Asylum-Seekers Build Community While Waiting at US Border

Children play soccer inside the makeshift camp near the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, where a group of Central Americans wait for their asylum cases to be heard by the United States. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

TIJUANA, Mexico (CN) – A remote control toy car operated by a boy zig-zagged between Maria Gomez’s legs as she recalled the two-month trek from Honduras to Tijuana where she waited Thursday for her asylum case to be heard by the United States.

“In my country, something bad happened to me. They killed my brother. The same guys that killed my brother raped my daughter and then they tried to rape my other daughter. That’s the reason I ran away from my country,” Gomez said, recounting the gang violence her family had experienced.

“I don’t want to go back there.”

Gomez and her two children camped out Thursday outside the port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. She traveled with the caravan of Central Americans who came from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to seek asylum in the United States.

The caravan, which has garnered international attention and the ire of President Donald Trump, arrived in Tijuana, Mexico – the border town outside San Diego – on Sunday.

Initially, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had “reached capacity” and could not accept additional asylum-seekers or process their applications. But the agency began accepting small groups of people into the port of entry Monday night.

Throughout the week, larger groups of asylum-seekers were accepted into the port of entry, including about 60 people on Wednesday and 70 people Thursday morning.

About 70 members of the caravan remained at the plaza near the port of entry on Thursday afternoon, according to Human Rights First attorney Laura Gault.

Gault said her Washington-based group had set up a “know your rights” legal hotline and handed out the number to asylum-seekers to call once allowed into the United States. As of Thursday, the hotline had not received a single call, according to Gault. She said asylum-seekers typically don’t have access to phones until they are transferred from processing centers to detention centers.

The people who remained at the camp Thursday were mostly women and children. An arts and crafts table was set up with crayons and watercolors to keep kids entertained, while a group of teen boys kicked around a soccer ball.

Manuela Trujillo of National City, California, passes out candy to Central American children waiting for their asylum cases to be heard in the United States. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

The makeshift tent city turned into a small community for the people fleeing violence at home. Donated supplies including diapers, cases of water and top ramen were piled in a corner while volunteers passed out homemade tamales for lunch.

Attorney Mercedes Castillo, in town from Los Angeles, offered pro bono legal advice to the people still waiting to start the asylum process. She had a running list of people waiting to meet one-on-one with her Thursday afternoon.

Over a loudspeaker, a volunteer called out to the children – todos los ninos – asking them to line up for candy passed out by Manuela Trujillo of National City, California.

Trujillo, clad in a blue and white polka dot dress, told Courthouse News she wanted to “share with our brothers the blessings we have over there” in the United States.

Neighbors Betty Gutierrez and Luz Villanueva brought and served the tamales. Guiterrez, who was deported and has lived in Tijuana since 2011, said she’d been volunteering at the camp since Tuesday.

“I know what it’s like to be hungry,” Gutierrez said.

Villanueva said she wanted to help the Central Americans because “they’ve suffered a lot and they don’t have family here.”

Children and adults gather for lunch as tamales are passed out by volunteers in a makeshift camp outside the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

“They left their countries not because they wanted to but because of violence. We should have compassion because there are mothers sleeping on the floor with their babies,” Villanueva said.

For those who been allowed into the United States, long legal battles lie ahead.

Gault said attorneys and immigration advocates hope families are kept together when transferred to immigration detention centers – though a class action filed in the Southern District of California and an investigation by The New York Times have shown asylum-seeking parents and children have been separated.

Another class action in the District of Columbia challenges Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s practice of denying parole to asylum-seekers while they await their court dates. Gault said the nationwide denial rate for parole applications is 90 percent, while some jurisdictions deny 100 percent of parole applications filed by asylum-seekers.

“It wasn’t great before, but it has gotten dramatically worse in terms of denial rates. We believe it is because they [the Trump administration] are trying to deter asylum-seekers when they come to the U.S.,” Gault said.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is also doubling down on resources dedicated to litigating immigration cases.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday it hired additional prosecutors to take on immigration cases, and has assigned supervising immigration judges to hear cases in person and via teleconference.

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