Sunday, April 28, 2019

On the Other Side

Guest blogger: Marina Garcia, Masters in Migration Studies, graduate student, University of San Francisco

During my visit to Tijuana, as a volunteer for the Border Rights Project, I found myself saying ‘al otro lado’ several times a day.

From asking migrants if they had been to the organizational hub that provides support for asylum seekers, to looking into a four-year-old’s eyes as she hung onto me while her mother loaded their belongings onto a truck that would transport them to the other side. “Allí voy a estar,” I assured her, as I pointed to the iron gate where I would soon be waving goodbye through the white columns.

These conversations and experiences are from my time accompanying migrants at El Chaparral, the border crossing in Tijuana named after the ecosystem of entangled and impenetrable shrubs found in the arid desert Mexico shares with the U.S.  At El Chaparral, I witnessed our government’s immigration policies at work – with the cooperation of the Mexican government.  Policies that dehumanize those fleeing persecution and deplorable conditions in their countries.

Asylum seekers are corralled through a caution-tape lined aisle in order to be placed on “La Lista” – a list maintained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Grupos Beta – the “humanitarian” arm of the National Migration Institute (INM) in Mexico. Through this system, asylum seekers are handed a tiny piece of paper with a hand-written four-digit number that they must retain as they wait several weeks and even months before they are able to cross the border and exercise their right to seek asylum in the U.S.  Asylum seekers have virtually no information about their assigned number.  They do not know where they are in the process, when their number might be called, or how many numbers are called each day.  When asked questions about the process by migrants, I observed Grupos Beta officials say sternly, “De la lista no les vamos a dar información./We will not give you information about the list.”

Each morning at the site was extremely cold and migrants would arrive with their entire families, including infants and young children, at dawn and with all of their belongings in case their number might be called that day.  Lists like the one in use at El Chaparral exist across the U.S.-MX border and subject migrants to a system that is entangled in rumor and speculation that circulate every minute.  This system – opaque and discouraging by design – is as impenetrable as the desert chaparrals that thousands of migrants attempt to cross on their arduous journey to this country. 

We too, should feel challenged by the entanglement of illegality and cruelty, also meant to discourage us from looking too closely.  As advocates, we must examine and expose the twisted injustices at the core of these policies.  Al Otro Lado is doing just that, through fearless advocacy and innovative organizing.  Staff and volunteers work on the ground through collaborative, binational efforts that challenge inhumane policies like metering at the border, the remain in Mexico law, and the arbitrary rejection of unaccompanied asylum seeking children at U.S. ports of entry.  The Border Rights Project works with a network of more than 1000 volunteers (a number that grows each day) to provide medical attention and legal orientation to asylum seekers stuck in this illogical system.  Volunteers document and respond to human rights violations in Tijuana, and prepare asylum seekers for what to expect al otro lado

Al otro lado - on the other side.

Back home now, I find myself on the other side of this experience, reflecting on my time at a border reinforced to divide families like my own.

Watching waves churn the earth on the coast, I consider my own fluidity -

the privilege I have to move from one side to the other, and to thrive on both.

In Tijuana, I gazed through giant metal pillars and saw my life al otro lado -

absorbed by the columns that divide and obstruct until the clear ocean takes over.

Juxtaposed with the beauty of the open sea,

I saw the ugliness of a barricaded border – militarized to suppress human agency and mobility.

I witnessed the hostility of enforcement measures used to deny human beings the right to seek protection.

Asylum seekers are arriving at the border of our country – the most powerful nation in the world. 

A country that is largely responsible for the conditions they are fleeing -

seeking dignity, survival, and dreaming of a better life on the other side.

Instead, they are forced to remain inside holding cells that are cold as ice -

hieleras that are meant to discourage them from seeking asylum.

“No va funcionar/It won’t work, a group of Nicaraguan migrants told me as I explained this function.

When you look into the eyes and speak to asylum seekers on cualquier lado, you face resilience.

Seguimos adelante./We continue forward,” they repeated.

Despite their taxing journey and the orientation to what lies ahead, people I met held on to their faith in destiny.

Asylum seekers I encounter are keenly aware of their rights as human beings to do all they can to survive and seek a dignified life for themselves and their families.

Even children recognize that the barriers they confront can and should be overcome through movement -

moving across borders and transcending structures meant to repress their growth.

Creciendo sin duda - growing in ways that are unimaginable to those who have not experienced such repression.

As I stood with a radiant teenager from Chiapas, we spoke about music and struggle.

She told me about the reasons she was fleeing with her father, what they had encountered in transit, and when this all weighed too heavily, we quickly shifted topics and bonded over our love for music.

I felt as if I was speaking to another adult but she was fifteen-years-old -

a quinceañera traveling with her papá, shy about changing into the warm clothes I handed her in preparation for the hielera.

I stood with her for some time; our eyes locked when I began to explain why the thickest layer needs to touch her skin and why we need to write her father’s information on her arm with sharpie in case they are forced apart.

“No lo entiendo,” she said, staring into my eyes awaiting an explanation for the cruelty.

“Yo tampoco lo entiendo,” I said, shaking my head with shame and disappointment for not being able to explain these methods of enforcement - designed to keep her and her father out.

It reminded me of the confusion I’m met with on the other side – “porque nos tratan así, como criminales?/Why do they treat us like that, like criminals?”

“Tampoco lo entiendo” - I don’t understand these policies – my own country’s policies – and I find that I can only do my small part to shine light on the injustice of it all.


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