“No, that’s not how this works”: An interview with Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado.

On asylum seekers trapped in Mexico and the work of a frontline legal services organization to support them; plus music recs from Alice Kao

This is the first in a three-part series on frontline legal services for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. In Part II we talk to Sofia Kaligorou, our former student who now works with detained children at The Florence Project in Arizona. Part III features Julia Valero, whom we met while volunteering at RAICES. These interviews will be rolled out over the next three months.

In December 2018, the Trump administration formalized a policy of turning back migrants who present themselves at port of entries and request asylum. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as Remain in Mexico or Quédate en México, have left over fifty thousand asylum seekers from around the world in legal limbo, subject to violence and homelessness. “No one can pass into the United States,” a director of a shelter for migrants in Mexico stated, “and so we have become the wall that Trump wants.”

How did we get here, and what can we do to help?

We reached out to Nicole Ramos, who is the Border Rights Project Director at Al Otro Lado, a frontline organization that provides services to asylum seekers and deportees. We hope you’ll read the whole interview, but we’ll highlight a few details here.

First: The practice of turning back asylum seekers began in response to a migration surge in migration from Haiti in 2016, after Brazil’s economy collapsed. Ironically, as Ramos notes, the antecedent to Remain in Mexico was created by “our first Black president to keep a bunch of Black people out.”

Second: If you’re mad about family separation at the border, you should be mad about deportation, which also separates families, and you should be mad at family detention. “If you think it’s okay to imprison an infant and their mother for months on end,” Ramos says, “then it becomes so much easier to separate those two bodies.”

Third: In some cases, pregnant migrant women at the border were taken to U.S. hospitals to give birth, and then sent back to Mexico immediately after, leaving their babies stateless—without even a birth certificate.

Nicole shared with us how she got started and what she’s seen on the other side of the border. It didn’t surprise us that Nicole was brimming with passion and integrity, but we were also disarmed by her sense of humor, humility, and adventure, and her all-around salt-of-the-earth vibe.

Due to length, we have divided this interview into two segments. Stay tuned for the rest of our conversation next week.

Albert: How did you start working with migrants, refugees, and deportees in Tijuana?

Nicole: I had been a federal public defender for six years in Alabama and loved that experience, but I didn’t feel I was ultimately going to put roots down there. I was involved with somebody who didn’t have a path to stay in the United States and decided to go back to Mexico, so I took this great adventure.

At the defender’s office, I had noticed that a lot of my clients didn’t have any information about what the U.S. immigration system looked like. None of them understood that the more times they enter the US, the more they face federal criminal time—and that those penalties would accumulate. That seemed really unfair. I thought, Well, I’ll go to Mexico, probably get a job in San Diego for some nonprofit, and volunteer and tell people in Mexico what the system looks like on the U.S. side. Mainly I was thinking of the U.S. criminal system; I wasn’t thinking about immigration.

I started volunteering at Casa del Migrante, one of these institutions that’s been around forever. Initially I just talked with people who had been deported from the U.S., telling them what the criminal penalties would look like if they went back. I had no illusions that I was convincing them not to cross, but I wanted them to know the full range of consequences, not only for them but also for their families. Some people knew that if they crossed again they would spend five years in federal prison, but still preferred that to being in Mexico or Honduras. I just wanted them to be prepared.

I don’t know how it happened, but asylum seekers who had never crossed before started to hear, “There’s this U.S. licensed attorney who’s talking to people for free.” Feeling pretty inept, I decided to study asylum law. I started reading everything I could. I joined these Facebook groups and found mentors. I tried to educate myself so I could explain to people what the U.S. asylum process would look like.

Toward the end of 2015, I started getting requests to accompany asylum seekers to the port of entry because they couldn’t get through. I had no prior experience dealing with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at all, or even very much with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Previously, I was used to a certain level of professionalism and a certain caliber of officer at the federal defender’s office; it was me on one side, and federal law enforcement and the U.S. attorney’s office on the other.

I was just shocked by what I saw at CBP. To me, it was clear that there should be a procedure: you go up to the port of entry and you tell someone, “I’m afraid to go back to my country.” Then they take you in for processing. But the clients told me, “No, that’s not how this works.”

I decided to accompany one family. I didn’t know the process exactly, but I knew there was one. I thought, I’m a trial attorney; I can fake my way through this. So I went and explained to the officer at the gate that the family was here to seek asylum. And he was incredulous. He said, “You can't do that here. You have to go to the embassy in their home country or you have to go to the consulate here.” I said that was just not possible, that that only happened in the movies. He said, “Well, who are you?”

I said I was an attorney. (I don’t dress like an attorney here; I try to dress normal because otherwise it freaks people out.) Then he said, “Are you a U.S. attorney or a Mexico attorney?” I thought this was an interesting reflection of the privilege of U.S. citizenship. If I were Mexican, would I be somehow less of an attorney, even though asylum laws are international and we were at an international border? Anyhow, I said I was a U.S.-licensed attorney and gave him my card. I’d had these business cards made two weeks before: Law Offices of Nicole Ramos.

So there he was, looking at my card and looking at me, and I figured this was my opening. I said, “I know there’s a process. There are people in that building behind you, and that’s where they go to be processed.” And he said something like, “Okay, well, you can go in.” The family went in, and they were processed. After that, I started getting a lot more calls from families and individuals. We’d walk up to the port of entry together. That began this dance with CBP for around a year.

Michelle: What did you see in 2016?

That year was the beginning of the Haitian exodus: twenty thousand Haitians coming through the border. That’s when the U.S. and the Mexican government came up with the waitlist. It was only supposed to apply to Haitians, but then it started being applied to everyone. My interactions with CBP became increasingly hostile, because they would tell the asylum seekers, “You need to go on the waitlist.” And I’d say, “The waitlist is illegal. Here’s a highlighted copy of the federal code.” I thought that was very clever. They did not.

So I’d say, “Here’s the testimony of the CBP commissioner in front of Congress about what you’re supposed to do.” Then I would stay there. I wouldn’t move. I got a dog and sometimes the dog would come with me, and I’d think, Maybe they’ll be concerned that he’s going to poop and they’ll move things along. It got kind of ridiculous. [Laughter.]

And then President Trump was elected. Al Otro Lado was still a volunteer-driven organization at the time. The co-directors, Nora and Erika, each had their own jobs; I was just another volunteer, telling them about all the things I was seeing. We had a clinic in October 2016, and that’s when we saw a lot of refugees come forward, talking about how they were turned away after presenting themselves and sent back to Mexico. It became very clear that things were going to get worse.

So we decided to put all of our eggs into this basket and really change the model of service. It wasn’t sustainable to just walk everyone up to the port of entry—there were only three of us. So Nora and Erika quit their jobs and joined me in the wonderful world of unemployment and savings and rice and beans. [Laughter.]

We decided we were going to sue the government. We had all of these stories from the people we had been working with in the preceding year who had been turned away at the port of entry. And we presented evidence that asylum claims were not being processed to different, larger nonprofits that had litigation components.  Eventually the case was picked up in July 2017, and we’ve filed eight more federal lawsuits since then.

MK: Can you say more about pre-Trump times? My sense is that critical perspectives on immigration got on the liberal centrist radar only after he was elected. Back when I worked at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland in 2010, there were so many deportations that our lawyers were fighting, and so little news coverage or understanding. What machinery already existed that enabled Trump to come along and be Trump?

NR: Remain in Mexico is new, but the metering policy [also known as turnback, queueing, or waitlisting] for asylum seekers started under Obama. I find it so fascinating that this policy was started by our first Black president to keep a bunch of Black people out. That’s just wild.

What would happen if we let in twenty thousand Haitians? Nothing! We’d have twenty thousand more people to integrate into the U.S. And when you think about Haitian migrants—I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting some—they’re highly adaptable. They know Portuguese, many of them know Spanish, they know Creole, they learn English, and some of them know French if they had formal schooling in Haiti. Why wouldn’t you want twenty thousand people like that? The inherent racism of the institution is the only reason you wouldn’t.

Family detention was the antecedent to family separation, and it exploded under Obama. Trump just took it up a notch. If you think it’s okay to imprison an infant and their mother for months on end because you don’t view their lives as worthy or important compared to yours—well, it becomes much easier to separate those two bodies that you don’t view as human.

And there’s no difference, in terms of the lifelong victim you create, between taking a child from their parent as they’re being dropped off at school and separating them at a border. It’s still permanent family separation. It’s going to create a lifetime of hurt for generations, maybe even beyond.

AW: Did you see an intensification of Remain in Mexico after COVID hit?

NR: COVID has been fascinating for the border. The CPB claims they can’t process asylum seekers because they’re coming from a territory with high rates of COVID. And at the same time, they’re allowing U.S. citizens to just go back and forth. You have all these asylum seekers who are quarantined in their shelters or doing their best to quarantine when they’re not working. They’re just waiting for their turn. And you have all these U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents going back and forth across the border—going to the beach or the wine valley, buying drugs, whatever. And then they go back and they just get in line. There’s no health inspection or anything. They’re U.S. citizens, so boom, they get back into the U.S.

Mexico isn’t going to deny U.S. citizens the right to come in, because our economies are very interdependent and we depend on U.S. dollars coming in. Mexican citizens who have tourist visas can’t cross at the land port of entry, but they can fly. So it’s really about what economic class of people you let in and what sorts of privileges they have. I have friends here who are academics: they have a visa, they just fly into LA if they want to go shopping or visit family. But a street vendor who has a tourist permit and gets their merchandise in San Diego can’t cross.

The shelters here are really struggling because they’ve always been dependent on volunteers and organizations coming down and bringing donations or cash. Some volunteers are called by religious conviction; many shelters here are supported by churches. And there’s an element of refugee tourism, especially since the massive caravans [of 2018]. But all of that is gone. A lot of shelters are having a hard time paying rent.

At the beginning we did a big fundraising push, got some grants, and did a couple of other things. First, we started an equivalent of WIC for migrant women. If you’re pregnant or have a baby six months or younger, we give you weekly nutrition boxes, a part-time social worker, and a lactation consultant. We have breastfeeding and parenting classes, where dads can come too; it’s kind of nice because there’s a chance that machismo might die with this generation.

So that’s the program we have on site. Then we got a bunch of rechargeable debit cards and put two thousand or four thousand pesos on them. You can feed a family of five for a month or six weeks with that; you can pay a month or two of rent. And we gave the cards to the families and individuals we were serving, and gave larger cards to some of the shelters so they could pay their bills. We donated money to different organizations doing more humanitarian aid, because that’s not our thing. We gave it to the people who know what to do with it. We donated to Refugee Health Alliance, which is the tent that provides medical services to immigrant populations, and to a Mexico NGO as well. We bought ventilators and set them up. And we got temperature guns and other supplies to provide outside COVID sanitization stations for the shelter. This way people can wash their hands before going in.

Of course, nobody knew how long this was going to last, and everyone was freaked out. In the beginning we decided to rent a motel to house the most medically vulnerable people Refugee Health Alliance could identify. We did that for three months. Then we contracted with this woman who has a restaurant and has been supportive of our work—she’s a deportee herself. Every Tuesday she comes to our office with a hundred tamales and rice and beans. We always serve food at our office—a lot of people are coming hungry. So we decided to contract with her, essentially to be the caterer for the motel. And we also paid her to go around once or twice a week to different pop-up spots where there were a lot of migrants.

AW: How did your legal services change?

NR: Previously, we’d have a lot of volunteers come in and it would be very chaotic. You never had enough attorneys or law students or people who spoke Spanish. It’s also hard to expect people to take a week off from work and from their families to come to Tijuana. What happened was the people would be of a certain economic class, very often older white senior citizens who mean well but don’t speak Spanish and don’t have legal skills. They want to do humanitarian aid stuff, which is great, but we needed legal volunteers too, and it was a huge struggle to meet the demand.

Since the pandemic, all of our volunteers are remote. We have a robust internship project where we take on around twenty-five interns, students between undergraduate and master’s levels. And we actually have a more diverse volunteer pool now. People are helping us from Australia, Peru, Germany, France, China, South Korea, and all over the U.S. It’s been fantastic to crowdsource the project in this way. People loved coming to Tijuana for the community before, so now we try to create that feeling every week or every other week. We have an outside speaker come in, and people can tune in and do Q&A with really cool experts and human rights defenders and internationally known artists. Anybody can pop in on Zoom. It’s been cool to be able to give that back to all of our volunteers and interns.

Everything is done through WhatsApp now; all the clients have it. That’s opened up our ability to serve people, to have more people involved in this fight. And what’s amazing is that when we go back—well, if we ever go back— to a post-pandemic world where travel isn’t so limited, we’re going to keep this remote service model. We have this great online community in addition to a great in-person community, and these can fit different needs. People can do what they want: they can come or not come, they can choose how to provide aid and express solidarity with others.

The rest of our conversation will appear in next week’s newsletter. We ask how she avoids burnout (spoiler: adopting dogs). She tells us what she thinks of Biden’s immigration team (spoiler: not much). We ask how she learned to take risks in life. And she shares advice for those who want to jump into this work.

Finally, if you have funds to spare, please donate to a migrant solidarity fund at Al Otro Lado. They directly support the most critical needs of Al Otro Lado’s clients and families.

Some news from Michelle

My friends Hannah Taieb, Kassia Aleksic, and I are starting a nonprofit called Dialogue & Transformation. Founded by Hannah, it aims to create egalitarian spaces of learning and forge connections among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, local communities, and universities. Last week we hosted an inaugural event: a conversation with formerly incarcerated people from Canada, the United States, Belgium, and France. The translation between French and English was a novel experience for many participants: “We may speak different languages, but we have similar pain,” one said.

We’re currently in the feverish early stages of planning, but be on the lookout for stories and news in the future. For my part, I’m interested in creating a transnational dialogue about justice and peace, nurturing dreams of travel, building friendships across borders, and rethinking my own American habits of mind. But I’m also excited to see how my goals will change as we get deeper into it and hear more from people. Eventually we will expand our work to other continents, growing our global consciousness with each new conversation. What happens when you connect formerly incarcerated people around the world who bring to bear distinct experiences of state violence and of individual healing, local strategies, and forms of action? I want to find out.

If you’d like to be on the emailing list or take part in future events, we’d love that! Please get in touch with us at dialoguetransformation@gmail.com.

Link of the week

Albert: I’m slowly working my way through Perry Anderson’s twenty thousand-word essay on the European Union in the London Review of Books. It’s ostensibly a review of Luuk van Middelaar’s The Passage to Europe, but in quintessential Andersonian fashion the essay ranges from the early modern to the present, from political philosophy to biography, showing us the entire history of modern Europe. Anderson also never pulls his punches, peppering the essay with withering lines like this, about van Middelaar’s first book, Politicide: The Murder of Politics in French Philosophy:

Its lurid title captured the crudity of the work, much of it warmed-over Cold War pabulum.

I had to look up pabulum. I hope nobody ever uses it to describe my work!

What we’re listening to this week:

We asked Alice Kao to kick off our “Recommendations from Friends with Impeccable Taste” series. Look out for more from Alice in the future, but here are two picks for the week:

This past week was the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. His late string quartets have felt especially profound in a year when everyone has lost some of the joys of life. Written after he survived a severe illness, there are shadows of sorrow in it, but it also tells us that there is hope. The music does not deny or forget the feeling of loss, but it also reminds us that the human heart can endure. I especially liked the new recording of this movement by the Tetzlaff Quartet, which just came out this year.

I also recommend this beautiful reimagining of Handel's Messiah, by the Toronto Symphony, as well as ensembles and singers from across Canada. It includes singers in six languages (Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone) and footage from different regions across Canada. A few of the soloists made translation or pronoun choices that add a fresh interpretation. If you need your Messiah fix to get into the holiday spirit, this is a must watch.