No photos in today’s blog, just an attempt to answer the friends who have asked me why I am in Tijuana. (Boredom alert: this post is not going to sound like a travelogue!) I’m volunteering with the non-profit legal aid organization, Al Otro Lado, which works with cross-border immigration issues — people who have been illegally deported (yes, that is a thing), deportees for whom some form of relief is available that will allow them to return home, families who are separated due to immigration issues, asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. or in ICE detention at the border. I was hoping to improve my Spanish by spending this time in Mexico, but as it turns out, people here take one look at me and start speaking English. (Sigh!)
But I am having the chance to dive a little more deeply into asylum work than I had before, and I love this. So what can I, a non-lawyer, do to help people who have fled their countries to seek safety in the nation they think is a haven of human rights? Well, let’s say you are an immigration attorney, and you have a client from the nation of Nambia. (Nambia, in case you have forgotten, was in the news quite recently, so I did not make it up.) The country is ruled by a monarch who has been in power for many years and who takes a dim view of any dissent. Your client is a member of a minority ethnic group, the Wawaba, that suffers from discrimination in education, employment, and public services. Dissatisfaction has been growing within this group, and there have been marches and demonstrations, even in the capital city of Balanga.
Your client claims to have been one of the organizers of one large demonstration that was broken up by police and members of the King’s national guard. By his account, he was held in prison for ten days, fed nothing but moldy bread, and beaten daily. After he was released he discovered that his best friend, who had also participated in the demonstration, had died in the hospital after being severely beaten. Your client discovered that the police were asking his family about him and trying to locate him; so he took all the money his family could scrape together, made his way to Mexico, and came to the U.S. border to ask for protection. Now he is in ICE detention, waiting for a judge to decide whether or not his claim meets the standards required for asylum.
So how can I help you? First of all, it happens that the lingua franca of Nambia is Icelandic, in which I am fluent; so I can interpret for you when you interview your client, and I can translate any documents you receive in Icelandic in support of his case. But what I’ve been doing this week is more like being a cross between a research assistant and a detective. I might try to contact friends or family members of your client who are still in Nambia and ask them to help me gather documents to corroborate your client’s case. These might include witness statements from anyone who saw him roughed up and arrested, a letter from a pastor or friend who saw him in prison, a death certificate for the friend, any photos that show him at the demonstration, a photo of a “Wanted” poster or a warrant to show the police are looking for him, etc.
I might also do some research on the computer to try to corroborate your client’s story. Do organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have anything to say about the Wawaba and their status in Nambia or about police brutality there? (One of the fun parts of this is that I am discovering various watchdog organizations I didn’t know about before!) What about news articles? Anything on the opposition movement in general? Or on the demonstration? Did anyone post a YouTube video of the police attacking protestors?
There’s a puzzle aspect to this, trying various key words and dates to try to find good sources. Sometimes there are lots of articles about a particular event, and it takes time to narrow them down. Other times the event in question gets overshadowed by some other news of the day, and I wind up learning more than I want to know about how a Nambian athlete won the world championship in left-handed frisbee-throwing on that very day of the demonstration in question, or how the King was preparing to pay a state visit to the land of Oz right at that time. But it is ridiculously satisfying when, after an hour or more of slogging through one useless article after another, I stumble onto something I think you, the lawyer, can use!
It is heartbreaking to realize the horrors that human beings can inflict on one another, but I am deeply grateful that so many people are committed to helping, in one way or another, to alleviate the suffering of the victims and work as best they can towards a more compassionate and just world. To be part of those efforts, and to have friends and family who are equally dedicated to making a better world, is an immense privilege.