A volunteer’s view from Tijuana: The long, uncertain slog to ‘the other side’

Part 1 of 2

Note from the author: This series is based on a long face-to-face interview with Sharon resident Abby Nathanson, clarifications she provided in response to emailed questions, as well as photos, statistics, and several articles Abby sent to enrich my piece. Finally, my understanding of the asylum process was augmented by news articles on Tijuana and immigration at the southern border.


The Tijuana of my memories is a sleepy border town, entertaining day-tourists like me from San Diego with colorful Mexican restaurants and quaint souvenir shops. Yet these days the San Ysidro Port of Entry connecting Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. With an average of 90,000 people passing through the crossing northbound each day, 70,000 in cars and 20,000 by foot, Tijuana has changed.

“It’s the capital of the world. It’s mind-blowing!” said Abby Nathanson, who volunteered to help migrants in Tijuana during her Christmas holiday. What Abby saw was an international city, bustling with immigrants arriving daily from Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. And she heard Farsi, French, Russian, Q’eqchi, Urdu, and of course Spanish on the street. As Abby told me, “Wherever they’re originally from, rumor among migrants has turned Tijuana into a popular place to try to get into the United States.”

After November flooding rendered the vast tent city in Tijuana’s sports arena, Benito Juarez, unsanitary, 2,000 migrants were moved to El Barratel, a former nightclub on the southern outskirts of town, 10 miles away from the U.S. Port of Entry at El Chaparrel, where migrants are processed for possible asylum. Thus, migrants have taken over abandoned buildings and created rogue tent villages nearby — one, comprised of tents pitched five deep, lies directly against the wall. 

During the year, Abby directs a leadership program for Latino high school students and a residential fellowship year for college graduates at Grace Episcopal Church in Millbrook, N.Y. Fluent in Spanish and French, Abby arrived in Tijuana, hoping to use her language skills to prepare migrants for the “credible fear” interviews that, at best, lead to their being provisionally designated a refugee, and so placed on the docket for a formal court hearing for asylum in San Diego. 

What Abby found was an array of governmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations, churches and other voluntary organizations in Tijuana, each trying to assist the migrants according to its own philosophy and strategy. After an abortive stint with a New York-based church group, which was having difficulty matching volunteers’ skills to its prioritized tasks, Abby joined an ad hoc group of gringos who were preventing the eviction of migrants, who had been given permission to use an abandoned warehouse from its owner, by placing themselves at the warehouse entrance, between the migrants and the federal Mexican police. 

Abby also joined Al Otro Lado (meaning both on, and to, the other side), a courageous legal advocacy organization that serves indigent refugees, migrants and deportees on both sides of the border. In Tijuana, Al Otro Lado occupies three stories of Enclave Caracol, a space that doubles as a food coop, vegan café, bicycle workshop and music venue. Working alongside Al Otro Lado’s legal team, Abby translated the five requirements for passing the “credible fear” interview into understandable Spanish or French for migrants from Haiti and Central America.  

A handout, or “manita” (little hand), created by Al Otro Lado shows a hand with five fingers, each with a point that must be made during the interview proving they are refugees, and argues that, “your case is in your hands.” Though their case may be partly in their hands, their hands are unfortunately tied. This is because the five points they must make are based on the definition of a refugee developed by the United Nations following Hitler’s genocide of Jews, gypsies, communists and homosexuals during World War II. Thus, the migrants must prove that they have fled ongoing violence, rather than starvation, economic destitution, or the devastation of their land; and that this violence is based on their race, religion, nationality, or other group membership, rather than caused by gangs, drug traffickers, domestic abuse, and the corrupt police and judiciary left by failed states, which is the current situation. Being forced to slot the conditions from which they are fleeing into ill-fitting niches, it is hard to imagine the migrants making the most convincing cases in their own behalf.

Part 2 continues next time.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. She is the guardian of a young Guatemalan. Abby Nathanson can be reached at abby@epicjustice.org.