What is it like to be a defender on the front lines of the Border Crisis? Tijuana attorney, Soraya Vásquez speaks in Encuentro Migrante 2020


The city with the highest border traffic in the world hosted the first transnational migration meeting of 2020. More than 100 representatives from 75 organizations from Central America, Mexico and the United States convened from February 20 to 22 in Tijuana, Mexico, in solidarity with the migrant and refugee community.

The meeting offered a unique opportunity to learn, share and promote the rights of the most vulnerable and invisible migrant populations: girls and boys, young people, people of African descent and the LGBTIQ + community. The sessions highlighted the experiences of these groups within the current immigration crisis.

Soraya Vásquez, Deputy Director of Al Otro Lado’s Tijuana office, gave her testimony on what it’s like to be a defender on the frontlines of the border crisis.

Al Otro Lado’s Tijuana-based Border Rights Project provides legal orientation and know-your-rights training to asylum seekers in Tijuana who wish to present themselves to U.S. authorities to seek asylum, while also conducting human rights monitoring at the San Ysidro port-of-entry.

Vàzquez is a lawyer from Tijuana who works in Tijuana with asylum seekers.

“The issue of migration is very close to me, because I grew up here and I have witnessed how the profile of migrants and migration policies have changed. I work for an organization called Al Otro Lado, which is a United States organization that also has a program here in Tijuana called, Conoce Tus Derechos, Know Your Rights, a program that we carry out on the Mexican side of the border. We are a small but powerful team.

Our group offers workshops and legal guidance to migrants requesting asylum in the United States.

We offer a clinic one weekend per month, where we help asylum seekers complete their forms, translate their evidence, and help them with a series of documents to complete their files, which they present before the immigration judge.

The program also provides direct legal representation to asylum seekers detained in southern California. This is done through pro bono lawyers who support migrants directly. We also document human rights violations committed against asylum seekers, either at the port of entry or in detention centers.

In Mexico, 84,582 migrant asylum seekers wait along the border. They wait under the migrant protection protocol, a measure imposed by the United States government where asylum seekers are returned to Mexico to await their process here.

Migrants go to their appointment in the United States, and they are returned to Mexico to wait.

Of those thousands of people 27,992 are minors, that is, 33%, and 12,270 people remain in Tijuana who have been returned by our port of entry known as El Chaparral.

In addition to those people who have already entered to apply for asylum to the United States there is also a population of people who are still waiting to apply for asylum, and that is an approximate number of about 7,000 people who are registered in the famous list.

This list is an illegal list because there should not be an intermediary country for people seeking asylum in any country. However, this exists. People have to write down their names on this list and wait their turn. Sometimes the wait is 4 months, or 6 months, it depends on how many people the US government decides to receive each day.

The profile of the migrant has changed. Before, what we observed here in Tijuana were undocumented men who crossed the border looking for a job. This group used to seek lodging for a few days and food.

Now, the profile of migration has completely changed. Today, we find hundreds of families, many families headed by women who are traveling with their children looking for opportunities, but who are mostly looking to save their lives.

Most of the people we are working with are fleeing different types of violence in their places of origin, like institutional violence, structural violence, and family violence.

The changes in the populations that are migrating have presented great challenges for organizations.

We are the only organization offering workshops and clinics in Tijuana, specifically to this asylum-seeking population and have served more than 4000 people who have participated in our workshops to receive information and legal guidance on the asylum process in the United States.

During our legal clinics we help asylum seekers fill out the  I-589 forms, (we have helped fill out more than 500 forms) which is the application asylum seekers have to complete in English. This involves the guidance of a lawyer, someone qualified, because specialized knowledge is required.

This is why we provide this service. It is one of the greatest requests we receive. Many migrants come to us with this need, because there are no other organizations that have a constant presence in Tijuana who provide this fundamental service for those seeking asylum in the United States. We also assist with translations for their evidence.

We are a small team, but we work in solidarity with generous volunteers and with lawyers who join us and give their time.

We receive many cases from women and families that have been victims of a crime, rape, kidnappings but here, we have no protocol; there are no strategies; organizations are overloaded; there are no resources to give attention to this population. And it is very frustrating and a very desperate situation for us. Once, we, as human rights defenders have knowledge that violence against a woman, a family, a child has taken place and that they need support, we cannot remain unmoved. We can’t say, we can’t help, because there is no protocol for them.

No matter how scarce our resources are, working with Al Otro Lado means we do not look away. We don’t have that luxury–we don’t want it either,” argued Vásquez.