As the Trump administration turns the screw on migrants – refusing to accommodate those awaiting asylum interviews as law requires – these people, their counsel and sustenance to those in flight and need, are a counterforce against cruelty.
Nicole Ramos, the director of the group’s border rights project, defines Al Otro Lado’s job as “work that never ends”. And the principle of that work is “to get the courts and federal law enforcement to follow federal law. To stop the people whose role is to uphold the law from routinely breaking it.”
Ramos exudes tireless, effervescent purpose. She wears a ring made of bullet casing, with the round made of obsidian. “I came here to apply what I knew about the broken system,” she says.
Ramos arrived in Tijuana to volunteer at its migrant shelter, but became outraged by the difficulties asylum seekers faced in presenting themselves to US authorities. She teamed up with two immigration attorneys working in southern California: Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, who founded Al Otro Lado in 2011.
“In the last month, we’ve counselled over 2,000 migrants. This is the new normal,” she says. “People are going to keep coming. We are barely stemming the tide, and so many people are hurting so much”.
The first step for an asylum-seeker is to present themselves at a port of entry like this one, and wait in detention by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) for a “credible fear interview”, after which one may or may not get a court hearing. After sending refugee Jews back to die in Nazi Germany, the US signed the 1939 Montevideo Treaty on asylum, under which any foreign national appearing at the border and expressing fear of violence at home must be granted an interview with an asylum officer.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has no statutory authority to the contrary, but refugees are now kept waiting for weeks or months.
As they did so, two shocking episodes brought Al Otro Lado’s work into disturbing limelight. On 29 January Pinherio, an American citizen, was stopped crossing into Tijuana, inexplicably detained two hours and returned to the US. Papers proving that her infant son was Mexican were of no consequence.
Two days later, Phillips was detained while travelling with her family into Guadalajara airport; she was held seven hours with her daughter, denied water and medicines, and deported back to the US.
It remains unclear which government blacklisted their passports. “I think this is retaliation,” said Phillips, “I think it’s that we’re pointing out gross, flagrant human rights violations being committed by the US government, and they don’t like that.”
Al Otro Lado works on both sides of the border, representing both detained and non-detained immigrants in US court proceedings and educating migrants of their rights under US law.
There’s no attempt to feed migrants’ dreams or delusions, said Ramos: “We’d be violating our own ethos if we didn’t warn people and explain the grim realities of detention. I tell them: ‘The US government will try to break you, and you have to be stronger than them.’”
The US authorities “despise us for informing people”, she says. “We tell migrants that once they get to the port of entry, everything that happens is potential ground for litigation, and the authorities don’t like people knowing their rights.
Source: The Guardian