An Attorney Working as an Asylum lawyer at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Eva Sage Gordon

U.S. and Mexico keeping border travel restrictions through Jan. 21

Eva Sage Gordon is a third-year PhD Candidate in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She recently sat down with Virginia Cline, a newly-minted attorney currently working as an asylum lawyer at the U.S.-Mexico border to ask about the situation on the ground in Mexico, what life is like for those arriving in search of safety in the U.S., and what she sees as the next crucial step the Biden Administration could take to ease the crisis. A lightly edited version of that conversation is below:

What is your current role?

I’m a Justice Catalyst Fellow working as an immigration attorney for the non-profit organization Al Otro Lado.

How did you hear about the organization you are working for?

When I was in law school, I knew I wanted to practice asylum law after graduation. I took classes on immigration law and participated in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC). In those spaces, I heard about Al Otro Lado (AOL) as one of the organizations that was standing up to the Trump administration’s policies, aimed at destroying our asylum system. When I heard that AOL was providing legal services to asylum seekers stuck at the southern border and suing the Trump administration, I knew I wanted to be involved. I came to Tijuana twice as a volunteer during law school and witnessed first-hand the brutality of the U.S. asylum system at the border. I decided I wanted to contribute more of my time to the organization, so I applied for post-graduate fellowships there.

Can you describe a day in your life at work?

The day-to-day work changes a lot depending on the current border policies. For the past year, the border has been almost entirely closed to asylum seekers since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region. Because of the border closure, known as “Title 42” because it is a public health law under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, asylum seekers have been forced to live for months and even years in dangerous border cities where they are extremely vulnerable to organized crime and lack access to basic necessities. The majority of our clients have been victims of crimes in Mexico, including robbery, extortion, and increasingly, kidnapping and sex trafficking. Cartels in the area have taken advantage of the presence of migrants with nowhere to go to carry out more kidnappings and profit from the ransom money.

A makeshift tent camp has sprung up in the Chaparral plaza near the port of entry between Tijuana, Mexico and San Ysidro, California. People living in the camp have no access to proper sanitation, healthcare, or school for their children. They sleep in tents which become very cold at night and extremely hot during the day. The camp is surveilled by cartels and gang members, and people in the camp have witnessed kidnappings, beatings, and other illegal activity. There is very little to no pretense of Mexican government officials and no intervention from UNHCR or any other international organization. Many people in the camp rely on food donated by local nonprofits and churches.

Because of the border closure, we have had to shift our legal services model to include referrals to civil society organizations that provide humanitarian services. AOL has raised funds to support migrant shelters, has partnered with healthcare providers such as Refugee Health Alliance and Prevencasa to address the medical needs of our clients, and has started a program for new mothers who have given birth in Mexico while waiting to apply for asylum in the United States. In addition, we refer clients to free mental health counseling.

We have also been working to identify the some of most vulnerable cases—people with life-threatening medical conditions, victims of sex trafficking and kidnapping, members of the LGBTQ+ community who have been threatened and assaulted in Mexico, Black asylum seekers who have experienced racism and discrimination, etc. and requesting humanitarian parole on their behalf.

Can you explain a bit more what that term means?

Humanitarian parole is a request to the government to make an exception to the Title 42 border closure for humanitarian reasons, and to allow the asylum seeker to enter the United States and apply for asylum from within the country, where the vast majority of our clients already have relatives and a support network. Since the Biden administration came into power, we have slowly begun to see more success with humanitarian parole, but the response is far from adequate.

What made you want to represent refugees and asylum-seekers as an attorney?

When I was an undergraduate student at University of Michigan, I volunteered at Freedom House Detroit, a temporary home for asylum seekers. I was a French major and most of the guests of Freedom House were French-speakers from West and Central Africa. Through translation of asylum testimonies, I learned of situations of conflict and human rights abuses in parts of the world far removed from the life of a typical Ann Arbor college student. I also saw how harsh our own government could be towards people who had fled horrific violence in their home countries. ICE officers would harass and detain asylum seekers in Detroit, which struck me at the time as a particularly cruel thing to do to people who had already suffered such trauma. I knew I wanted to work to support asylum seekers in my career, and I viewed the law as the best tool to do that.

What has surprised you most about the circumstances of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border since you began working there?

What surprised me the most when I first came to the border in May 2019 was the cruelty. AOL would provide asylum seekers at the border with a legal orientation where we would explain what might happen to people after they crossed the border. That’s when I started to really think deeply about the cruelty of immigration detention, family separation, and deportation in the expedited removal process. Back in 2019, people who presented themselves at the southern border were given waitlist numbers and forced to wait for 2-4 months in Tijuana for their numbers to be called so that they could enter the United States to apply for asylum. Once they crossed, they were almost always brought to a very cold room, which is referred to in Spanish as the hielera (ice box) because the temperature is kept so low. The cold room has no beds or comfortable places to sleep, no shower, no toothbrushes. The lights are always kept on. People are forced to stay there for several days or even weeks before being released or sent to an ICE detention center.

When I asked a teenage girl from central Africa if she had any questions about the process, she started to cry and asked me why we kept people in a cold room. I had no answer for that and felt only shame. After going through hell in their home countries, and hell to get to the border, vulnerable refugees are met with cruelty at every step of the immigration process. That’s something I already knew intellectually, but it really slaps you in the face when you see it at the border.

Can you briefly talk about a couple of your clients’ stories to shed light on some of the many different circumstances that lead people to the U.S. border?

We work with clients from all over the world. Many have fled cartel violence in other parts of Mexico, gang violence in Central America, political violence in Nicaragua and Haiti. In some regions, cartels and gangs have amassed so much power that they essentially function as state actors. People who have refused their demands and fled know that their lives will be in immediate danger if they are forced to return. Other clients have made it to the border after fleeing civil wars overseas. We’ve worked with clients from Cameroon, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Cuba, Venezuela, and many other countries.

What pretty much everyone we work with has in common is that they fear going back to their country and they want a safe place to start a new life. Unfortunately, Mexico has not been a safe place for the vast majority of our clients who are at heightened risk because they are migrants. Due to the border closure, many are now in a protracted limbo, with their lives on hold and at risk as they wait for the border to open again to asylum seekers.

How has Covid-19 impacted immigration for asylum seekers? Has it been used as a cover, in your opinion, to keep people out? Are people in detention getting vaccinated now?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on asylum seekers at the border. As I mentioned, the border has been almost entirely closed to asylum seekers for over a year now through the Title 42 public health law. I do believe that the policy is not truly aimed at protecting public health, but rather at keeping asylum seekers out. It fits within a larger array of Trump administration policies designed to all but eliminate asylum.

It’s important to note that the U.S.-Mexico border is not closed for other purposes. U.S. citizens, green card holders, and people with work permits are permitted to cross back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico each day. There is no Covid testing or vaccination requirement. I have crossed the border on several occasions myself over the past few months. Each time I go to the port of entry, there is a very long line of people waiting to cross. Covid does not discriminate based on what passport someone has, so to allow the border to remain open for business and leisure travel, but not for asylum seekers cannot be justified on public health grounds. Further, there are other measures that can be taken to prevent the spread of Covid at the border, such as mandatory testing and quarantine. There is no genuine health reason to maintain this policy. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has kept it in place for too long.

Although I have heard that vaccines have become available at some detention centers, this is far from the norm. Instead, several clients have reported contracting Covid while in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE custody. One client recently told me that after crossing the border he was kept in a room for several days in close proximity to people who were clearly very sick with Covid. He then tested positive himself after being transferred to an ICE detention facility. He was kept in isolation where he had no access to medication or medical support, and reported feeling so ill he could barely stand. The government purports to keep people out to prevent the spread of Covid, but does very little to protect the people in its custody from getting sick.

Take us to the past six months at the border. You began work under the Trump Administration and have now seen the shift to the Biden Administration. Can you describe a bit about how things were when you first arrived? What obstacles had been enacted by the Trump Administration to block asylum seekers? What has happened, from your perspective on the ground there, since the change in administrations?

When I first arrived in Tijuana, the Trump administration had enacted several policies designed to prevent people from accessing the asylum system. One of the worst of these policies was the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) known colloquially as the Remain in Mexico program. That program forced certain asylum seekers from Latin America to remain on the Mexican side of the border while waiting for their immigration court hearings.

It was almost impossible for people in MPP to find lawyers to represent them in the court hearings, as most U.S. asylum attorneys only work on the U.S. side of the border. People in MPP were also particularly vulnerable to kidnapping, rape, and extortion while waiting. Many missed their court dates because, despite showing up at the port of entry, CBP officials refused to let them in to be transported to the court. Because of all these barriers, asylum grant rates for people in MPP were abysmally low.

One positive thing the Biden administration did was to end MPP and allow people in MPP who were still waiting in Mexico to be processed into the U.S. and to have their court hearings transferred away from the border. The process has been slow and cumbersome, but seeing people who had lost so much hope and who have gone through so much waiting in Mexico to finally be permitted to enter the United States and stay with family while applying for asylum, has been very gratifying.

Another Trump policy that has since ended is the asylum transit ban, which made people who had traveled through other countries on their way to the U.S. border ineligible for asylum unless they had also applied for asylum in those countries. This law would mean that a person fleeing gang violence in Honduras would have to apply for asylum in Guatemala and Mexico, where many of the same gangs and gang-affiliates operate. The transit ban had essentially made nearly all of our non-Mexican clients who had entered the U.S. after July 16, 2019, ineligible for asylum. Thankfully a federal judge struck down that law several months ago.

What countries are your clients coming from primarily? How do the numbers breakdown by nationality, age, and language?

The majority of our clients are Spanish speakers, primarily from Central America and Mexico, as well as Cuba and Venezuela. The second most common language is Haitian Creole, as there is now a large community of Haitian asylum seekers in Tijuana. In addition, we have clients from all over the world—from Russia, Costa Rica, Peru, and other countries. Most people we see are families with young children, although some of our most vulnerable clients are single adults who have been victims of kidnapping and trafficking.

Walk readers through the experience of a person who arrives at the border. What do they do? Who do they speak to? What happens next?

I have recently seen asylum seekers approach the border to tell a CBP officer that they would like to apply for asylum. CBP responds by telling the person that the border is closed and that they have to go to Chaparral, the area near the Pedestrian West port of entry that has been closed for over a year. They won’t find any official help at Chaparral. That’s where the tent camp is. For the past year, there has been no asylum seeker waiting list.

The immediate struggle asylum seekers face is finding somewhere to stay. Many people are staying in squalid conditions in the tent camp, hoping the border will open soon and that they will be the first to be let in. However, there has been no official announcement suggesting this is likely or probable. Other asylum seekers turn to migrant shelters for refuge, while others are able to pool resources with friends and family to rent rooms in Tijuana. Then there’s the waiting. Waiting for weeks, months, years, for a chance to access the U.S. asylum system. Many clients have told me that they don’t go outside at all during the day out of fear of being kidnapped or murdered.

What would you like to see happen at the border, and what are the steps necessary to make that happen?

First of all, I would like to see an end to Title 42, under which thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers have been expelled back into Mexico or returned by plane to the country they fled from. Ending Title 42 would allow people in danger to access the protections they have the legal right to apply for.

Beyond that, there needs to be an end to the detention of asylum seekers. Detention is cruel and unnecessary and takes a toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of the detained individuals. It also makes it much harder to access legal services.

What would you like people to know about the situation on the Mexico–U.S. border that often gets ignored or misreported in the media?

Often, in the media, it seems that most people are fleeing poverty and looking for work in the United States. While it’s true that many of the countries our clients are coming from are relatively poor, the most important thing they are seeking is safety. People have fled targeted violence and death threats. For most, going back home is not a viable option. I wish people could understand the danger that caused people to leave the homes that they otherwise love. I also wish people would understand the cruelty of U.S. border enforcement.

What do you know, from your work, about the current influx of children being accepted without guardians? From what you know, do you think this practice is a step in the right direction or not at all?

Unaccompanied children never should have been turned away in the first place. Unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable people in need of protection. The policy of turning them away forced them to rely more on criminal organizations for smuggling. Unaccompanied children should absolutely be accepted, but so should parents and families. In some cases, the situation at the border has become so dangerous that parents have been forced to send their children alone to the border as the only way to protect them. A better solution would be to allow parents and families to access the asylum system too.

What are some ways that people can get involved in this issue other than going to law school?

Much of border work is humanitarian work, which means that a legal background isn’t always necessary. People who are able to spend time in person at the border can provide support in a variety of ways. Social workers, translators, computer programmers—there is a need for many skill sets. For people who are hoping to get involved remotely, there is a lot to do as well. We have volunteers without a legal background calling families, helping fill out forms, and doing data entry work. Even just being educated about the reality at the border and talking about it with people is helpful. This work is so invisible to most of the country; the more people we have shining a light on it the better.

Do you know of any organizations that graduate students or professors could get involved with, to help with research or planning to assist Asylum Seekers? What areas do you think need more research? What are books that need to be written? What are podcasts that need to be produced? What should get more attention from academics?

I think it would be useful for researchers to explore the qualitative and quantitative harms done to asylum seeking families as a direct result of Title 42 over the past year. Why did the Trump administration enact Title 42? How does the use of Title 42 during the Covid-19 pandemic compare to previous historical uses of Title 42? In what ways were families and individuals who were expelled under Title 42 harmed? Why has the Biden administration been so slow to rescind it?

What do you see as the typical narrative projected in the media in the US about Mexican border immigration, and how does that differ from what you observe on the ground?

The media on the right tends to portray the situation at the border as a security issue—that the people coming in are somehow a threat to the United States. In reality, the people seeking asylum at the border are looking for protection from harms they face in their home countries and in Mexico. We have created a security issue by keeping the border closed and failing to offer protection to asylum seekers.

 What is the most important thing that you would like the public to know about this issue?

I wish people would understand the harm that U.S. border policies are causing everyday— unnecessarily and at great financial cost to the American public.

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