“At the end of the day we all have one goal. We have one goal to serve and to be here and to provide that pillow… If we all just look at that one goal it will make us closer, because we’re all reaching for the same thing. All of us.” Pricila Rivas, Coordinator for Al Otro Lado’s Bi-National Family Unity Program.
As a deportee herself, Pricila Rivas knows the importance of having a soft landing pad, or pillow, when Mexican citizens are repatriated after spending a large part of their lives in the United States. After a chance encounter with Al Otro Lado co-founder and legal director Nora Phillips at a deportee clinic, Rivas knew instantly that she would be involved with the organization.
Rivas likes to think of the organization as operating in two parts: Al Otro Lado and Al Este Lado. Rivas helps head Al Este Lado, the hub of deportee resources on the Mexican side of the border, while Phillips works on Al Otro Lado, where lawyers work on everything from class action lawsuits to individual immigration cases. The goal being to provide migrants, refugees, and deportees with as many resources- legal, social, and otherwise- as possible. That said, the two halves of Al Otro Lado communicate, according to Phillips, “every day, all the time.”
The organization was founded in 2012 and ran entirely on a volunteer basis until 2017. Al Otro Lado’s original function was providing legal assistance to deportees living in Tijuana, many of whom had familial ties to the United States and genuine cases for citizenship or permanent residency that had slipped through the wide cracks of the fast-paced, impersonal immigration court proceedings.
In 2017, Al Otro Lado gained national recognition when the implementation of Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policies pushed the border and migration as a whole into the limelight. By that time, Al Otro Lado had become a staple of the region and a familiar name for migrants and their families on both sides of the border. As Phillips said;
“We had like three staff… We were unpaid until like 2017, 2018 I think I made like $3,700 or something, and then we just blew up because we were the organization that was representing the vast majority of the separated families.”
Thanks to the publicity and donations, Al Otro Lado has been able to expand their organization to include offices in Tijuana, San Diego, and Los Angeles. According to Phillips, they’re the only US-based legal and deportee advocacy group to have an office in Tijuana. Up until recently, this was the deportation hotspot and not-so-soft landing pad for nearly all immigrants deported from the United States. As Rivas explained, that’s not so much the case anymore.
“They have strategized different ways to be able to deport people. Now, instead of dumping you at the border in border cities and border towns… They’re flying you to Guadalajara or flying you to Mexico City or all the way to Azul or to Tabasco or different places where it’s going to be harder for folks to get to the border, harder for folks to access any type of “know your rights” or any type of legal representation or legal advice. It’s gonna be harder for folks to even see their families- I mean that’s family separation to the max… If anything, more people are getting deported because people are getting COVID while they’re locked up. If you have COVID, you’re getting on the COVID plane and you’re out.”
Since last March when COVID was used to justify an almost complete border closure, folks assumed that closure went both ways. In reality, officials were, as Rivas put it, using a “more sinister” method to continue deporting migrants. This has resulted in a much harsher reality for deportees, who are being dropped off far from the border, away from organizations that usually provide legal, social, medical, and psychological resources. Rivas continued,
“There used to be groups of different organizations to provide that, to provide shoelaces because you get deported without shoelaces, without a belt, you know, provide all these basic immediate needs, but now with COVID, you can’t do that. They’re literally getting off a plane, hopping on a bus, and getting to wherever the hell they’re going, you know? So you don’t even see how many people are being deported.”
Regardless of where deportees are dropped, Rivas and the rest of the team do their best to ensure they have access to the plethora of resources folks on los dos lados have gathered over the years. Much of Rivas’ day is spent on the phone, fielding calls to direct migrants to the correct people to address their needs. The number is well known throughout the deportee community and has remained the same since their founding so it has spread far and wide in the recent years.
All sorts of folks call the line, from attorneys, to deportees, to family members living in the United States, and folks that have been deported for years who are finally reaching out for help. It’s Rivas’ job to get them in touch with the right people, and start the process of connecting them with resources. As she says, “That’s what I like to take care of first, the immediate needs. You know, let’s get your mental [health] right, do you take medication; do you have somewhere to stay; do you have food? Just the bandaid, you know, the band aid on the cut.”
Once those immediate needs are met, the collaboration really begins. Teams on los dos lados collaborate almost constantly to ensure families separated by the border can still function as a familial unit. Rivas says,
“They’re deported to Mexico but their families are in LA. So being able to share that connection with the other office, to be like, ‘Hey I know you guys do this, their family is over there, they need some resources, their folks just got deported.’ We need to make sure that their family is good so that homeboy over here can be good, too, and he can work on himself and his stuff and he doesn’t have to worry about his family, you know? He can know that the LA office, the LA team, is taking the best care of them, going to get them set with whatever it is that they need; and he can relax, talk to a psychologist, unwind, it’s been traumatic, it’s not a walk in the park. So we’re always working amongst each other to provide those services beyond borders, not just here or there, but everywhere.”
On the US side, attorneys and social workers are trying to prevent deportation and assist the families left behind in a very similar manner to those on Al Este Lado. Sometimes, a deportee will get in contact with the Tijuana office and the team will recognize a claim to citizenship the client was unaware of, so the offices will work together to help them fight their case from both sides of the border. Phillips agreed with Rivas, and added,
“You’re dealing with all the crazy safety [things] on the south side of the border and you have to deal with all the technical awful immigration [laws] on the north side, and it’s just like…. The texts explode, and then somehow it gets resolved. We blow up each other’s phones… You’re not surprised when chaos is what happens.”
The amount of collaboration it takes to run an organization like Al Otro Lado cannot be overstated, especially with the speed at which individuals are deported. In 2019, 79% of all immigration court cases were fought entirely without legal representation. Immigrants who have an attorney are up to ten times more likely to remain in the United States; whether that’s through permanent residency, citizenship, or temporary extensions. In the case that folks with valid immigration and asylum claims are deported, the connection between the Mexico and United States offices allow Al Otro Lado to seamlessly take on those cases.
Just like on the Mexico side of the border, no day on the US side is the same. Every case is different, but the underlying theme of the work on Los Dos Lados is trauma prevention and response. Phillips, whose office is based in a hospital and is currently working towards her Master’s of Public Health, was very candid about the impact the trauma of their clients leaves on attorneys, social workers, and doctors who do everything they can to help them.
Trauma and PTSD in advocacy and social justice work is an issue that’s only recently been making its way into the limelight. Articles like this one from VQR profile attorneys and doctors working in high stress jobs and help raise awareness about the need for better mental health support for those who are providing services centered around trauma and survivorship.
In October of 2020, Phillips and her colleague Theresa Cheng gave a presentation about vicarious trauma to the American Public Health Association at their yearly meeting. They surveyed immigration lawyers across the country about their work and the way it impacts their mental health. Phillips is well connected to immigration lawyers across the country and described reaching out to friends who responded to the survey and indicated they were struggling.
The overwhelming response to their survey was a sense of responsibility for the failing system. Attorneys felt disheartened and responsible for losing cases and failing their clients, while they also realized they were neglecting themselves and their families for their jobs. Sabrina Damast, an attorney in LA County, said she felt “Constant guilt – guilt that I’m working too many hours instead of spending time with family. Guilt that I’m not working more hours when my clients are so desperate. Nonstop mental exhaustion – my brain is on 24/7 trying to figure out the next step in each of my cases.”
Phillips elaborated on that feeling. She said, “Clients get deported and it’s a horrible thing and if you’re in it and you care about your client, that’s something that’s obviously extraordinarily traumatic for the client but it can also be pretty awful for the lawyer… I think lawyers kind of put up this wall, you know, the case is over, they don’t have that much communication with the client because they feel like they [messed] up, and maybe they did, but more likely it’s just that the law is stacked against you for everything.”
Despite the stress and trauma that comes with the work, Phillips, Rivas, and the Al Otro Lado team on both sides of the border have found ways to stay positive in the face of adversity; mostly by remembering the differences they are able to make in peoples’ lives. Phillips added, “I don’t know why I’m so optimistic because I’ve met the devil like 5,000 times in this work, but… your law license is kind of like a weapon and you can use it to do all kinds of bad stuff, but I think you can use it to do all kinds of good stuff.”
Rivas, who has been in the shoes of many of Al Otro Lado’s clients, agreed. She said, “I do what I do because I know what it feels like. I know what it feels like to be there, I know what it feels like to look around and not have anybody behind you… I know what that feels like; it’s a horrible feeling. It’s a horrible feeling to feel lost, to be in a new place and to feel lost and to feel like there’s nobody there for you, it’s a horrible feeling. And being able to have organizations like Al Otro Lado that can provide at least, even if we can’t do anything with your case you at least know that you have somebody to talk to.”
Hannah is a recent graduate of Harvard University who wrote her thesis about the connection between the state-sponsored violence of the Guatemalan Revolution and the lack of prosecutorial and judicial success for women who are survivors of sexual violence in the country today. In the fall, she will be attending University of Wisconsin- Madison for law school where she plans to focus on immigration and criminal law. Hannah has been working with Latina Republic since October 2020 and her favorite part about writing articles is using quotes from interview subjects to emphasize their voices and experiences, telling their stories as they want them to be told and highlighting the successes of organizations and movements working to make their communities better.