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Working at the Border: A Personal Impression

Micki Luckey
Jul 17 · 6 min read

By Micki Luckey, from an interview with Heather Appel

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A portion of the border wall painted with a butterfly, a symbol of migration. Used with permission from Lili Shidlovski

Note: A July 2020 update from Melissa Flores, AOL Communications Coordinator, has been appended to the end of this blog.

The center for Al Otro Lado was a short walk from the border at Tijuana. To reach it, Heather Appel flew to San Diego and went by taxi to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. “It was shocking how easy it is to cross with an American passport,” she recalled.

Responding to a call for volunteers who speak Spanish, Heather accompanied five other members of SURJ Bay Area to spend a week at the US-Mexican border in November 2019. Heather wanted to do more to address family separation and the crisis at the border, and she appreciated the chance to join experienced SURJ leaders from other committees who provided both mentorship and kinship.

The group worked with Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, a partner organization of SURJ Bay Area. Al Otro Lado is a bi-national, direct legal services organization with offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tijuana, Mexico. The Border Rights Project provides legal orientation and know-your-rights training to asylum seekers in Tijuana who wish to present themselves to U.S. authorities to seek asylum, while also conducting human rights monitoring at the San Ysidro Port-of-Entry.

Al Otro Lado is run by a small paid staff and several long-term volunteers. They depend on additional volunteers and train a new group every Monday. Then on Tuesday through Thursday they do intakes and run “charlas,” workshops for asylum seekers. Each day there is a workshop for Spanish speakers and another for non-Spanish speakers (for example those from Haiti and West Africa). After the workshop, they do interviews to prepare people for their asylum claims, and on Friday they handle individual appointments. On weekends they hold clinics with dozens or hundreds of asylum-seekers.

Heather described what happens for a person or family trying to cross the border. They present at El Chaparral (the Tijuana border crossing, currently closed due to Coronavirus) early in the morning and line up to get their names on a list and get a number. There they often see volunteers from Al Otro Lado who distribute informational fliers. To use the services offered, the migrants walk to the Al Otro Lado building and join the line at the door where volunteers check them in. If they are returning, the volunteers locate their file. They get an information sheet and are offered food, coffee, and childcare while they wait for a charla. The workshop gives them training about what to expect when they cross into the US. It warns them about the stay in the “icebox”, essentially a cell kept at 42 degrees. To survive the cold, they must wear their warmest clothing as their bottom layer because often the upper layers of clothing are taken away. They are given bad food. They are told to memorize sponsors’ names and phone numbers in the U.S. because their documents and phones can be taken away.

After the training some are assigned to a volunteer for an intake interview. Here is where the Spanish-speaking volunteers — like Heather — are valuable. In the interview they are asked why they are not safe in their countries. Some describe terrifying situations: family members murdered in front of them, threats to their children, attempts to traffic their daughters. “Sometimes people would break down in front of us, so that was really intense.” But the simple fact that they are not safe where they lived is not an acceptable reason to the U.S. government, because that could apply to anybody in a town where the drug cartel or gangs are active.

To prepare their case, volunteers help migrants fit their reasons into the particular acceptable frameworks for their asylum claim and discuss the best way to argue their case. Their paperwork is then be reviewed by an immigration lawyer, with a translator present for the lawyers who don’t speak Spanish. If the asylum-seekers were visibly upset or were processing a major trauma, they are offered a chance to talk to a therapist or psychologist. Following the interview, volunteers at a documentation station scan their documents, IDs and intake forms so they will have a secure archive in the cloud.

“I would start an intake at 11 and then look up and it would be 2 or 3 pm and I hadn’t had lunch,” said Heather. The time passed really quickly. Her fellow volunteers were spending time playing with children while their parents talked to lawyers, cleaning up the meeting room, emptying the trash, shredding documents, translating death certificates and other evidence, and pitching in wherever was needed.

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Some of the SURJ members who spent a week with Al Otro Lado in November 2019. From left, Heather Appel, Karin Ashley, Bettemie Prins, Nell Scott, Lynn Levey.

On Friday, her last day, Heather and another SURJ member signed up for the early morning shift at El Chaparral, giving out fliers to the people in lines and monitoring how people were being treated, how many numbers were called, and how many people crossed.

“It was a really good way to end the week, because we ran into people we had met at the legal clinics earlier in the week and got to reconnect with them… In a somewhat hopeless situation, it felt important to be a kind face in that setting, to see people and wish them luck and give them a hug.” Heather saw some volunteers who are there every day — some bring food and one brings crayons and paper for the waiting children.

Not all migrants return to the line; some are helped to apply for asylum in Mexico if that seems like the safest or most promising option. Recently Al Otro Lado has been successful in getting parole for some people to be released to sponsors in the states, rather than waiting in detention or in Tijuana for their next court date. Besides the aid and counsel for individuals, Al Otro Lado lawyers do litigation; they filed their eighth lawsuit against the US government while SURJ members were there in November. The organization is doing both direct assistance and structural work at the systems level.

Heather and her SURJ colleagues sometimes questioned whether they were helping by preparing people to cross and face horrible odds or just continuing to prop up an unfair system. “In the end it’s life and death for people right now and so it is important to do everything possible and not stand on the sidelines, and at the same time it is not enough.”

Asked what she says to people who are considering volunteering at the border (after the Covid pandemic), Heather says it is important to go experience it firsthand. Leave behind your expectations and assumptions. Be prepared to offer what help is needed. There are many jobs to do that don’t require you to speak Spanish, such as childcare, making sandwiches, shredding documents, even taking out the trash. “It’s not all glamorous but it is all essential to keep this mostly volunteer-run organization going.”

And from here, lawyers and Spanish-speakers can work for Al Otro Lado remotely. We can pay attention to actions at the border and protest immigration policy. We can all push for release of detainees from ICE. We can be sponsors, join accompaniment teams, and of course donate. You can get more information on Al Otro Lado and ways to support asylum seekers locally at

July 2020, update from Melissa Flores, AOL Communications Coordinator:

Since the pandemic, we have definitely pivoted to meet the most urgent needs of our clients. At the beginning of March, as everything began to shut down in the United States our initial strategy was to identify the most vulnerable families and immune-compromised migrants and try to get them into the U.S. on humanitarian parole ahead of a Covid19 outbreak along the border. We quickly realized though, that sending them into the U.S. would almost certainly expose them to the virus if they were transferred to detention centers so we decided to redirect our energy to provide humanitarian services in Tijuana while offering our legal services through a completely remote model. We set up our Humanitarian Migrant Fund which has allowed us to provide food, medicine, shelter, and PPE to asylum seekers, deportees, and migrants stuck at the border. And with the help of our incredible community of volunteers, we have been able to provide many of the same services of the Border Rights Project remotely.

SURJ Bay Area Blog

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