Recognizing Two Years of the Estamos Unidos Asylum Project

“All that has been caused at the border is a consequence to U.S. immigration policies that prioritize deterrence and not human life. This anniversary is not a celebration, per se, but it is a recognition of stepping forward and doing our best for asylum seekers and migrants.”

— Tania Guerrero, Project Attorney

When CLINIC’s Estamos Unidos Asylum Project launched two years ago, no one could have predicted how much the project would change in response to a global pandemic. The Estamos Unidos team — Project Attorney Tania Guerrero, Case Manager Victor Andrés Flores and Strategic Capacity Officer Luis Guerra — took every policy and process change in stride, centering their work on providing the people and families at the U.S.-Mexico border with essential information and legal support.

Estamos Unidos stemmed from collaborations with similar border projects, such as Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, and a recommendation from CLINIC’s Board of Directors to expand support of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The location, Ciudad Juárez, was chosen strategically because of its proximity to the El Paso sector, which had seen the fastest implementation of Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, and metering, yet lacked any system for legal support or the infrastructure to support it.

The original goal was to provide Know Your Rights information to as many asylum seekers and migrants as possible and pro se legal assistance to those under MPP. But above all, the work of Estamos Unidos was intended to be client-centered, where daily activities are dictated by the realities of asylum seekers and migrants in Ciudad Juárez. When the population and needs of the community shifted so did Estamos Unidos.

The impact of COVID-19

This dedication to the needs of clients would be paramount. “That’s really one of the things that has continued to ground our work, whether it was helping Mexican nationals that were displaced, and were camped at the port of entries, or whether it was Central American migrants being impacted by MPP or being expelled back to Mexico, or whether it was the arrival of Haitians, all of a sudden, being expelled back to Mexico not realizing what was happening,” said Guerra.

“[Estamos Unidos] adjusted and figured out what was the best thing to do at that time but always centered the demystifying of information for people to make their own decisions.”

To maintain communication, Estamos Unidos began a WhatsApp group to remotely share updates and provide legal consults over the phone. The transition was not a new experience for many. “We have moms that are trying to be moms from a distance, we have kids that are trying to be taught how to brush their teeth and how to write the letter ‘A’ through FaceTime with the grandparents,” said Guerrero. “There’s an attempt, a daily attempt, to be there without physically being there.” What started as a WhatsApp group of 30-40 has grown to include almost 400 people at one point, expanding Estamos Unidos’ reach beyond Ciudad Juárez.

Finding humanity in darkness

But while finding a way to stay connected was a benefit, there are still difficulties. “That human connection gets kind of lost, it's harder on the phone,” said Flores. “And so having to navigate the needs of migrants and asylum seekers, it's even harder now.” The pandemic — specifically the use of the Title 42 public health order — only worsened conditions for asylum seekers and migrants, adding another layer of concern for people already vulnerable to the elements, violence and mental health issues. In place of legal consults, sometimes all the Estamos Unidos team can do is listen.

“It was just trying to bring this person to a situation where they were stable enough to breath and keep on with their day,” said Guerrero. “Knowing that tomorrow might be the same, but at least they could breathe through it a little clearer, a little better.”

And still, despite xenophobic policies and what can seem like never-ending uncertainty, humanity persists. “There’s moments where you have a baby smile, or you have a teenager making fun of his mom,” said Guerrero. “Or you have that pure love that was found in the journey. You have these moments that are beautiful.”

The clients and their stories are some that the Estamos Unidos team will carry forever. “You find that that sort of resilience within a lot of the people that we serve,” said Flores. “And it’s one of the things that stick with me to believe in.” The positive stories and those that end in heartbreak provide fuel to keep doing the work and to remember that this is just a glimpse of a larger problem.

Connecting local and national efforts

Estamos Unidos exemplifies a principle of Catholic social teaching — subsidiarity — to guide its work. By respecting the roles and capacities of existing local partners and building relationships, the team could use their resources to provide help where and how it was needed most. “Through [Estamos Unidos], we can continue to ground anything that we do in the future as a national organization,” said Guerra. “To ensure that if we don’t have a team on the ground, that we are really, truly working with those that are on the ground to make sure we’re advocating for what their realities are.”

The pandemic expanded the opportunity to collaborate, and the Estamos Unidos team has worked with partners, volunteers and even other CLINIC staff located around the United States and in Mexico. Every contribution to Estamos Unidos — whether knowledge, expertise, time or a donation — has been critical to ensuring that as many people as possible are helped.

“The purpose of this anniversary is not to celebrate our achievements but to share what we have witnessed, what we have learned from asylum seekers and migrants, from our partners and colleagues,” said Guerrero. “We will never be enough. This is so much larger than [Estamos Unidos], so much larger than CLINIC.”

“But if we can change one person’s life, we’ve done good. And that person has a lot to say.”

CLINIC, through Estamos Unidos, continues to stand by asylum seekers and migrants in Ciudad Juárez and call attention to the injustices at the U.S.-Mexico border. Please consider supporting the Estamos Unidos Asylum Project.