Notes from the Border Rights Project

Paola Flores-Marquez

Updates from CLINIC’s border initiative since last November have been consistent in two ways: 1) Luis Guerra—CLINIC’s strategic capacity officer and one of the organization’s many superheroes—was working hard to organize chaos; and 2) the situation in Tijuana, Mexico sounded like a warzone. When I arrived, I only found one to still be true.

Although CLINIC had been working with asylum seekers on the ground since Thanksgiving weekend—when migrant families, Luis and his colleagues were tear-gassed—the Communications team did not have much information beyond Luis’s reporting, limited by his busy schedule. This made it difficult to promote CLINIC’s work and partnerships. Thus, on March 21, I packed a camera and a notebook and drove to the border to shadow Luis and his team of volunteers.

I had expected the trip to Tijuana to mirror a previous one to Nogales, during which I saw asylum seekers camped outside the U.S. port of entry, waiting for their turn to be screened. Some had waited for weeks and grew so desperate they decided to take the risky desert journey to claim asylum in the United States.

Tijuana is not Nogales. Where Nogales is a town sprung from rocks, unified but for the metal wound of a fence dividing it, Tijuana is its own behemoth of a city.

The walk across the bridge was uneventful and, frankly, seemed lax. In fact, officials waved away attempts to show them documents. On the way to meet Luis at the Border Rights Project, there were no signs of the rumored migrant camps. Later, I learned that most people were in shelters, almost all of them at capacity.

Walking through downtown was uneventful in the practically empty streets, with the occasional rancheras, traditional Mexican ranch music, blasting from nearby restaurants. However, a missing person poster of a boy, possibly 16 or so, was a reminder of Luis’s reports on the exploitation of migrant arrivals and the deaths of unaccompanied minors from Central America in Tijuana.

The Border Rights Project building is a four-story house with a restaurant on the main floor, a medical bay on the second, a workshop area on the third, and headquarters on the fourth floor.

When Luis arrived in Tijuana, he wanted to offer legal screening services, but ended up creating an entire program from scratch. He began conducting volunteer trainings, assigning roles and creating policies and procedures. His reports were accurate, he truly had been organizing chaos, but that chaos of hundreds of volunteers attempting to serve hundreds of migrants was now structured. In a little over 100 days since Thanksgiving weekend, Luis and 1,300 volunteers had conducted more than 2,100 individual legal consultations.

“You are automatically in danger by just being in the building,” said Luis. He made it clear to me that Mexican officials and local groups were against the project, and migrants received the worst treatment. This was the war zone part of the updates. After telling him I would stay, he told me some volunteers who heard his warnings did not.

Conversations with Luis were sporadic through the day, as headquarters buzzed in preparation for the day’s workshop. When he wasn’t putting out fires or being pulled into meetings, he introduced me to volunteers. His A-team had been there for weeks—one of them for three months. The project had had many volunteers, but turnover was high. Initially, this meant volunteer trainings were conducted every day, but they had now slowed to once a week. A professional social justice IT volunteer, who had also supported the Standing Rock protests, stood out.

Another person who caught my attention was Alejandra, a staff member with Al Otro Lado, the main organization behind the Border Rights Project. While Luis ran logistics for the entire project, Alejandra organized workshop logistics and assigned services according to each person’s needs—including childcare, food and medical assistance.

Alejandra also ensured those who spoke different languages were treated fairly. Volunteers would split groups based on language and conduct Know Your Rights trainings simultaneously before screenings began. If a translator was not available during the screening, the team would locate translation support in Russian, French, even a Cameroonian language, among others. Since Thanksgiving, more than 50 countries had been represented at the workshops.

The number of screenings ranged from 50 to 100 people in one day, taking volunteers long hours to process. A workshop had been hosted every day since November. The level of effort, coordination and commitment demonstrated by these volunteers was astounding.

The importance of the team’s actions is something Luis does not let them forget. Every afternoon, he meetsto ask volunteers about the daily highs and lows. That day, nearly all volunteers spoke of the joy of helping someone, even in a small way. They too had received Luis’s warning speech. These people—law students, grandparents, college kids, attorneys—put their safety at risk in a foreign country to do what they believed was right. In the process, they learned about the difficulties and complexities of supporting asylum seekers.

Crossing back after work, the U.S.-Mexico bridge felt as divided as the day’s experience had been. Feelings of sorrow arose when I remembered a child with a blank stare, whose parents worked on their asylum papers nearby. He was not the only one experiencing trauma. The horrifying feeling, however, was countered by the hope of witnessing good, hard-working people willing to stand up for asylum seekers and help them heal. The work CLINIC does to support volunteers at the border is helping save lives.