On the Ground: To The Other Side In Tijuana

Photo: © Karen Laws. All rights reserved.

At 7 a.m. I join a group gathered around a young man holding a plastic bag full of socks. We’re at El Chaparral, the port of entry known as San Isidro on the United States side of the border. Tijuana residents who work or go to school in San Diego climb a series of ramps at one end of the plaza where we stand. Meanwhile, migrants with suitcases gather under a giant Mexico-Tijuana sign. We’re here to help the migrants. We’re on the ground in Tijuana. OTG, as I’ll soon learn to say. Which is shorthand for being a witness and working for change.

It’s my first day, but volunteers with Al Otro Lado (the name means to the other side) have been coming here every morning since Thanksgiving, when the United States government first teargassed women and children at the border. Shane Mulligan, the man with the socks, has been OTG for several weeks. Speaking words so familiar to him they come out sounding like a chant, he explains what’s going to happen and how we can intervene. It’s a poem for the have-nots, balm for the conscience of the haves.

Who here speaks Spanish? I raise my hand. Who here is an immigration attorney? Other hands go up. We’ll fan out and talk to migrants one on one, Shane says. We’ll tell them about the Know-Your-Rights charla (lecture/discussion) and the free legal consultations Al Otro Lado offers every afternoon. We’ll warn the migrants that border officials will take away their phones, and we will offer them Sharpies so they can write the phone numbers of their U.S. contacts on their arms. Don’t point at anyone, Shane says, don’t make objects out of the migrants. Don’t get frantic. Frantic energy, even from well-meaning volunteers, only makes things worse for the migrants.

Tomorrow morning, when a pregnant woman collapses, I will get frantic. Today, when attempting to inform a Haitian man who speaks only Creole that U.S. customs officials will put him and his infant daughter in a refrigerated room for three to ten days, I manage to stay calm. Together, a veteran volunteer and I convince the father to switch around his daughter’s clothing so that the warm, hooded jacket she wears is the first layer next to her skin. We’ve been told by asylum seekers now in the U.S. awaiting their hearings that the CBP—Customs and Border Patrol—confiscates everything, from phones to outer layers of clothing, before putting people in cold cells. The hieleras (from hielo, meaning ice) are kept at 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Young children in one cell. Women in another. Men in a third. The food and water provided is minimal. Many people are shackled to benches while in the hielera. Everyone sleeps on a concrete floor with no pillows or blankets. CBP will take your child’s hoodie, and if all she’s wearing underneath is a thin cotton dress, too bad. “Why?” a nearby migrant, overhearing our conversation, asks. The only answer I have is that the U.S. wants to discourage black and brown people who arrive at the border on foot from entering the country. And I don’t know how to say that in Creole.

Shane is from Albuquerque. He is twenty-five years old and holds a degree in economics from the University of New Mexico. To ward off the morning chill, he wears a large, Navajo-patterned, brightly-colored fleece scarf wound several times around his neck. His prepared speech includes some cautionary words for male volunteers. “Many of the people here have been persecuted by people who are men,” he explains, advising the volunteers to back off on their masculine energy. Shifting his weight onto his back foot, he draws his hands in close to his body and leans away from us. His gaze never wavers and what he communicates is not defensiveness but the opposite: vulnerability and openness.

By now a table and a red canopy have been set up on the plaza. This table is home to La Lista, a system loosely overseen by Mexican Immigration authorities but managed by the migrants themselves. A line forms in front of the table, the first person standing several feet back the way you do in a doctor’s office. Two brown-skinned women review asylum seekers’ passports along with birth and marriage certificates. They record the migrants’ names in a composition book. No electronic record, because technically the list is illegal. The women hand out numbers, written on tiny slips of paper, to heads of families. Good for up to ten people, these numbers entitle asylum seekers to present themselves at the border. People wait one to two months from the time they receive a number until that number is called. Every morning, someone from the U.S. relays today’s “capacity” to the list managers. Yesterday the capacity was 20. The day before, 40. Your entire group must be present when your number is called. That’s why you see people holding babies. Every morning entire families pack up, leave the shelters where they have been staying for months, and come to Chaparral. Because if they aren’t ready to go when their number is called, they’ll have to start over with a new number.

Photo: © Karen Laws. All rights reserved.

Today I’m paired with LJ, an attorney from Pittsburgh who’s been OTG for several days already. Latte cup in hand, muttering that she needs to pee, LJ leads me over to a woman from El Salvador. “She’s had trouble sleeping, can you ask her how she slept last night?” LJ says, and I translate. When the woman mentions having high blood pressure, LJ wants to make sure she has enough medicine. “Tell her I can buy some for her,” LJ says before moving to the next group. She has an eagle eye for exposed ankles. “Get some socks for that child,” she tells me, indicating with a glance a boy of about six. Shane has just finished explaining that we hand out socks only to people who are leaving today, and today’s numbers haven’t yet been called. But the little boy wears a backpack, and his parents carry suitcases; for LJ that’s good enough. As I’m quickly finding out, LJ is the type who listens respectfully to instructions and then acts as she sees fit. Minutes later, we’re leaving the plaza so she can show me where the 10-peso toilet is located. Back at Chaparral, LJ takes a moment to vape. Blond woman in her thirties, emitting clouds of smoke, eyes aflame with righteous anger, wearing tooled leather cowboy boots. “This is so fucked up,” she says. And then gets back to work.

With its arbitrary, ever-changing rules and absurd wait times, La Lista equates to mental torture. And yet, despite the atmosphere of fear and anxiety, what is most striking about the scene at Chaparral is the civility and quiet. People converse, they find a place to stand, they supervise their children, they wait. Seeking asylum is their job. Yesterday the numbers were called at 8:30 a.m. It’s now 10:45 a.m. and still the numbers haven’t been called. A few more people join the line at the table, a few more people accept a map from a volunteer. Mostly, everybody waits. Until finally one of the women seated at the table takes up a bullhorn. Migrants from Haiti and Ecuador, from El Salvador and Turkey, listen for the sound of their names. No matter how pessimistic by nature or how well-informed they are of the cruelties still to be visited upon them by U.S. immigration authorities, they anticipate the change that is coming, a new beginning, a day of realized hopes and future promise. They’ve come so far already.


I’ve come to Tijuana from Oakland with my friend Janet Jacobs. We have an AirBnB apartment for the week, and in the evenings, we do what we can to relax. Janet knits. I read a novel. We meet up with other Al Otro Lado volunteers at a hip bar/food court, where we drink Mexican Mules (mezcal, ginger beer, and lime, with a chili powder rim) and eat vegan tacos. We grouse about gender inequality. Most of us are women, and some of us have husbands who make more money than we do. Is it because our jobs are considered expendable that we’re available for volunteer work while the men are not?

With some exceptions, the migrants don’t talk with me at Chaparral about why they left home. I hear those stories in the afternoon, during legal consultations. By 12:30 p.m. a line has formed outside the nondescript building where Al Otro Lado has office space. The door used by both volunteers and migrants is at the back; there’s no sign, nothing to identify this as a place where legal services are offered. Security is tight because threats arrive daily; the danger comes from gang members, violent husbands, right-wing thugs, the police or other government entities. After signing in (or showing our badges) we climb a musty, dark stairwell to the second floor where Anne Gywnn, a retired labor-law attorney, sits behind a table spread with plates of food. A palpable sense of relief accompanies the migrants’ first sight of the snowy-haired Señora with her lip-sticked smile. Anne gestures to rows of folding chairs, where the migrants sit with plates in their laps. A curtain divides the front of the room from the back, where, after la charla, lawyers will conduct individual interviews at long tables. There’s a corner reserved for Childcare. Some children eagerly seek out the toys and crayons as soon as they’ve finished eating. Others cling to their parents.

La charla today is given by Natalie Soto, a young woman who speaks with great energy and verve. She knows this stuff by heart and can make even the driest legalese interesting. Natalie lays out the categories of persecution that qualify people for asylum. (One floor up, the same talk is being given in English.) Fear for your life is insufficient; you must be persecuted for the right reasons. The audience listens attentively. Meanwhile, I persuade a boy whose arms are wrapped around his father’s legs to take my hand and walk to a table and chair sized for children. I introduce the boy to mi amiga Juanita, aka Janet, who started working in Childcare on Day One and has since become Childcare Leader. The boy gets a coloring book and marking pens; other kids are working on a floor puzzle. They are getting to play, to be kids, to relax.

My job is to translate for Anne, who, in between serving lunch and washing up the plates, gives legal consultations. This is when I hear the migrants’ stories. The story that most haunts me is that of a trans woman from Guatemala who has been in Tijuana for a month and a half. To protect her identity, I’ll call her Linda. I first notice Linda during la charla, seated with her back to me. Something about her bare feet in floppy rubber sandals, heels raised from the floor, suggests vulnerability. A childlike quality. She wears old jeans, a dark blue jacket. Some smudgy eye makeup, orangey-brown hair that hangs down her back, an embroidered blouse that blends with the jacket.

Anne asks questions, I translate, and together we learn that Linda ran away from home at age twelve after being beaten up by a neighbor. She says the beating came as a consequence of her first, tentative expressions of her gender identity. Linda’s search for freedom of expression took her from Guatemala to Mexico. She tried to make a life for herself in Mexico City, but instead of peace and security she found brutality. Linda’s voice rises in pitch as she tells what happened to her after arriving in Tijuana. “It’s much worse here, worse than ever,” I say, translating for Anne. Linda’s worst enemies are the Tijuana police who, she says, beat her and lock her up for no reason other than her insistence on standing up for “the right to be myself.” Linda looks underfed, physically weak. Her fear is blatantly obvious. But when speaking of her defiance of Tijuana police, she shows a stubborn streak. She’s not someone who gives up easily.

When Anne gets up from the table to talk over the case with one of the immigration attorneys, I’m in suspense just like Linda. I’m not a lawyer, and Anne is a very good one. I’ve seen how she zeroes in on what’s important and catches things that I miss. And in fact, Anne cautions Linda that her asylum case is unlikely to succeed. Linda looks deflated as Anne warns her of the difficulties ahead should she attempt to cross the border.

The consultation over, Linda and I talk casually while waiting for copies of some paperwork. Linda mentions money troubles, a problem with the rent. Earlier today, at Chaparral, I gave a woman from El Salvador cab fare so she and her family could get back to a shelter located on the outskirts of town. I draw Linda’s attention to a crate of pears on the table where the plates were laid out before. Would she like one? Linda nods yes. She puts the pear in the pocket of her jacket. How about another one, for later, or for a friend? Accepting the second pear, Linda smiles for maybe the first time since we’ve met. “Para no estar desesperada,” she says, punning on the Spanish for desperate or hopeless and the name of the fruit. I smile back. And for a moment I see the possibility that normalcy for Linda includes hilarity, joy, happiness, delight.

Rage brought me to Tijuana, but as I get to know the people here—both migrants and my fellow volunteers—what I feel is love. And rage. And how to feel love and rage simultaneously without getting too frantic. On Day Two at Chaparral, I get to know a man from Cameroon. Martin, who was named after Dr. Martin Luther King, has been waiting almost two months for the chance to request asylum. Martin hopes to get to Maryland; we discuss history museums and the Lincoln Memorial before he begins telling me about the persecution he faced as a member of the English-speaking minority in his Francophone nation. I’m talking with Martin when a volunteer comes running with news of the pregnant woman’s collapse. Quick! Find someone with a radio! I take off, panicking when I can’t find someone right away. But then I see a volunteer with a radio strapped to her chest. I tell her what happened, and together we run back to the pregnant woman. She’s sitting on the curb, bent over, friends from Haiti surrounding her. We’re still trying to reach a doctor when an ambulance pulls up. The woman is not miscarrying; she’s hungry and exhausted. Paramedics treat her for dehydration. Later that morning, I witness a heartwarming example of altruism: When Martin’s number is called, he voluntarily agrees to postpone his departure until tomorrow so the woman who collapsed from exhaustion can go today instead of him.


When we were on our way to Tijuana, Janet and I worried about whether we’d be useful. A question worth asking, but the next time I doubt my own—or someone else’s—direct action for social justice, I’ll remember this inspiring story, told to me by veterans on the ground: In 2016, Tijuana received thousands of Haitians from the Haitian Exodus. Nicole Ramos, an immigration attorney living in Tijuana, noticed that Haitians were being turned away at the border. When Nicole began accompanying Haitians to the port of entry, she learned that border officials were telling asylum seekers they had to put their names on a list, something that had never happened before. Soon Nicole was giving daily informational talks at shelters. (The origin of the Know-Your-Rights charla.) Later that same year, Nicole joined forces with Al Otro Lado to sue the U.S. government for violating the rights of asylum seekers.

Currently, Nicole Ramos directs Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project.

Between Thanksgiving 2018 and February 1, 2019, Al Otro Lado trained nearly 1,000 volunteers and gave 1,650 legal free consultations in Tijuana.

“A veteran is someone who’s been here more than twelve hours,” we were told on our first day. By the end of the week, when Natalie Soto had left and a new person was needed to do the Spanish charla, I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand. Even though I have no background in immigration law, am unused to speaking in front of groups, and am not a native Spanish speaker. I’d been trained. I was ready.

Photo: © Karen Laws. All rights reserved.
Karen Laws lives in Berkeley and is writing a novel about the life and death of a Mexican woman, as seen through the eyes of her three American-born sons. Her short story “Holding Down the Fort” appeared in Issue 3. Other stories have appeared in Gravel, The Cimarron Review, The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review, Confrontation, and Zyzzyva.

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