Two Days at the Nogales Border

by Raquel Aldana

We parked our cars on the U.S. side of the border at an empty parking lot in the desolate, hot Sonoran desert landscape. We were a small team of four: a lawyer, a student legal intern, a community organizer, and I, a law professor from King Hall. I was there to volunteer with a small team of attorneys from Arizona which has been coming to the Nogales border for the past four years to provide legal orientations to asylum-seekers. In recent months, they have shifted the focus of their services to helping process hundreds of asylum seekers stranded in Mexico.

Our uneventful, uninterrupted, and unnoticed crossing by foot across the Mexican border made me conscious immediately of the vastly different experiences of human mobility across borders that we, as U.S. citizens, experience. I confess, however, that I subtly checked for the umpteenth time that my little blue U.S. passport was indeed in my backpack as I looked over the other side to the U.S. border I would be crossing back to later that day. As a Central American immigrant and naturalized citizen of nearly four decades, somehow that fleeing yet lingering feeling of outsider overtook me. I know it had a lot to do with my extremely personal identification with the migrants I would be meeting in the next two days. The chasm between the enormity of the circumstances that forced their displacement and the meager solutions we could offer them overwhelmed me.

The circumstances at the border have been fluid since the Biden administration took office. In theory, the border remains shut for asylum seekers based on so-called health reasons in response to the pandemic under Title 42. But now, a type of slightly less chaotic metering process was in place – one that essentially permitted migrants lucky enough to access non-profits “get in line” to be allowed to present themselves to the border to seek asylum in a process coordinated by different binational and/or international humanitarian organizations along the southern border. That was progress. When I was first trained by the Arizona non-profit’s border attorneys back in March of this year, only migrants with extreme and urgent humanitarian grounds for seeking parole, usually based on grave victimization in Mexico, could hope to enter. That process literally called for a sifting of trauma among a sea of trauma, and it felt hallow. This new process, which seemed mostly to create more filters, now in the hands of non-profits, to ensure that migrants both had a “fear of return” + a negative COVID-19 test or an active MPP case + a negative COVID-19 test before presenting themselves at the border, created some path to an otherwise shut border. Especially for those stuck in Mexico waiting for this moment, some for as long as two years, this provided renewed hope.

Hope is exactly what I encountered with at least nine of the ten migrants I met over the course of two days. Here are their brief profiles:[1] a Mexican mother of five and her husband who had made their living selling fruits and vegetables in the street until the extortionists threatened their lives and livelihood; a young Salvadorean couple and their toddler, fleeing after being forced to testify against a gang for a murder and who feared for their lives; a Honduran woman and her son running away from a gang-ridden community after the murder of a a family member; two adult siblings each running from different forms of violence: one from a much older, abusive husband to whom she had been married off as a child, forcing her to leave behind her children; the other from an extortionist gang he had been violently forced to join and who now sought to kill him for his desertion; a gay man from who had been nearly killed by three strangers who could not stand his homosexuality; and a Venezuelan refugee family who firmly resettled in Mexico but was now facing extortion from a gang who was threatening his livelihood in his new home. I felt that what I could offer them was so little: a kind ear to listen and validate their suffering, and my attempt to prepare them as much as possible for their journey if and when they made it to the other side. For some, I had to tell them they were ineligible for asylum and could only seek withholding of removal or relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Others I had to prepare for the likely possibility of mandatory detention and tried to paint a picture for them as much as possible of this reality. For all, I had to inform them how hard it is to win asylum and how desperately they would need to secure a lawyer to even have a shot at winning. The only saving grace was that all of them had family in the U.S. I urged them to tell their family to identify a lawyer in anticipation of their arrival. In speaking to each of them, I realized how much hope is altered by our circumstances. Their desperation made them either ignore or accept with resignation my account of the reality that awaited them when they crossed the border. All but one remained resolute to cross the border. I fully understood it. One of them who was barred from asylum due to prior immigration history said to me, as he held his son sleeping soundly in his arms, “maybe a miracle will happen and they will grant me asylum.” His hope eclipsed my legal explanation of his ineligibility. At that, I could only smile as I touched his shoulder and caressed his little boy’s hand and wished him well.

I have spent over two decades of my professional career as a human rights lawyer and scholar trying to address the underlying causes of forced migration. I remember a priest who once described the phenomena of forced migration as the most visible expression of failed democracies, the type we can no longer ignore because their suffering has spilled across borders. I fully grasp the response of many in the U.S. who feel we simply cannot absorb all the world’s problems by accepting all refugees, no matter how awful their stories. It is much easier to say this when you have never had to sit across the table from the migrant who most desperately seeks no more than a fourth of what you have. I do believe there is a lot we can do to help migrants stay home and live dignified lives. If you are interested, I invite you to read two of my most recent reflections on serious and complex solutions that we must take up if we are to reduce forced migration from Central America. You can find these here and here. What we cannot do is pretend that harsh immigration policies that shut down borders, detain migrants, or that make asylum standards nearly unreachable will suffice to quell the desperate hope that fuels forced migration.

One of the migrants with me during these past few days was a ten-year-old boy. He was beautiful and surprisingly happy and well-adjusted. Unlike his mom, his eyes sparkled as he mischievously hovered over me to marvel at how fast I typed and to ask me questions about living in the U.S. and being a lawyer. I told him I, too, had come to the U.S. at the age of ten. I wished so much, then, that his life could be closer to mine at his age. You see, I came with my entire family in a plane, through a church sponsored visa in 1982. I would learn later that we, too, had received death threats. But my parents, as ministers of a U.S.-based church, had access to church-sponsored visas. I, too, was a precocious, intelligent child, like that beautiful Honduran boy. I remember looking up at the “EXIT” sign as we exited U.S. immigration at the Miami airport. “Look dad,” I exclaimed proudly, “this is a great country, they are wishing us success.” You see, exito means success in Spanish. This is my desperate hope: that rather than exit we can hope for exito for these migrants' lives stuck at the border.

This post originally appeared on Immigration Prof Blog. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Raquel Aldana joined UC Davis in 2017 to serve as the inaugural Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Diversity with a law faculty appointment. She returned to full time law teaching in 2020. Aldana is a graduate of Arizona State University (earning a bachelor's degree in English and another in Spanish) and Harvard Law School. She was a professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, before joining the McGeorge School of Law faculty in 2009. From 2006 to 2007, Aldana was a Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala.


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