Tijuana Part 2 | Dr. Ann Colbert
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Working in a Migrant Clinic along Border
The intake form we use has a space for an asylum number. The number assigned when people first present to the border requesting asylum. It’s not a tattoo, yet.
I went to “El Chaparral” last week to observe. New arrivals are directed thru the waiting crowd to a tent inside the gate. Like the registration table at a fundraising event. Finally their long journey has ended, the refugees may be thinking. Only to be hastily dismissed with their 4 digit number. And the wait begins.
Tuesday the last number assigned was 3611. The last number to be “called” to enter and have one’s asylum interview was 2696. You may be thinking, well that’s not too many people -only about 900 lives in limbo. But numbers are assigned only every tenth person. So that backlog represents nearly 10,000 asylum seekers. And for the last 7 days, no numbers have been called. No “Credible Fear Interviews” have been conducted. One of the legal division volunteers expressed the sentiment well, ” Jesus Christ, are they ever going to take another asylee?” A system devised by Trump to encourage refugees to voluntarily turn around and go someplace else. See this article that describes metering way better than I can. Update: on July 10th one number was called – 9 Mexicans, 1 Eritrea.
Every week day, RHA ( where I am working) holds a medical clinic at a more permanent structure for people seeking asylum and deportees, some of whom had lived in the US for years. Many who come to the clinic also attend workshops put on by the legal organization. Held in multiple languages – Spanish, English, French, Kryol, Arabic, now I see a request for a Tigrinya speaker- these workshops inform asylum seekers of what to expect. About how to prepare for their detainment in an ICE box. About their rights.
One day a man came to the clinic with complaints of blurred vision after sustaining a head injury in Cameroon. At age 53, it was simply presbyopia and a pair of reading glasses solved that problem. From him I learned about why his country was targeting the 20% Anglophile population. Another man, also from Cameroon, beaten to unconsciousness, managed to escape via the sea. A woman described her long trek thru the jungles. She sought care at the clinic because her periods had stopped. Another woman presented late in the day uncontrollably sobbing as she feared she was pregnant.
One day a man came to the clinic with complaints of blurred vision after sustaining a head injury in Cameroon. At age 53, it was simply presbyopia and a pair of reading glasses solved that problem.
The morning I went to the border area, El Chaparral, people began to congregate before 7. To hear if their asylum number might be called. A cool man named River spoons up “liquid oatmeal” every morning and serves it out of a vat. When the vat is empty he walks around talking and listening to people’s stories. Other volunteers say the area of waiting has become something of a social gathering. Standing there for two hours it kind of reminded me of the atmosphere around fanatics who wait outside a ticket booth for days. For a U.K. basketball game or a concert. Only they have coolers stocked with food and lazy boy lawn chairs. And are treated with more respect than the people waiting at the border – most of whom have fled to save someone’s life.
A friendly, rather plump deportee tells me he lived in the US for years. Then someone reported him for deportation. He thinks because he was winning too many road races. Bicycle road races. A group of transgendered individuals wait in a laughter filled section of the fence. Most have been easy targets for persecution in their home countries and continues at the border when Mexican officials often refuse to give them an asylum number. Claiming the wrong paperwork or the need for another form of ID. This happens as well with people from Cameroon and Haiti and the Congo – the undesirables. The list makers are part of Grupo Betas- a Mexican entity. They are capable of the same prejudices and biases as their northern counterparts in failing to treat asylum seekers fairly.
A lawyer from San Diego came thru the clinic today and was wearing a heavy down jacket. (Weather here in Tijuana is the perfect beach temperature – 70 degrees and no rain. I personally am not suffering in this tourist destination). He explained that while accompanying a client, there is a good chance both will be detained in “las hieleras”, the “ice box” where temps are kept at 50 degrees. Again hoping people will voluntarily desist . No cell phones, no medicines, no mattresses. Just cold concrete. I have written a few official doctor letters for refugees stating that they cannot be without their medicine while in this holding tank for days. Yesterday I went to the shelter for unaccompanied minors and wrote such a letter for a 16 year old. She couldn’t be without her medicines nor lay flat on a concrete slab. Sadly her 9 month old infant wouldn’t qualify for an exemption.
Volunteers say it is hard to pass thru Customs carelessly now after knowing the “ice boxes” are literally just below their feet.
People have lots of different ideas about immigration. No one has the complete answer. What I see is an injustice. Whether an immigrant should be allowed entry should be based on fair and equal standards. With human respect always a high priority. That is not happening. And empathy for a migrant’s plight might or might not be a first step. I have thought much about a passage one of the lawyers said while orienting us to hearing dreadful stories. Her paraphrased warning, “tears of the privileged smother the room”.