Crossing the Tijuana/San Diego border: The metropolitan crossing between Tijuana and the San Diego port of entry is the busiest land-border crossing in the world. More than fifty million people cross the border between the neighboring cities every year, an average of 300,000 each day. Entering Tijuana from San Diego is accomplished with the wave of a hand from a Mexican border guard. During a three-day visit to Tijuana in March 2019 I learned that exiting, for many, is a different story.


The walls: The 15-mile border that Tijuana and San Diego share has two parallel walls. The Mexican “wall” is very old, made of rectangular steel bars six inches wide, three inches deep, and 10 feet high, with four inches of space between. The rusted steel is a brownish-red color and looks pretty against any background: grass, beach, houses, sky, rocks. Tijuana has dozens of hills. The wall meanders up hills and down gullies, creating many graceful contours. The western end of the wall lunges dramatically out into the Pacific Ocean. North of the Mexican wall and about 10 feet away is the U.S. wall, made of shiny silver metal about eight feet high with 24-inch-diameter coils of barbed wire at the top.


Immigrants seeking asylum: On the second day of my visit, a sunny Thursday morning, I arrived early at the Tijuana border crossing used by asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are people who flee their home country because their lives are imperiled and apply for the right to international protection in another country. That morning there were 250 asylum seekers milling in a shaded area, called the Chaparral, near the narrow entry-way used by foot passengers to cross to the U.S. Some asylum seekers came to the crossing for the first time and got their “numbers.” Returnees waited expectantly, hoping their numbers would be called. Most were mothers and children and single men, with a few mother/father/child groups. About one in five, most of the single men, were of African descent.



Not a warm welcome: In the Chaparral I linked up with people from a group called Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), made up of volunteer lawyers and law students from the U.S. who advise asylum seekers. Among the sobering facts is how asylum seekers spend their first days (this past year averaging 10 to 14) in the U.S. prior to their Credible Fear Interview. Adults and children are separated and held in refrigerated concrete cells underground that are kept at 48 degrees at all times. People are allowed to wear a single layer of clothing and are given a single Mylar sheet and a thin cotton pad. My heart sank. Now I understood why the mother standing beside me on a bright sunny morning, holding an infant, had swaddled her in a thick fleece jacket with a hood.


Asylum-seeking, a difficult decision: By law, people have the legal right to go to a border guard and announce that they are seeking asylum. According to the International Court of Justice, it is legal for them to be detained in humane conditions on the U.S. side of the border until they have their Credible Fear Interview. The CFI is where the asylum seeker tells a magistrate about the threats s/he would face if returned home. If the lawyer who conducts the interview believes the asylum seeker has a case, a court date is set. Al Otro Lado hosts CFI training workshops and documents human rights violations committed against asylum seekers at the port of entry and inside immigration detention. It is a big deal for a person wanting to gain entry in the U.S. to decide whether to seek asylum. If they don’t pass the Credible Fear Interview, they will most likely be deported to their home country. It is sometimes advisable for them to stay in Mexico to build a new life.


Calling the numbers: Rose, an AOL volunteer from Oakland, CA, told us the border security officials are dodgy about when they will call numbers and how many they will call on a given day. Last week, for example, two irregularities occurred. One day they called numbers at 6 am, an hour before the usual call. Another day they called 100 numbers instead of the usual four or five (10 people have one number, so if they call five numbers, then 50 people go through). Families typically stay in shelters four to five miles from the border. If either the timing or the number of people called is unpredictable, they feel compelled to get their children up hours before daybreak to arrive before 6 am in case that day they will call 100 or call early. Each family weighs these considerations against the need to minimize their exposure in public. Husbands and other family members and gang members pursue the asylum seekers, so the shelter addresses are kept confidential. Currently, the average time from getting a number to having the number called is four months.


The number system is illegal according to U. S. and international law. An asylee has a right to present her/himself to the border security. The giving out of numbers and the months of waiting is not legal. So U.S. or Mexican border agents don’t give out the numbers. The people who sit each day at the border, assigning numbers to new arrivals and giving lists of numbers and names to border authorities, are asylum seekers themselves.

People awaiting asylum: I wanted to take photographs of the people waiting for asylum at the border. But, because the asylum-seekers are being pursued, and because being exposed can put them in harms’ way, the need for anonymity is paramount. That said, three families left indelible images: A 4-foot, 8-inch mother who was as wide as she was tall and her 4-foot, 3 inch 9-year-old daughter, both wearing smiles from ear to ear and walking quickly with elation through the crowd. The sober young mother with a calm demeanor holding her infant clad in the thick fuzzy pink jacket with a fuzzy pink hood joined by a father with a suitcase. A tall scowling, agitated mother standing with her back to the large colorful EXIT sculpture, keeping tabs on four lively children ages 2 to 7.


Al Otro Lado: By 9 am, the two volunteer lawyers and Rose, the AOL Chaparral coordinator for the day, were finished with their work. The lawyers speak daily with each of the migrants at the border. With those getting their numbers and waiting, they talk about the services AOL can provide and why it is advisable to get legal assistance prior to crossing. When numbers are called, an AOL lawyer accompanies the migrant the final few feet to the security police and reminds them of their rights and responsibilities. I asked if I could walk with the threesome back to their office. We made our way over bridges, through courtyards, and down sidewalks to the other side of town. One of the lawyers was from Madison, WI; her daughter attended preschool at the UW Wijsman Center where my 20-month-old granddaughter is currently enrolled. “Is she in the Sunshine room?” the lawyer asked with a big smile, remembering years back.


At the office, there is a single door – unmarked – and no windows. Inside it is cheery. A dining room and play area for children are downstairs. Upstairs are meeting rooms where know-your-rights trainings and one-to-one legal counsel are conducted. One of the functions AOL performs is to make an electronic file with copies of each asylum seeker’s paper records – birth certificates, driver’s licenses, health records, educational certificates, articles from newspapers about murders in their villages that will serve as evidence for their Credible Fear Interview. These documents are all taken from the migrant by the border authorities before detention. Sometimes they are lost. AOL keeps the records electronically in case that happens.

I will return to the border early the next morning, attend the 9 am AOL volunteer training, and see if I can sweep floors or file papers for the day. I will walk across the border in the evening and catch the trolley to San Diego. The trolley stops less than a block from my son-in-law’s parents’ condo, where I have been invited to stay before flying home to Seattle.

Controversial and Not Controversial: How many immigrants and asylum seekers a given country should welcome in a year; whether priority should be given to family members of current residents or to skilled workers, people with a college degree, or to people fleeing persecution or famine; whether people who have lived in a country illegally for a long time should be granted citizenship – these are important, debatable questions. What isn’t controversial are human rights. Children/babies should not be separated from their parents. Human adults and children should not be made to live at inhumane temperatures. Workers producing within an economy should have safe working environments and receive fair compensation.


Arriving for training: My day at Al Otro Lado began with a walk on a sunny morning, over the river on the walking bridge and through neighborhoods on the other side. By the time the door opened, we were 11 strong, including several law students from as far away as upstate New York, a social studies teacher, a teacher’s aide, an undergraduate, an immigration rights lawyer, and a retired employment lawyer from Seattle. Three Americans who were born in Central/South America were native Spanish speakers; most of the others were fluent Spanish-speakers. Early in our orientation we were introduced to the AOL motto: Everyone cleans toilets, and no volunteer is shown deference on account of their education or status.


During orientation, our understanding of the plight of the people hoping to get asylum deepened. Within the past month, the U.S. had instituted a “migrant protection protocol” (MPP) whereby asylees are returned to Mexico after their Credible Danger Interview. They wait for four to six weeks before their court date back in the U.S. Now asylees are not able to get the legal assistance and secure legal representation in court that they would be getting were they detained in the U.S. or released to U.S. sponsors while awaiting their hearings.

The most vulnerable: Unsuspecting migrants, fleeing persecution and atrocities, find that the shelters where they are staying are run by sex traffickers, drug cartels, gangs. Among them are the most vulnerable – pregnant women, people who speak indigenous languages, unaccompanied minors. Since families are routinely separated once they cross the border, AOL encourages parents to write their names in block letters in indelible ink on their children’s arms.


One AOL staff person has taken up the cause of unaccompanied minors. He walks with them to the border to confront first the Grupo Beta, the Mexican immigration officers, and then ICE, the U.S. border patrol. Yesterday, with three frightened children in tow, it took him 10 hours of standing his ground, through shouting and insults and bogus accusations that he was a child trafficker trying to bring the children to harm, until they made it through the crossing. AOL has disconnected its incoming telephone lines because of daily death threats coming from organized crime, from Mexican nationalists, from White nationalists in the U.S.

The asylum-seekers’ day at AOL: One-on-one legal consultations are offered from 1 until 5 pm, in a large light-filled room set with tables, chairs, a lunch area, a children’s play area, and a bathroom. The afternoon is well scripted, with a series of activities that everyone participates in. The centerpiece is an intake interview that can take an hour or two to complete. We were all trained to administer the Asylum Workshop Intake questionnaire. The front side of the questionnaire asks demographic information: names and relationships of family members travelling together. When did you last live in your home country? Do you have a sponsor in the U.S.? Do you have a number on the Chaparral list? On the reverse side of the questionnaire volunteer lawyers ask the five questions that contribute to a determination of credible fear: What happened to you in your own country? Who harmed you? Why? Did you report what happened to the police? Did you attempt to relocate within your own country?


While there are no trained mental health providers on staff, the organization has had helpful consultation from social workers. There is a high likelihood that people will be re-traumatized when they retell their stories of horror. There is a high likelihood that stories will elicit jarring emotional responses from interviewers. We were told we should start the interview by giving the client an overview: “Our intake interview has two parts. I will ask questions and write down your answers on this piece of paper. On the front are just everyday questions about your name and the names of your family members, where you are coming from, and who you are traveling with…factual information. Halfway down the back of the page, I will ask you five questions that we use to prepare you for your CFI. This part asks about the experiences you’ve had that made you leave your country. We don’t want you to experience trauma when I ask you those questions, so you can just tell me basic facts; we won’t ask you about all the details.”

We are assigned to our jobs. Lawyers and other fluent Spanish speakers will conduct intakes. My Spanish is at the proficiency level of a five-year-old with a mild learning disability, so I am well-suited to work with babies and toddlers in the children’s area. At the end of our training, our leader’s voice drops. “Today you will learn about the resilience and tenacity of people who have met with horrific experiences. Our country is about to put them through a terrible process. Being here in our space is a time apart for them.” Hallowed ground.

An AOL client’s day: Excused for a 10-minute snack time, I ate a banana and peanuts, drank a bottle of water, and peered over the wall on the roof deck on the fourth floor of the building. Below was a long line of immigrants waiting for the doors to open. By 12:40 the new volunteers assumed their positions alongside volunteers who had been with AOL for days or months.


Immigrants are greeted by an AOL volunteer who asks where they come from and what language they speak. A young man who has been with AOL for five months and speaks 10 languages told us that when an immigrant relates the country s/he is from, he pauses, puts his hand over his heart, takes a deep breath, smiles and exclaims, “Ahhh…Brazil… que bem!” This recognition draws a twinkle of an eye and a smile.

The first stop is to get registered into the AOL electronic database. Second is to receive a nutritious lunch, today lots of fresh fruit, wheat bread, peanut butter, marmalade, and filtered water. After lunch, parents bring children to the play area, then each adult sits at a table to meet with an intake counselor. Most interviews are conducted in Spanish, but if French, Russian, Portuguese, Haitian Pidgeon-Creole, or English is needed, two long-term volunteers are proficient in five and 10 languages.

Afternoon in the children’s area: As a parent brings her child forward, my children’s-area partner and I write the child’s name, age, and parent name on a registry and then write the child’s first name on a piece of masking tape and pat it onto the child’s back. We have nine children in our care: one toddler of 18 months who loves carrying a balloon and throwing it up in the air, a two-year-old who is very contented making pressed faces and butterflies with blue play dough and very responsive to the occasional query, “Cuántas mariposas tiene?” at which prompt she smiles, points, and counts aloud in a sing-song voice, “Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco ….” An introverted six-year-old tentatively executes a successful tower of big Legos and progresses to a coloring project involving the protagonist from Frozen, and a 35-piece puzzle of beautifully colored butterflies. The last warrants a fist bump. A lively girl who can’t settle and likes to be engaged with adults drifts from unsatisfying drawing projects, to a semi-satisfying puzzle, to taking lunch orders and making tea and delicious foods, using a basket full of plastic food objects to feed me while I use small objects for money. It’s easy and fun to play her game, while working on the butterfly puzzle with my six-year-old friend, and holding the little one with his balloon! The two oldest children are brothers, adorable gangly, snaggle-toothed, eight- and 11-year-olds with thick disheveled hair, ready smiles, and simple wants. One discovers a wooden toy with little slides that a ball would traverse going back and forth from top to bottom. That brings an hour of delight. I assume the boy is simple-minded until he pulls a 50-piece puzzle off the toy shelf and, without an image, puts together every piece. For hour number three he and his brother play with hand puppets. That is great fun because I can hold the baby, do the puzzle, eat the delicious plastic food and share the food with the puppet characters, an old grandpa with a sombrero and a fuzzy gatito negro. The last to join us is a six-year-old girl. She draws colorful pictures of herself, her mama, and her papa, and quietly shuttles the drawings over to them during their interviews. She loves the books with words in Spanish and English, “gato…cat” “pato…duck” “helado de chocolate…chocolate ice cream.” She repeats the English words with great enthusiasm, as I pronounce them slowly. About mid-afternoon Señorita Joy discovers remnants of a doctor kit and decides to put up a shingle and practice medicine. I sustain burns from a plastic hair pressing iron, and she comes with a tea pot and relieves the burn. Then come medicines, orejas (ears) examinations, shots. Her parents are the last to complete their interviews, and she’s the last to leave the children’s area.



As other clients depart, one by one the law students, the schoolteacher, and the legal rights attorney head like magnets to the children’s area, in dire need of medical attention. I start to sweep the floor, disinfect toys, and wipe down tables. At one point three full grown adults are lying on the floor, feigning illness, attended by Señorita Joy. When both parents are finished with their interviews, they come to get her. Mama smiles and thanks us for taking care of her daughter. She reminds Srta Joy to put away the medical equipment and return the bag to the playroom shelf. The hardest part of the day is shaking each child’s hand and saying “Adios,” then trying not to think about the refrigerated concrete storage area three levels below ground where the children will soon reside, separated from their parents.

Debrief: The AOL day begins with 10am Morning Meeting and ends with the 5pm Afternoon Debrief. Staff and volunteers attend both. The morning meeting starts with guided imagery and breathing. The afternoon debrief is when people are encouraged to express feelings they’ve managed to keep at bay. The meeting facilitator heists a plastic elephant from the children’s area. She passes the elephant from hand to hand, and whoever holds the elephant is invited to express a hardship from their day – something that brought sorrow, fear, rage. Respectful finger-clicks denote appreciation for the speaker’s openness and pain. “A Groupo Beta officer yelled at a mother who had a question.” “A man who said he had shelter for a lesbian asylum seeker turned out to be a creep and yelled after me to come home with him. I felt horrible that I almost recommended that the asylum seeker go with him.” “It was really hard when the children left, and I couldn’t help but see them alone in an icy room.” The elephant goes around the circle a second time, and people are invited to express a joy from the day. Of the 24 people gathered, probably 10 speak, five about receiving treatment by Doctora Joy. “I liked it best when she tried her cures on the puppets.” Laughter and, again, respectful finger clicks.


The next ritual is that anyone who is leaving AOL that day to return home or continue on their journey is invited to contribute a longer reflection. Two of the lawyers are leaving. One woman talked about the learning curve and struggling to relinquish the sense of personal inadequacy to do a hard and unfamiliar task. She says that at AOL she had learned to accept and relish the help and support others provided. The other woman explodes in anger, responding to our experiences with our beloved Doctora. She had been the father’s legal interviewer and heard the family’s saga. She had learned about the successful small tortilla business the couple had established in their home city, about the dreadful suffering the mother, daughter, and father had endured at the hands of bad people in their neighborhood, about their attempt to wade across the Rio Grande River as a threesome, of their apprehension and arrest by ICE, at their return into the hands of the Mexican authorities, of their arrival in Tijuana, fearful of being found out, hopeful of getting across. At the top of her voice, she shouted, “Why should these good people suffer like this? We need a tortilla business in my neighborhood. Their daughter is bound to become a brilliant teacher or lawyer or health care provider.” In our collective mind’s eye we saw a determined family in the river, La Doctora holding tight to her father’s back. Eyes teared, hearts mourned. Again I visualized the spectre of the ice room.

The next to last ritual is reporting the data: at Chaparral today 28 crossed, 19 from the list. That meant that nine bribed the authorities. There are 26,000 people who have been given a number since the illegal practice began in November 2018; 22,000 have crossed. There are 4,120 migrants in Tijuana whose names are on the list who have not yet crossed. At AOL today there were people from eight countries, three countries in Central and South America, five countries in Africa.

In the last ritual, we set aside the finger clicks and give a standing ovation for the volunteers who are leaving this day. Then announcements. My new friend, the lawyer from Seattle, is going to take the big bag of Legos to her hotel room and give them a bath. “In vinegar, not soap,” opines a lawyer from Connecticut who had worked in a women’s shelter and knows it to be a better disinfectant. “I am walking to the East Border Crossing to walk across this evening to return to San Diego on the trolley. If anyone is walking to the border crossing, I’d be happy for a partner.” The young man who speaks 10 languages has the last word. “Remember to do something physical tonight. You have a lot stirred up inside. Go for a walk, sing, dance, do yoga. Drink lots of water, take your vitamin C! Right now I’m famished. I’m going to get dinner. Anyone want to come along?”

The Connecticut lawyer is headed in my direction. I follow the signs, flash the outside of my American passport to the Grupo Beta official, breeze by the U.S. agent. Maybe it was the sign “I’m not seeking asylum” emblazoned in red on my T-shirt?

End of day: I climb into a comfy bed with clean sheets and warm blankets and lots of pillows. I turn on the bedside light and am overcome with a strong urge to drink alcohol. Instead I take a few deep breaths and think of the AOL volunteer who encouraged us to dance, to walk, to sing. I sing, “My life goes on…in endless song…amidst earth’s lamentations. I hear the real, though far off, hymn that hails the new creation (neighborliness). No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is Queen o’er all the earth, how can I keep from singing?” The urge abates.



Ann Vander Stoep is a university professor who teaches and mentors graduate students and conducts child and adolescent mental health research in the University of Washington Departments of Psychiatry, Epidemiology and Global Health. A native of Chehalis, Washington, she has lived in Seattle for 39 years and has six grandchildren.

10 thoughts on “Neighbors

  1. I found I had stopped breathing several times as your words formed pictures in my mind. I had no knowledge of this. As a retired nurse, I was touched by little Joy. In my mind, she looks like me. I cured all my patients when I was six… except for my brother after he was hit by a car. When I was 19, we walked across into Tijuana for a few awful hours. Walking backing I was separated from my family by the Mexican guards, put into a small “booth?” They questioned me in Spanish mostly, which I didn’t understand, for what felt like forever. It scared me, but nothing like the realities you wrote of. Thank you for reliving your experience through your writing.

  2. Thank you for this painful and truthful reporting. I live close to the border and am disabled, or I would be with you. My parents were refugees. Those who could not get papers were murdered by the Nazis. Anything that can be done for these people is a miracle and a blessing on those who give and those who receive. I am frequently in despair over what my country is doing. Activism doesn’t dissipate these feelings, I find, but I do what I can. I weep.

  3. Great piece, Ann. Thank you for restoring hope that some American values are still alive. Your writing is clear, well organized and filled with a human glow. Keep on!

  4. So hard to read and feel the fear and horrible circumstances we have imposed on these good people through collaboration with Mexico and illegal procedures. I am disgusted and wish I spoke Spanish so I could volunteer!

  5. Your reporting made me understand the process, the hardships, which families are willing to accept and endure.

    Thank you for volunteering and the good you were able to do. I hope Senorita Joy has a good life, and the opportunity to come to our land of immigrants—perhaps become a doctor or nurse.


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