuries in this time of desperation. AOL does its best on limited resources that are clearly stretched very thin. Volunteers are essential to its model.
The case that stood out the most to me today was that of Mario – not his real name – from Central America. He had been shot several times and left for dead by his assailants who knew he had relatives living in the U.S. and therefore sought to extort money from him, believing he was wealthy. As a matter of principle – and perhaps economics – he refused to succumb. The five bullets that were pumped into his body were the price he paid for such audacity. That he survived is a testament to his will and that of whoever was watching over him that night. The pain and inability to maneuver as he once did serve as constant reminders of the intertwining of his bad luck and simultaneous good fortune.
Mario moved to another part of the country, intent on rebuilding his life and lying low with his wife and children, but providence was not on his side. He was discovered and threatened with death. He did not need another warning but also knew there was nowhere for him to hide. Mario did what anyone in survival mode might do; he picked up his family and as much of his belongings that would fit into five bags and began the long trek as far away from his country and fear as he could manage and toward the U.S. to where other members of his family are. More importantly, Mario was seeking protection from those who had tried to kill him before and who, he did not doubt, would finish the job if given a second chance. Rather than being met with welcome and the opportunity to seek protection, Mario has come across his own wall, that of a bureaucracy that is denying him the ability to enter the U.S. to claim asylum.
I do not know how long it took Mario and his family to make it to Tijuana or how much pain he suffered in the process. But I do know that, under the system currently in place, it will be several more months before he can get to the head of ‘La Lista’ so that he can enter the United States to claim asylum. In the meantime, he must keep his family together in a country that does not want him, that provides no aid, and where shelter space is scarce. Sometimes, navigating daily survival can be all-consuming.
Tomorrow we travel to the El Chaparral border crossing to learn more about ‘La Lista.’ It will be a busy day.”
Note: for more on La Lista, see this New York Times article.
January 22, email rec’d 3:20 a.m. the 23rd
“Tijuana Day Two–
The attached picture is of the Virgin of Guadalupe, similar to the one carried by a young boy this morning. Here is my latest report.
Today we experienced La Lista, the document that has controlled the lives of over 20,000 people. It determines who gets called to claim asylum and when.
I first heard of La Lista late in 2018, when one of my favorite news programs, This American Life, first exposed its existence. At first, I thought it was a joke; the story sounded so preposterous that it could not possibly be true, I thought, only to learn that the joke was on me, because it was true.
Under U.S. asylum law, anyone who arrives on American soil has the right to claim asylum, regardless of how they enter the country. This is a right enshrined in the law that only Congress can change. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to circumvent that law, except perhaps our own standards of morality and respect for the sanctity of the rule of law.
Before La Lista came into being, the U.S. and Mexican governments collaborated to limit the number of refugees who would be allowed to reach the U.S. border to claim asylum at the San Ysidro crossing, also known as the busiest land-border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. Grupos Beta, the humanitarian arm of the Mexican immigration services, with the knowledge and consent of U.S. immigration officials, used to determine who would receive appointments to cross the border to claim asylum each day, leaving many behind. This practice continued until it was successfully challenged by Al Otro Lado as violative of international law and due-process protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But as Grupos Beta no longer generated appointments, an ad hoc system morphed to fill the void: La Lista. But even this new procedure that holds so many remnants of the old has an indelible imprimatur of official sanction.
Each morning, at around 7.30 a.m., members of Grupo Beta arrive at the border to process those who will be called to enter the U.S. and to oversee the distribution of numbers to those who must continue to wait their turn. Along with a small tent that they erect, they also bring with them a notebook that contains La Lista, the names of refugees who have been allocated numbers by another refugee who is herself waiting for her number to be called. And when it is her turn, she will pass on the responsibilities to the next person trusted enough to carry out the duties fairly and without favor. The system is rather odd: 10 names to a number, connecting random people through the power of just one number. As of today, the number 2026 was allocated to 10 people waiting in line to hear their names called.
This morning, things were fairly calm. Those who expected to have their numbers called had their belongings with them as they waited patiently. How they knew to be ready is anyone’s guess. Perhaps word of mouth, daily vigilance, intuition, or a combination of all three. Watching approximately 74 people prepare to embark on the next stage of their journey, I was struck by how light they traveled and reminded of a program Rev. Susan Richardson had offered at Christ Church some years ago on migration that focused on home, leaving, crossing, and arrival. Those that we observed today were on the third and most fraught part of their journey framed by the question, Would they be granted protection?
But the things the families carried with them were also instructive. One young boy standing with his family clutched for dear life on to the statute of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a.k.a. the Blessed Virgin Mary, an important religious figure in Mexican life. At the same time, what was not taken was also stark. As far as I could see, none of the children traveling with their families appeared to carry a favorite toy to keep them amused. In truth, they did not seem to need them. There were so many other things to keep them occupied. While we were there, the area was also eerily devoid of tantrums and tears.
Our role at the border was to ensure that people understood their rights to claim asylum and to give them a brief glimpse of the procedure. Once selected, they would be driven in a car by Grupos Beta for processing, before being handed over to U.S. immigration authorities who would interview them within the next 14 days to determine whether they had a credible claim to asylum protection. In the short space of time we had, we needed to make sure people understood they would need to explain coherently, WHAT had happened to them that now required them to claim asylum; WHO was the persecutor; WHY the persecutor had specifically targeted them, based on one or more of only five enumerated grounds – race, religion, nationality, political opinion and membership in a particular social group, the most amorphous and litigated-over category. The term is deliberately undefined in the law so as to make room to recognize the new forms of atrocities to which humans subject their fellow humans. In addition, applicants must show what steps they took to seek PROTECTION from their persecutor and, if none, why not; and finally, they must show any efforts made to relocate to another part of their country. This is a lot of information to absorb in 10 minutes, even if it is given in a language the recipient understands.
We spent some time speaking with one woman from Central America who was heavily pregnant and clearly in distress. Whether she was suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or a pregnancy-related discomfort was unclear. We wanted to be sure she understood her rights. Grupos Beta saw us speaking with her and, as punishment, refused to allow her number to be called. Another Haitian family did not have a number on La Lista since they were recently arrived. But for some reason the wife was told to pass through to be processed, while her husband had to add his name to La Lista, ensuring a forced separation of several months. She was pregnant, but no further along than the woman from Central America who had waited patiently for her number to be called and had been maliciously denied. There are yet more problems with the La Lista system: no transparency or accountability. We could only watch in silence, concerned for both these women with differing fates and disparate treatments.
Refugees are also advised to wear their warmest layer of clothing closest to their bodies. Once in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, or CBP, they will be stripped of all but one layer of clothing. Given that they will be held in government facilities that are deliberately kept at unreasonably cold temperatures for a period, this is sound advice. Desperate to take advantage of this advice, people change in the street. A group of us created a human shield to provide two women with privacy as a way to preserve their dignity.
Because phones will be confiscated, we were also asked to help with providing a safe place for valuable numbers to be stored so that people can reach loved ones once they reach the other side. Admittedly, the solution for this is simple, but also one against which I had the most visceral reaction and internal struggle. With black Sharpie pens, we were required to write numbers on people’s arms and other body parts. I could not bring myself to do this and, in refusing, found my Achilles’ heel.
As we left the border area to walk back to the offices of Al Otro Lado, we left behind many whose lives were controlled by those who are the masters of La Lista, wielding power over the powerless, within a system designed to create a distance that would allow both the Mexican and U.S. governments to proudly decry any involvement in a practice eerily reminiscent of the one they were forced to abandon by the courts. And where is La Lista kept at night? Under lock and key, in a secret destination known only to Grupo Beta, who will also be the ones to produce it again in the morning, after CBP has notified them of the number of refugees they want brought to them for processing. So much for distance.”
January 23, email rec’d Jan. 24, 3:03 a.m.
“Tijuana Day Three–
To say Al Otro Lado is lucky to work with so many volunteers is an understatement. Those who answer the call by putting their own lives on hold so that they can spend time helping others are a motley crew who clearly agree with the mission of the nonprofit organization. Its aim is to provide assistance to refugees and migrants seeking to enter the United States by educating them through “know your rights” presentations and legal-orientation workshops.
Anyone who has worked with volunteers knows that the optimal relationship is where you give a little to gain a lot; and if you are unlucky, the opposite is true. In its mission to reach and assist as many people as possible, AOL’s model is focused on the former, with little time for the latter. People come from far and wide to partner with the organization, in an almost seamlessly revolving door of new and old faces mingling together. After only 12 hours of volunteering with AOL, you are a veteran, ripe for promotion to leadership roles. The most important mindset to carry throughout one’s time here is that no task is beneath anyone, including emptying toilet trash cans, when necessary. This is not about the need to feel good, unless that sentiment comes from the selfless act of helping others.
In its efforts to serve as many people as it can, AOL relies heavily on its volunteers who during orientation are welcomed to ‘Social Justice Airline,’ an apt metaphor for us to have heard on MLK Day. Some volunteers come to AOL for long weekends, such as the group of 40 Stanford law students, taking advantage of the Martin Luther King Day long weekend. Others come for weeks at a time, returning as repeat volunteers as often as their lives allow. Not all who come are lawyers. Baristas rub shoulders with tech gurus; registered nurses and doctors with educators; trained therapists and social workers with retired military. There is room for all who are willing to work long, hard days. And the recurring theme for why we are here? A need to do something to counter the rhetoric that demonizes immigrants and those who want to seek asylum in the United States.
AOL occupies a large building that also houses a medical center where refugees can be seen by professionals to ensure their physical and mental health. Referrals are made for those suffering from PTSD caused in myriad ways. They are kept company by those with residual injuries left as calling cards by their persecutors, such as the young man whose kidnappers burned his arm, leaving open unhealed wounds that have since become infected; or the man whose head injuries sustained during his second kidnapping have robbed him of significant parts of his memory so that he can no longer remember how many children he has, their full names, or ages.
Also in this building is another organization, ‘Food Not Bombs,’ that helps to bookend guests’ visits to AOL with a meal at the end of the day. It is not surprising that many become repeat visitors, as they work hard to avoid food insecurity.
The building is neither fancy nor located in the best or safest part of Tijuana. Its walls are bare, the harsh concrete cold and uninviting, crying out for a heat source that will never exist. As rustic as it is, the building provides the four corners that undergird the work of AOL and its partners, as volunteers strive daily with limited resources to fashion it to the changing needs of its occupants. The donations made by the Christ Church Philadelphia congregation and others are eagerly welcomed as AOL’s current list of necessities diminish with round one of a very satisfying Costco run. As any nonprofit knows, unfettered cash is always the best, but not easy to attract, for many reasons. Regardless of these challenges, AOL continues to expand its reach with the paramount consideration that all are welcome within its walls, whether as volunteer or guest. There is room.”
January 24, email rec’d Jan. 25, 3:09 a.m.
“Tijuana Day Four
Meet Leticia, a Mexican housewife who used to take pride in her appearance, with carefully coifed hair, manicured nails, and well-applied make up. Today, she tells me, she has left that life behind in order to better focus on her new calling.
Eight years ago, Leticia noticed the increase in the number of poor men wandering the streets of Tijuana and decided to do something about it. She actively ministered to those who were down on their luck, helping them to find jobs that might turn their lives around. Leticia soon realized, however, that employment could not stabilize the life of someone living on the streets, so she worked hard to establish a shelter that she calls ‘Por amor a dios y a los mas necesitados – una Luz de Esperanza’ or “For the Love of God and the Most Needy – A Light of Hope.” Soon she realized that the demand for accommodation was not limited to just men but also included women and children. Her heart and faith would not allow her to turn them away from her doors.
Leticia’s shelter can accommodate up to 120 people, in less than luxurious circumstances, but one that envelopes them with love. There are three rooms spread either with mattresses on the floor or bunk beds. Each mattress represents one family unit; moms, dads, and kids sleep on that precious space that is also peppered with their belongings. Here are the stuffed toys and other distracting items for the kids that had been so absent at San Ysidro. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mattress; for some, seat cushions suffice as a matter of necessity.
I meet Leticia with Ricardo Gutierrez and Cian – pronounced Sean – Westmoreland, two volunteers with AOL with their own interesting lives – those stories saved for another day – with whom I am doing the Costco run. We have dropped by to meet Leticia who is not around when we first arrive. When she does appear, she explains that she has been at a government-run workshop that aims to teach shelter managers about refugees. Leticia then laughs and shares that she already knew about them three years ago, when Nicole Ramos from AOL explained about them to her. She is laughing at the length of time it has taken for the government to catch up. Leticia tells me that she can expect $2,000 from the government by the end of this year. She is clear that this is not enough to cover the expenses of her endeavor, but also clear that it is better than nothing at all.
Leticia is a hard taskmaster, but it is safe to say that that approach has earned her the reputation of having one of the best-run and safest shelters in Tijuana. At 8 a.m. sharp, residents are required to leave their rooms so that there can be a deep cleaning of all areas. There is no food or drink to be consumed in these cramped spaces, to avoid inviting vermin and insects. Any resident caught intoxicated or using drugs is politely asked to leave, in the zero-tolerance framing of Leticia’s world. Rules of the house are placed in strategic spots to make sure everyone knows what is forbidden. But the overriding principle is that good health is a priority, as is attending church on Sunday. The residents take pride in their living space, picking up all evidence of litter, sweeping, and cleaning with gusto.
Leticia is quick to share that she has been very fortunate in her effort to provide comfort to the needy. She believes the hand of God is with her and trusts that he will continue to provide. And why wouldn’t she? Recently a Jewish organization donated two brand-new washing machines so that her residents would not have to spend hours handwashing clothes or encourage poor hygiene by not washing them at all. Tomorrow, there will be a teacher for the children for the first time following a significant donation from a Buddhist organization. Today, Christ Church Philadelphia donated supplies for dinner, laundry detergent, socks, and money to help Leticia install two sinks to replace the single bowl that families line up in front of to wash their dishes each night. The dishwashing process can take over an hour as each patiently waits his or her turn. As we stand in Leticia’s courtyard, two men are busy installing a new shower room so that there will now be two for her guests to share instead of the one. Do the math – 120 multiplied by 10 minutes equals a lot of waiting. This new shower room will be accessible from inside, so that the children can stay warm and dry for their ablutions in the morning. Small but thoughtful luxuries.
Leticia loves what she does and sees it as her calling, her way of giving back for the life that she enjoys with her family. She is proud of what she has been able to achieve thus far and knows there is more to come, with God’s help. Amazingly, her good fortune travels with her residents. Leticia says 80% of those who have stayed at her shelter are granted asylum once they arrive in the United States – impressive numbers for sure. Her love knows no boundaries; once her guests are released from detention – on average after 5 days – they are told to connect with Rapid Response or Bridge of Love, two organizations based in California with whom Leticia has a relationship. They then take over the baton of care, providing a hot meal and referrals for those without family members to assist them.
When Ricardo, Cian, and I return from our Costco run, we find a film crew talking with Leticia, as if it is the most normal thing in the world. Her gratitude for the donations and the residents’ joy at the simplicity of receiving new socks are a sight to see, but also a sad reminder of how little they have now, while they continue to hope for and believe in better things to come.
I am grateful for the opportunity to meet such a resilient and formidable woman, who exudes love. May God continue to look kindly on Leticia and all that she sets her mind to.
Today, we learned that the U.S. government plans to implement yet another new policy to limit the rights of those seeking asylum in the United States. Rather than allowing applicants to enter U.S. soil, most of those seeking to enter from a Mexican land crossing will be required to remain in Mexico to pursue their claims, placing yet another obstacle in their efforts to be successful. Tomorrow, we will be at the San Ysidro border to see how things play out.”
Check here for tomorrow’s post….
January 25, email rec’d Jan. 26, 8:12 a.m.
“Tijuana Day Five, the final installment
Our last day in Tijuana was filled with mixed emotions. While it was the most glorious day weatherwise, it was also the darkest one yet for those seeking asylum, a strange juxtaposition. By midafternoon the sun shone brightly, so enveloping us with its warmth that it was easy to forget the dreariness and harsh chill of the morning. At the same time, the apprehension surrounding the news of the new Migration Protection Protocols or MPP, implemented by the U.S. government, loomed darkly. It was on everyone’s lips, yet while no one knew what it would look like, how it would be implemented, or who it would ultimately affect, we were all clear that this was yet another effort to move the goalposts.
To all intents and purposes, the day followed its usual routine, and yet so much seemed different. El Chaparral Plaza was plastered with media from all sources, with their long-lens cameras, microphones, and notebooks. They too were interested in what would be the effects of the newly announced policy. Grupos Beta did not arrive with La Lista until close to 9 a.m., keeping everyone on tenterhooks. Would they no longer be required as a consequence of the new procedures under MPP? Would new numbers still be given out in the usual way? Finally, that precious article appeared, and all seemed well for those who relied on it to order their lives. Only 10 names were called in the first round, with another 15 called for the afternoon. Apparently, the U.S. government, with all its might, could only process 25 people seeking asylum, a pitiful number.
Among the melee, a girl sat clutching her daughter of only months. Together, they had made the long trek from their home seeking safety from the gangs that had already kidnapped the young mother and held her hostage for days. Why? It was a message to a male family member who had abandoned his affiliation with the gangs in search of a fresh start to his life. But severing that umbilical cord was an act of defiance that couldn’t go unpunished. And so the kidnapping, as a warning of things to come if he did not accept the error of his ways and return to the fold, means that this young girl has become a pawn in a battle in which she has no voice, no agency. As the family member of someone who has refused to return to the gang, she must apply for asylum. She knows she cannot return home and expect to live.
The girl was accompanied to the border by her own mother, a diminutive woman whose face is etched with lines of worry. She readily explains why she has come so far with her daughter. As she describes it, there was no option; she had to bring her daughter to the border to remove her from danger, even though the place where they are in this moment, Tijuana, is also an insecure place. With over 2,300 deaths in 2018, no one can argue that this city doesn’t have a problem with crime. But with the determination of a mother afraid for a child, she has braved much, expecting little – a place of safety for her daughter and grandchild.
As an unaccompanied minor child under the age of 18 and seeking to enter the United States, this girl is vulnerable. The treatment of minors at the border is now shrouded in mystery. There is a rumor that they are no longer able to enter and instead are taken by Mexican authorities to their equivalent of Child Protective Services, which has a reputation that endears it to no one. We ask mom why she is allowing her daughter to travel on her own. Her answer is jarring. She says frankly, that she has no option because there are others in her family relying on her, so she must return to work as best she can. The risk to her daughter and grandchild is real, so she has brought them here out of necessity; leaving them alone to fend for themselves “hurts me in my bones,” she says. There is no fitting response, only a deep dark silence as tears are wiped from all.
The distribution of numbers is given short shrift today. All evidence of the process is packed and stored before 11 a.m. I take the opportunity to speak with the asylum seeker who currently controls La Lista. Each day, I have watched her organization, her power, her mystery. Surprisingly, she is welcoming, with a wide friendly smile. She knows nothing about the process for applying for asylum when she gets to the other side she tells me and is pleased to know that Al Otro Lado is available even to her. We laugh and joke for a while, and I hope fiercely that she will follow through with the commitment she made to seek advice from AOL later that day. I will never know if she did.
In the afternoon, there is a rumor that the MPP is now underway and the first asylum seekers will be returning to San Ysidro shortly. Who started that rumor is unclear, but as any good lemming knows, you ask no questions. For over an hour, we huddle along with media representatives from several news outlets, waiting for a glimpse of that first unlucky person who, at least on this day, never appears. The sun’s heat, earlier a joy to behold, now oppresses.
While waiting, we watch patiently as many reenter Mexico after their day trip to the other side. Tijuana and San Diego are interesting neighbors. Tijuana is a favorite destination for a night out for dinner for Americans eager to enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine and also for those seeking to sexually exploit its locals. San Diego, on the other hand, has an enticing Premium Outlet Mall right next to the border, beckoning more fortunate Mexicans to come and spend their money.
One of these day trippers engages me in conversation, perplexed at the media spectacle before his eyes. After I explain their presence, he exclaims two things unprompted: “That’s inhumane”; and “You can quote me.” He wants me to know that his city has become a pawn in a political battle it did not choose to fight, that his compadres are not racists but in fact are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees swarming in. They do, however, object to the chaos that has been caused by the significant reduction in numbers of people being processed by our government, leaving Tijuana to do what it cannot, which is to seamlessly absorb thousands into its economy. Tijuana, he says, cannot cope. But he wishes everyone “buena suerte,” or good luck.
My heart sinks for the cruelty this new policy represents. How a person ignorant of the law and procedure for an application that is already complicated can be expected to navigate a difficult system when they are so far removed from attorneys and other legal representatives to guide them, is something I cannot fathom. I do know this is yet another step in the effort to deny due process to those entitled to apply for protection. The rollercoaster of joy and sorrow each returnee will no doubt endure through this new process is heartbreaking.
As I write this on the red-eye home to my safe, comfortable, and somewhat predictable life, I am reminded of Rev. Timothy Safford’s sermon last Sunday, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed. Two themes remain with me. The first was the words of Benjamin Franklin, whose birthday we commemorated just a few days earlier. Tim reminded us that Franklin’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” while said in the context of the New World, in fact had no boundaries and referred to people any- and everywhere. The second was that the words Dr. King used, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,”* requires us to work towards the betterment of all.
This week in Tijuana was a constant reminder of the need to remain focused on the work of fighting for the equality of all, mindful of the responsibilities placed on us by that moral universe we must all hold dear because it binds us together, wherever we may be. Those of us who remain complacent abrogate our duty to our fellow man and make room for our own bones to hurt. If that happens – and I pray it will not – we will have no one else to blame but ourselves.”
*Note: King’s quote was a paraphrase of the origin of the quote, the 19th-century theologian Rev. Theodore Parker (August 24, 1810 – May 10, 1860).