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Transcending Language Barriers to Connect With Asylum Seekers

Many asylum seekers fleeing violence say there’s no obstacle that will deter them, not even a border wall.

A migrant family walks across a bridge on January 18, 2019, in Tijuana, Mexico.

It’s a cold, rainy morning in Tijuana, blustery and raw. My car, an old Jetta diesel wagon with more than 200,000 miles on it, has been a trooper, steady and dependable, hauling asylum seekers to and fro for most of a month now.

I’m here as part of a loosely-knit collective known as Sanctuary Caravan; our mission is to provide our friends (which is how we regard those seeking asylum) with the information they need to be able to successfully navigate the labyrinthine path ultimately leading to an asylum hearing before a US immigration judge.

Since arriving in this Mexican border city of 1.6 million people, I’ve been providing transportation to our Central American brothers and sisters who have trekked here, mostly on foot, fleeing unimaginable horrors in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, to request asylum in the US.

Many of them are temporarily housed in a makeshift shelter thrown together by the Mexican authorities, occupying a cavernous warehouse-like space that once was a concert venue. The shelter, El Barretal, is situated about 14 miles from the border and it’s difficult for our friends to get back and forth.

So, I drive as many each day as I can, making as many as six round trips. So far, I’ve given rides to almost 500 friends and covered about 1,300 miles.

Our friends are among the most capable and determined people I’ve ever met, and their intention is to do this right. They understand that both US and international law grant them the legal right to seek asylum; they also understand that President Trump is determined to throw every possible obstacle in their way. (Contrary to what Trump would have us believe, the only requirement for asylum in the US is that the person seeking it be physically present in the country.)

The border fence stretching into the ocean at Playas de Tijuana.
The border fence stretching into the ocean at Playas de Tijuana.

Many of them patiently work their way through the extralegal roadblocks placed in their path, though there are more than a few who decide to hire human smugglers, known as “coyotes,” and take their chances going over or under the border fences. More than a few of them understand that the conditions from which they’re fleeing – in many cases torture and murder – were created in large part by 200 years of US hegemony and imperialism. The irony of the fact that the very country that helped create and bolster the corrupt governments they’re fleeing from is the very same country now doing its best to thwart their attempts to emigrate does not escape them.

Collectively, we’ve had hands-on experience with literally hundreds of friends; I’ve been blessed to interact closely with many dozen. I’ve driven them to meetings and appointments, shared meals with them, accompanied them, borne witness to them. I’ve seen the camps where they’re staying. I’ve played with their young children, held them as they’ve cried, exchanged hugs with them and heard their heartbreaking stories. I’ve bought them meals, given them clothing and I’ve come to love each of them.

Our friends are gentle, loving, compassionate, kind and unbelievably strong. The conditions they flee from are horrific beyond my ability to understand. Many have seen loved ones murdered, their homes burnt to the ground. Many have been told that if they don’t join a gang or pay extortionate bribes, they or members of their families will be killed. Many are leaving behind everything they know and love. Many are traveling with young children in tow. Almost all tell us they are doing this because they have no choice. Almost all say there’s not an obstacle they can imagine that will deter them, including border fences or walls.

Let me introduce you to some of these beautiful people I’ve been honored and privileged to get to know.*

Kelvin and his mom Julissa hail from Honduras. They made the difficult decision to leave all they love behind after Dominic, Kelvin’s dad and Julissa’s husband, was murdered by the police in their small town after refusing to pay extortionate bribes they couldn’t have paid if they’d wanted to. With no other options, they set out to walk from their hometown to the Mexico-US border, a trip of more than 2,500 miles.

En route they met others forced to make the same trek. Eventually, their numbers swelled into the thousands, and they found comfort and safety in the company of their peers. In Guatemala, Kelvin met Gabriela; the two fell in love and married. I met Gabriela, Kelvin and Julissa at camp El Barretal.

The street in front of the El Barretal camp, with the faces of the three asylum seekers obscured to protect their safety.
The street in front of the El Barretal camp, with the faces of the three asylum seekers obscured to protect their safety.

On the morning of January 8, 2019, I drove to El Barretal looking for the trio to give them a ride into town for meetings. I found Gabriella and Kelvin, but learned that Julissa has vanished after accepting an offer of work from a man who drove up to the camp, and drove off with him. Gabriella and Kelvin feared that Julissa had been kidnapped, and were visibly quite shaken and upset. Later that day, I learned that Julissa escaped her captors and was able to find her way back to the camp, a miracle. Seems the man who offered her work was actually a “coyote” who told her, “You work for me now, and you can’t leave.” But he was a clumsy would-be kidnapper, and she was able to walk out when no one was looking.

The next day, I am again tasked with providing transportation for my three new friends. They’ve been at the Sanctuary Caravan office most of the day, being prepped for their credible fear interviews, a crucial and formidable hurdle all asylum seekers must overcome if they’re to be granted asylum in the US. When I showed up to offer them a ride, they all beamed and we greeted one another with hugs, handshakes, high-fives and fist-bumps – part of the universal language we share in lieu of an actual spoken one.

Kelvin, sitting beside me in the front seat, made clear through painstaking pantomimes, that he’d enjoy using his phone to play us some music through my car’s sound system. As we set out, he searched through his music library and eventually settled on a mélange of upbeat and cheery reggae, and turned the volume up loud. We all smiled happily and began to bop to the beat.

Soon the song Kelvin chooses is Bob Marley’s “One Love.” With a big, sweet smile on his young and hopeful face, my friend began to sing along. I joined him, and soon, so did the friends sitting in back. It was a precious moment, a tiny opening in the pulse of the universe, a sharing that goes beyond words or language or culture and sends shivers up my spine. We all sung together:

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right.

There is no misunderstanding the love we feel for each other when I dropped them at El Barretal that evening.

The next morning is their last in Tijuana: the big day when Kelvin, Gabriella and Julissa present themselves to the Mexican officials at El Chaparral port of entry, to be loaded into vans and driven to the border, where they’ll have the opportunity to finally formally request US asylum. We’ve worked to prepare them for this moment, helping them practice the way they’ll share their harrowing and horrifying stories during their credible fear interviews.

That morning, they arrived at the port via a shuttle we provided, and I and several of my cohorts met them there. We stood with them through the process to bear witness, to be present, to say goodbye and the occasion was hugely emotional for all of us. We laughed together and cried, holding one another tight, promising that we will all reconnect again on the other side while realizing that it’s quite likely we will never have that opportunity, because odds are that even if they pass their interviews, it’s more likely than not that they’ll be denied asylum when they ultimately appear in front of one of approximately 330 immigration judges who preside over the 58 immigration courts scattered throughout the US. We waved as they were led away to the other side of the wall and loaded into the van. I tried to burn the image of their sweet, strong faces into my memory so that I’ll never forget them.

I came to Tijuana with the egoistic thought that I could help our Central American brothers and sisters as they seek asylum in the US, and what I’ve discovered is that they, by their very humanity, contribute far more to my life than I ever could to theirs. I’ve learned from their courageous, fierce and compassionate example how to be more loving and kind myself. I’ve seen how these people who have virtually nothing are nevertheless more generous than those of us who have everything. I’ve seen how they carry themselves with deep-seated dignity – and how they regard and treat others, everyone, with respect.

I’ve come to be deeply ashamed of my country as it either ignores or attacks those in need seeking our help. These asylum seekers the US is frantically trying to shut out aren’t our enemies. They aren’t, in any significant respect, different from us. Like us, they love their families. Like us, they need shelter and food and clothing, meaningful work and opportunities to contribute. Like us, they need to give and receive love. Like us, they need community and a sense of belonging. They know better than we do that there is no “other,” and there is no “them.” That there is only us, and that we are all one:

One love. One heart.

*I’ve used pseudonyms in place of our friends’ real names, because government entities and gangs are known to peruse media to glean information about their victims’ whereabouts.

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