Image: NLG Los Angeles Chapter holding Legal Observer training at CHIRLA for Guild members heading to the border.
By Traci Yoder, NLG Director of Research and Education
National Lawyers Guild staff traveled to Tijuana the first week of December to observe conditions at the border and to coordinate with our members already on the ground as well as our partners at Al Otro Lado. When we arrived at the legal office at Enclave Caracol, we found NLG members already in action. Guild lawyers, legal workers, and law students from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, and NYC Chapters were hard at work providing legal support, training, and observation in coordination with other organizations and local volunteers.
This report is an overview of what we learned, the current conditions at the border, and how people can join the legal support effort in what has become a rapidly changing humanitarian crisis for members of the exodus. While many saw the recent media coverage of migrants being tear gassed by the U.S. military, there is a great deal happening on the ground that is not being well reported, including unnecessary and illegal delays in the asylum application process, the dangerous conditions at the camps where some migrants are staying, the inadequate and uneven response of international relief organizations, and the constant threat of violence to migrants from law enforcement, far right protesters, and some local community members.
Writing about the migrant exodus and the situation at the border right now is a challenging task. There is the danger of using language that bolsters dangerous narratives about the migrants and immigration generally, concerns about speaking of the caravans as homogeneous entities, and the complexity of conveying what is happening in Tijuana and other ports of entry because the situation on the ground is chaotic, volatile, and marked by rumors and misinformation. Highlighting the hazardous conditions of the migrant camps and the frustrating delays in the asylum process can easily lead to presenting these migrants as simply victims, rather than people who have spent months collectively organizing to overcome obstacles, resist the limitations of borders, and challenge the very logic of the nation-state. Please read the 11/27/18 and 11/28/18 lists of demands created and shared by the migrants themselves. For more information on how to get involved in legal support, see the final section of this report.
Overview of the Central American Exodus
While this most recent exodus of more than 7,000 Central American migrants is the largest yet, it is not the first. There are multiple and overlapping reasons peoples have chosen to undertake this harrowing journey: political persecution, gang violence, discrimination, natural disasters, extreme poverty, suffering caused by transnational corporate interests, and government-tolerated or sponsored violence from paramilitary groups. For more background on the conditions that led to the latest migrant exodus and the first few weeks of their experience at the border, please see this recent webinar organized by the Guild.
Most people in the exodus are hoping to present their case for asylum to the U.S., but the process has been backlogged and illegally restricted by the U.S. government. In November, the Trump administration issued a new rule prohibiting migrants from crossing the border outside of designated ports of entry, creating a bottleneck and slowing the asylum application process to a crawl. Implementation of the rule was temporarily blocked, but the legal challenge continues. Recent arrivals will likely not even be able to present themselves for 4-6 weeks as previous groups of migrants are being processed. In the meantime, they are waiting at encampments around Tijuana under conditions that unnecessarily expose people to illness and violence.
Unfortunately, many people will be told they do not have a credible asylum claim, which requires showing targeted persecution as part of a recognized group. Many are fleeing a situation of poverty, violence, environmental collapse, and general hardship, but these will not be accepted as viable asylum claims. Anyone with a prior deportation will also experience difficulty requesting asylum in the U.S. There is a possibility that some of these migrants will be able to apply for asylum in Mexico or stay for a period of up to one year on a humanitarian visa, which would allow them to obtain a work permit. The situation is particularly precarious for what are called the most vulnerable populations (MVP). These include unaccompanied children (UAC), LGBTQ refugees, pregnant women, people with medical conditions, parents without birth documentation for their children, and mixed status families.
Legal professionals on the ground have been attempting to get as much legal information to people as possible so they understand their options and are prepared when they are able to present their case. A “charla” or chat, is held each day by Al Otro Lado to provide information about asylum law and the realities on the ground to migrants. NLG members have supported Al Otro Lado in organizing and participating in the charlas.
To understand the situation at the border and why it is so confusing, it is important to know about what is simply called “the list.” This is a physical notebook with names and assigned numbers (each number includes ten people), and is technically not a legal or official document. It is organized by the members of the exodus themselves in an attempt to provide a sense of order and process to a chaotic situation. There are currently an estimated 5,000 people waiting in Tijuana for their number to be called and there were over 1,000 names on the list before the most recent arrivals were added. Once people are assigned a number, they write it on a small piece of paper or on their arms in sharpies and wait to be called.
Every morning starting at 7am at El Chaparral plaza, US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) give Mexican immigration officials the number of migrants who will be accepted through the port of entry that day to request asylum. The number called each day varies, but is rarely more than 50-60 people. The day I arrived in Tijuana, no numbers we called at all. CBP officials claim they do not have the resources to process more than a small number of asylum seekers daily. A group of migrants recently went on hunger strike to protest the illegal and arbitrary delays. These migrants wrote a list of demands which calls for raising the number of petitions accepted each day to 300.
Hundreds of people show up daily hoping to be called; if they are not, Mexican police turn them away before they can get to the border. Legal Observers attend these daily assemblies at El Chaparral to keep track of which numbers are called that day, monitor law enforcement presence, and inform people about the upcoming daily legal workshops. Legal professionals are also accompanying people from their various shelters to El Chaparral to be added to the list and noting when anyone has issues being added.
Conditions at Encampments
As they wait to be called, migrants are staying in two main encampments and also in about 30 shelters around Tijuana. When thousands arrived in mid-November, they were initially put at the Benito Juarez sports arena near the border. This open air, haphazardly organized encampment lacked adequate shelter and resources, and rainstorms soon exacerbated these conditions, with raw sewage spilling over into the camp from the latrines. Adequate fresh drinking water was never provided at this site, creating a potential public health crisis and particularly endangering small children.
At the end of November, the Mexican government opened a new encampment at an abandoned nightclub called Barretal. This new camp includes a partial roof, running water, and more space, but is located in a dangerous and inaccessible part of Tijuana. This location is very far from the legal center and the port of entry where migrants need to go to be added to the waiting list to present themselves for asylum. Many believe this move was intentionally designed to keep migrants away from the border and to make their attempts to petition for asylum or get access to resources more difficult. International human rights workers on the ground report that UN and other relief agencies are providing some assistance at this new camp.
While about 2,500 migrants moved to the new camp at Barretal voluntarily, others chose to stay at the original encampment at Benito Juarez for various reasons: they did not trust the government’s promises to take them to a safe place; they wanted to stay closer to the legal center and port of entry, they hoped to stay more visible and bring attention to their situation by remaining in a central area. When I visited this camp on December 2-3, the conditions were extremely bad. While several hundred people remained (including children), they had been removed from the sporting arena and forced to sleep on the street. Some had tents or other makeshift structures, but these provide little refuge from temperatures that dropped to the low 40s at night. There were no toilets or sanitation facilities, no running water, and only sporadic access to food, drinking water, and other basic resources.
The several hundred remaining migrants at the first camp at Benito Juarez are in a perilous situation. There is a constant presence of not only the Mexican police who want to remove them, but also threats of violence from Mexican nationalists and other locals angry at the meager resources being shared with the migrants. Rumors abound of the possibility of nightly attacks, and in early December a crowd of 60 people was seen headed to the camp to start a confrontation. Police barricaded the camp and kept out the attackers, but there are also rumors the police will soon leave the camp and the people unprotected if they do not move to the newer encampment. The situation is getting worse every day according to NLG Legal Observers on the ground, and charity groups such as UNICEF, World Relief, and other UN organizations and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not bringing basic resources like food and water to the camp (although they did show up with hula hoops and other toys for the children). NLG Legal Observers on the ground repeatedly brought the lack of clean drinking water and food to the attention of the UN and other organizations to no avail.
How to Assist
The need for legal professionals on the ground is dire and hundreds have already applied to come and assist with legal support. Attorneys, legal workers, and law students traveling to the border should expect fluid and rapidly shifting conditions, as circumstances change from day to day. However, there are some consistent tasks that will be needed over the next several months, including conducting intake, leading Know Your Rights workshops on asylum and immigration law, holding informal charlas (chats) with individuals about their asylum prospects, accompanying people from their camps and shelters to be added to the list, legal observing at the camps and other locations, and gathering information to help inform strategy.
Those providing legal support are being sent to several main areas each day:
- Benito Juarez: There is a continued need to observe the conditions at this camp and to monitor police activity toward the migrants as well as the threats of violence from protesters and far right nationalists.
- Barretal: Legal professionals are going to the new camp daily to conduct intakes, do legal orientations, and direct people to the daily trainings and individual consultations organized by Al Otro Lado. There is a huge need to get as much legal information to people as possible so they can weigh their options.
- El Chaparral: This is the main pedestrian port of entry into the U.S. This is the place where people can be added to the “list” and where they need to present themselves when their number comes up. There is a constant police and Mexican immigration presence. Legal observers go daily to monitor the situation.
- El Mapa: This is a newly discovered location. This is a long-established site for deportees tolerated by the authorities. However, there are now approximately 100 tents in this location sheltering migrants.
There is an ongoing need for people to travel to the border for the next several months, especially those who can stay weekdays, speak Spanish, are trained as NLG Legal Observers, or have experience with immigration and asylum law. Those hoping to volunteer as LOs should be aware that legal observation under these conditions is not the same as protests in the U.S.; LOs are sent out to various sites to monitor law enforcement activity, gather information, and keep track of the progress of the list. It is strongly suggested that NLG chapters seek to recruit LOs with extensive experience given the complex and high risk environment in Tijuana.
Those interested in volunteering in a legal capacity need to sign up through Al Otro Lado, a bi-national, direct legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana. The Guild is coordinating directly with AOL, and all questions about going to the border as a NLG member can be directed to email@example.com.
For those who cannot travel to the border, please consider assisting in other ways:
- Please read and share the 11/27/18 and 11/28/18 lists of demands by migrants
- DONATE to legal support efforts through the NLG Mass Defense program and Al Otro Lado
- Ask your representative to co-sponsor or have your organization endorse the Berta Cáceres Act to stop U.S. funding of the Honduran military
- Sponsor one of the LGBTQ asylum seekers
- 12/10/18: [ANNOUNCEMENT]: Hunger Strike Demands by Central American Migrant Exodus
- 12/6/18: [ANNOUNCEMENT] Demands by Central American Refugees at Border
- 12/5/18: [BLOG] Refugee Caravan: A Legal Observer’s Report from Tijuana
- 11/29/18: [MEMO] “Deployed to the Border: A Test of Conscience for GI’s” Military Law Task Force of the NLG
- 11/28/18: [WEBINAR] Why Do Refugee Caravans Exist? A Lesson in Geo-Political History of Central America
- 11/20/18: [PRESS RELEASE] NLG & Al Otro Lado Mobilizing Legal Support for Central American Refugee Caravan at Mexico-US Border