Early this month, a caravan of more than a dozen local lawyers, clergy, and other advocates set out to assist migrants seeking asylum at the Tijuana border, where the mayor has declared a humanitarian crisis, and where thousands of camping refugees wake up every morning hoping they’ll get their turn to present their cases to federal immigration agents.
Kristin Clarens, a local attorney specializing in international law, says some migrants, who are “subjecting themselves to this process out of desperation,” have a very low-level understanding of how unlikely it is that they’ll be granted asylum—and about how they’ll be treated if they’re allowed to cross the border.
“They’re fleeing violence, and that’s all they know,” says Clarens. “And they assume that we’re this beacon of freedom—that we’re open to helping them—and it’s pretty heartbreaking to have to be the bearer of this tiding.”
From morning until night, Clarens observed those camping near the PedWest port of entry waiting for their assigned numbers to be called “like when you go to a deli,” she says, so they can make their asylum case to the immigration officials.
“The people standing in line have literally no idea what’s happening to them on the other side,” says Clarens. The best case scenario is that they’ll pass their credible fear interview and background check, and they’ll be released into America with a year to officially apply for asylum. But often they either don’t pass their interview or aren’t granted one, and some migrants are detained, locked into holding cells, loaded onto buses, and driven overnight to different detention centers across the country, where many will remain for months without understanding the process.
Clarens has also been to one of those detention centers: Tornillo in Texas, “this weird internment camp” in the middle of the desert, housing thousands of immigrants, including a large number of unaccompanied children.
“Every morning, it’s just so heartbreaking,” says Clarens. “A bus shows up and all of these people file out.”
In Tijuana, local folks also offered humanitarian aid or legal advice to droves of unaccompanied children—two of whom they recently learned have been murdered. Mexican authorities have arrested three people suspected of kidnapping, stabbing, and strangling the two Honduran teens to death, as reported by an ABC News affiliate in San Diego.
The Trump administration recently changed part of its policy to make it easier to reunite immigrant children with their parents, but Clarens says many kids—like the ones she met at the YMCA where the recently killed boys were staying, and at Tornillo—won’t be released anytime soon, because ICE is actively detaining their sponsors, or undocumented relatives, who attempt to pick them up.
It’s hard to tell the children that she doesn’t know how long they’ll be detained in what are essentially cages, says Clarens, or that their sponsors might not come.
“These kids flee violence in their home countries with no idea that they’ll be treated so callously in ours,” she adds.
Reverend Brittany Caine-Conley, a lead organizer of Congregate Charlottesville, describes accompanying a group of approximately nine “very courageous boys” who tried to present their asylum cases in Tijuana, but were promptly turned away—an event that made national news.
“We feel a real moral obligation to be in solidarity with those who are simply trying to survive,” she says.
The clergy members and young refugees were on Mexican soil at the entrance to the Otay Mesa port of entry, which is a long, heavily militarized corridor on the border that asylum-seekers must traverse before meeting with American immigration officials.
“A few of them stepped across the invisible line into the corridor, but were pushed back by border control, so border control can continue to claim that they can’t ask for asylum because they’re not on American soil,” says Caine-Conley.
The boys were visibly frightened, and “some of them had begun to cry,” says the reverend. And when Mexican police came to remove them, the officers threatened to arrest the accompanying clergy members and force them into America if they continued to protect the minors.
“It was an incredibly disheartening experience,” says Caine-Conley. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation like that where I felt so incredibly helpless.”
Caine-Conley, who also officiated 10 weddings at the border, says the migrants’ stories have been “harrowing.”
“I can’t imagine at the age of 15, traveling thousands of miles across countries because I saw my father, my uncle, and my brother executed in my front yard, and I know that if I’m forced to go back there, I will be executed as well.”
And while some people can’t seem to understand why immigrants flee, the reverend says, “It’s because they’re trying to choose life and there’s zero opportunity for them to live where they were.”
Clarens says there’s no real reason for the way American officials are now treating asylum-seeking migrants, creating a hostile situation at the border, forcing thousands of refugees into detention centers, and subjecting people who have already spent their lives in danger and trauma to more of that.
“This isn’t improving our safety, this isn’t improving our economy,” she says. “It’s a very broken system and the price is being paid by the most vulnerable people in our world right now.”