Beyond Walls and Policies

Let’s say you are a single mother living in Central America and one day a man approaches you demanding you pay him 20% of your hard-earned salary. You have three children to feed, a household to run and simply cannot afford to give up any part of your paycheck.

Let’s say one week later your youngest son brings you a handwritten note. This notes states that if you do not comply with the request for payment, your son will not be coming home anymore. You are afraid and go to the police station to file a report. At the police station you see the same man that first approached you and he is dressed in a police uniform.

Let’s say you pack as much as you can from your life into a suitcase, grab your children and decide to flee. Your children are furious because you are leaving behind friends, toys, memories, everything they have ever known.

Let’s say your journey north includes riding a train with cartel members, sleeping in shelters whenever you are lucky, and when you are not, sleeping in the streets. You begin praying that you will be able to feed your children and are horrified by this drastic turn in their happy upbringing.

Let’s say you finally make it to the border of the country where your sister is waiting with hopes of a better future for you and your children. Upon arrival then learn that the border is closed and that you will wait days before making your case. You end up in a shelter with 60 other women with children. You see your children play and laugh, but you hate yourself because these are childhood memories no one should have.

In December 2018, I traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, with a group of volunteer attorneys, law school professors and students to assist migrants from Central and South America who arrived at the San Ysidro border via the second caravan[1] to traverse the Americas. We had flown and driven from across the United States in response to the Trump administration’s latest announcement calling for a partial shutdown of the asylum process along the southern border. This was not, however, an isolated announcement and just another change in immigration policy that has been implemented since Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

At the very beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign, he threatened to build a wall at the United States/Mexico border with the intent of preventing illegal immigration. Despite expert opinions regarding this proposal’s inability to curb illegal immigration, Trump’s rhetoric has remained strong. At the very time of our visit to Tijuana, the fight over this campaign promise to build a border wall began the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Although a physical border wall has not yet been erected, for the immigrant community the promise of this wall represents one small brick in what has been a massive and rapid change in United States immigration policy. These changes represent not only a change in policy but a change in rhetoric and how we talk about immigration in this country. Two examples of these drastic changes include the removal of “nation of immigrants” from the USCIS new mission statement[2] and a change in the “catch and release” policy enforced by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). With this new policy, asylum seekers waiting for a court hearing date are facing indefinite incarceration.

In Tijuana, we met volunteers and staff members of Al Otro Lado, a small non-profit organization providing services to immigrants waiting to make their way through the U.S. border. On our first day in the city, staff members divided the volunteers into groups and assigned each group to a local relief site. While at our individual sites, we met with asylum seekers to provide know your rights presentations and thorough information regarding the asylum process.

Every morning in Tijuana begins the same way, with an unofficial ceremony taking place at the small plaza located next to the San Ysidro port of entry. Each morning at 7 a.m., the crowds gather to listen to a person call out “la lista[3] (the list). This list is a large notebook containing the handwritten names of immigrant families waiting to present themselves to immigration authorities. Every family written in the book is waiting to make their claim for asylum. If your name is called, then you will have the opportunity to present your case in front of U.S. authorities. If your name is not called, you must wait another day until the unknown time when your name is called.

During this ceremony, we walked around the crowd, providing information about their rights as asylum seekers, answering questions, and making referrals to our main office where individuals could meet with volunteer pro-bono immigration attorneys to get an assessment of their situation. From what I could tell, there was little organization or structure to the notebook’s format or order of priority. The notebook is managed by asylum seekers who themselves are waiting their turn to go to the port of entry. Once the notebook manager is called for their turn, the notebook is passed on to another asylum seeker believed to be responsible enough to manage its import. Even now, months after my visit to Tijuana, I find it shocking that the fate of thousands of individuals and families are dependent on a mysterious, handwritten notebook and those who manage it.

Across the United States, immigrant communities have felt a severe change in policy since day one of the Trump administration. In just over two years, we have witnessed an attempt to cancel programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protective Status (TPS), an increase in immigration enforcement and divisive rhetoric that no doubt will have a long-lasting effect on United States’ public opinion regarding immigration.  

This rhetoric and sweeping policy change mean immigrant families are now living in a constant state of fear. In a system that does not provide detained immigrants with the right to court-appointed attorneys, many detainees are struggling to navigate the immigration process and fighting to remain in the country. As a result, detained immigrants are more dependent on nonprofit organizations and pro bono attorneys to represent them before the authorities. It is in times like these, that the work of organizations like Al Otro Lado and attorneys working in a pro-bono capacity are vital to defend the most vulnerable among us.


The author of this article is Alvaro Manrique Barrenechea, a 2019 LLM Candidate at Vanderbilt University School of Law. Alvaro is a 2013 graduate of Universidad de Lima (Peru) Law School. He may be reached at alvaro.a.manrique.barrenechea@vanderbilt.edu.


[1]A second migrant caravan of 2,000 is moving through southern Mexico, USA Today (last visited April 15, 2019).

[2]U.S. immigration agency updates statement to no longer say “nation of immigrants”, CNN, (last visited April 15, 2019).

[3]For many waiting in Tijuana, a mysterious notebook is the key to seeking asylum, LA Times,  (last visited April 15, 2019).

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