Harrowing first-hand account from a refugee legal clinic in Tijuana.

This post is from an Otay Allies volunteer who followed our list of ways to help and spent the week of New Year’s volunteering for Al Otro Lado (https://alotrolado.org/), which provides legal advice to people seeking asylum encamped in Tijuana. There are an estimated 10,000 refugees in Tijuana with inadequate humanitarian and legal resources. Please read and share.

Most refugees in Tijuana have little understanding of US asylum laws and run the risk of being separated from their children, subjected to extremely harsh treatment by US Immigration, and then deported back to their home countries.  With more information, they can make better informed decisions about whether to attempt to cross into the US.

The level of human pain is unimaginable and their options so limited. The volunteers with whom I worked are tireless and unbelievably committed, but the immensity of the task is overwhelming and with very few bright lights.

US Mexico border

At the start of every day, before the sun is up and when the cold is still unrelenting, people seeking asylum in the US line up at the border to receive a number to “present themselves.” Most of the asylum seekers have been walking for 6-8 weeks, 10-12 hours a day to get to the border. 

Despite the fact that US law states that all asylum seekers are entitled to an immediate request, an illegal list has been developed which only a certain number of people to approach the border each day. The number of people who have received numbers is just over 1900 at present.

Once people’s numbers are called, they are put into vans and taken across the border into “freezer cells” or “kennel cages” where they are kept for roughly a week until they receive an initial “credible fear” interview. During this time, asylum seekers are allowed to wear one piece of clothing on the top and one on the bottom. The goal is to discourage people from seeking asylum, so all efforts are made to put them in inhumane conditions so they break and self deport.

Watching the people line up with such hope for the future, not knowing what awaits them, and knowing that even if they do make it through the freezing cells and cages, they will most likely be denied entry is heart breaking.  Watching families separated at the border, because some have numbers called and others don’t, was one of the hardest things I have seen. Fathers clutching onto their families, tears rolling down their faces, not wanting to let go, not sure if or when they would see each other again and having no idea what their futures hold. 

Refugees from Haiti, Iran, Brazil, Turkey, Iraq, Venezuela, Columbia, and Sierra Leone were among the thousands from Central America. Pregnant women, small children, grandparents, all waiting in the cold day after day for their number to be called, only so they could take the next step on a journey that was almost certain to lead them to detention centres and ultimately deportation.  

Fleeing Violence

During one of the legal clinics, I spoke with a young man from Honduras who was fleeing extreme gang violence. He had grown up being beaten as a kid and abandoned by his family.  Over the past 12 years, he has been hunted down by gangs trying to recruit him.  They eventually shot him in the leg, used machetes on his face, arms, chest, and, finally kidnapped him.  He was taken to a sugar cane field, stripped, and beaten almost to death. Eventually he was dragged to an abandoned building and left to die.  He managed to live, but the gangs have continued to hunt him down.

He came to Mexico in September and has been hiding in a room for fear that the gangs, who accompanied the caravan to Mexico, will find him. 

His only hope was to come to the consultation and learn about the asylum process.  As with the majority of cases, his story is unlikely to qualify him for asylum because he doesn’t meet the required criteria. Asylum is only granted to people who are fleeing persecution based on their race, religion, sexual origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In June, former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled out domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum. 

When I had to tell the man he had little chance of success, he became suicidal, telling me he had no reason to live.  I spent over an hour trying to talk to him, telling him to keep fighting every day for his future. The truth is, there are next to no options for him so as much as I tried to convince him otherwise, we both knew that if he does apply for asylum, he will likely get deported by the US back to Honduras, where he says he will soon be killed.  I wonder every day if I managed to convince him to live.

A boy the age of my own

One of the families I spent time with was a 13-year-old boy and his mother from Guatemala. Like most of the others, they had been walking for eight weeks. The boy was carrying their two backpacks with everything they had brought with them. In front of her son, the mother told of how she had to escape in the middle of the night because her husband, the boy’s father, consistently beat her and was threatening to cut her to death.  

The family’s asylum claim is an unclear given the fact that domestic violence is no longer valid grounds.  If the family does decide to try, the boy and his mother will almost certainly be separated at the border. He will be put in a juvenile detention centre and she will be placed in one for adults. Both will be stripped of their belongings and she will be placed in a “freezer cell” for holding until their hearings.

I watched as tears streamed down the boy’s face.  He feels responsible for taking care of his mother, for carrying their belongings, for ensuring her safety, and yet he is a 13-year-old boy scared beyond imagination of what the future could hold and entirely unsure of what they should do.  

A 13-year-old boy with such an entirely different life than my son of the same age.  Mine in the height of his childhood, focused on basketball, pre-teen crushes, and his new ipad. The Guatemalan boy focused on holding his family’s life together, staying clear of the gangs, and deciding which of the uncertain and harrowing options he and his mother should take.


One of the groups that by US law should be protected under asylum law are LGBQ. I spent time with a gay couple looking for a safe house, afraid of being killed in the camps.  Each place they go, if they are found out, they face fear and threats.  There are groups in Tijuana and the US who are trying to create a safety net for them.  After a significant amount of work, it seems we were able to find them a place for at least a few nights and help them put together their asylum claim.

Fleeting Chance

Due to an unusual set of circumstances, we were told one morning there were two unexpected places open for asylum seekers.  El Otro Lado lawyers were able to quickly work with Border Patrol to agree to let us bring two vulnerable people who we were helping to hide in a nearby safe house. 

We were told we had 30 minutes to bring the two young men to the border.  Two of us quickly borrowed a car and raced through the back streets of Tijuana to the safe house. The young men are from Honduras, having fled by foot three months ago after witnessing horrific atrocities involving the killing of a group of children. Along the caravan route, several of the others who had been with them to witness the crimes had been murdered by the perpetrators. Two more of their friends were killed at the refugee camp in Tijuana. That left three of them in search of asylum. As we only had two places, they had to choose among them and we watched as the two of them hurriedly said goodbye to their third friend they were leaving behind.

As we tried to manoeuvre our way through the streets to get them back to the border within the 30 minute deadline, they frantically tried to call people they knew to let them know they were going to try to cross this morning and would likely soon be in detention centres in the US. They knew once they were in the centres, their documents would be taken and they would have no way to contact anyone on the outside.  They were desperate to let someone know so as not to simply disappear.

When we arrived at the border, I was dropped off with them and all of their belongings. I searched for the lawyer who had received the confirmation from border control that they could cross. Eventually, not finding her, I reached her by phone and she told me the window had closed. We had not arrived within 30 minutes and Border Patrol had given the spot to two others.

Hanging up the phone and telling the men that they were not after all going to have a chance to cross was heart wrenching. A roller coaster of emotion, leading to more uncertainty, waiting, and constant fear.

As we gathered their belongings and walked back to the legal aid centre together, they told me about their walk with the caravan. The children without enough to eat, sleeping in the open, in parking lots and concrete sidewalks. The people along the way who died, buried hurriedly by the side of the road.


El Otro Lado has started to provide weddings and baptisms to asylum seekers to help give them additional documentation that may prevent family separation. Many couples are married according to common law but don’t have proper documentation to show to US authorities. Equally, many of the minors don’t have any identification to prove they are related to their parents.

Among many other roles, I was in charge of helping to organize these weddings and baptisms while in Mexico. The weddings – which are open to both heterosexual and same sex couples – are done among the chaos of everything.  It’s a moment of happiness among the tragedies and hardship. A moment for couples to stop and remember each other, enjoy a moment of joy and step out of their struggle. For me, it was a much needed respite from the pain I was surrounded by at every other moment.  

One of the grooms was someone I had met at the refugee camp the day before after he was tear gassed the day before in an effort to illegally cross into the US. After seeing the man with swollen eyes from the gas, completely deflated and scared, it was incredible to see him with his bride, saying vows, receiving metal rings, and taking a minute to cry from happiness.  It was also his birthday, and the whole team stopped in the middle of the commotion to collectively sing Happy Birthday.

Crossing Back

Just hours after having told the two Honduran men they wouldn’t be able to cross, I was back in the same spot, pulling my own bag, walking toward the fence to cross the border myself. The feeling was surreal, showing my US passport, being asked by border patrol how my vacation in Mexico went, and hearing them tell me to have a great day.

US immigration policy increasingly focuses on deterrence through criminalizing and torturing those who are most desperate and shirks responsibility for the situation of violence it has helped to spur across the region. Not only does the US have a moral imperative to relook at how it addresses immigration, but also must invest in the region in a way that creates jobs and opportunities for people to stay in their home countries.  We need to help create jobs, invest in trade that allows for building effective infrastructure, address our own domestic drug problems that fuel cartels and drug rings, and help support governments who represent and protect their populations.

It is up to each and every one of us to raise our voices in strong protest. Those without voices, those who are stuck in refugee camps, sleeping on the streets, locked in freezer cells and detention centres are voiceless. Their futures depend on us.

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