“Who am I to say I can’t get out of bed?”: On Asylum Seekers in Mexico

Part deux of our interview with Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado, plus links for the week and what's coming next

Hello, everyone!

Here’s the second part of our conversation with Nicole Ramos, Border Rights Project Director at Al Otro Lado, a frontline organization that provides services to asylum seekers and deportees. You can find part I here. In this installment, we ask how she avoids burnout (spoiler: adopting dogs) and she tells us what she thinks of Biden’s immigration team (spoiler: not much). We also ask how she learned to take risks in life, and she shares advice for those who want to jump into this work.

Albert: Have you seen the demographics change among the people showing up at the shelters, in terms of country of origin?

Nicole: Well, the shelters are always the shelters. It’s always going to be Mexico or triangle countries, and maybe Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua. And then you have extracontinental asylum seekers who don’t really go to the shelters because linguistically they’re outside Spanish-speaking borders; they tend to rent apartments or rooms. There’s a couple of streets in the center of the city where they start off before branching out to other parts of the city. There’s also a little section of the city called Little Haiti, which sprung up in 2016 and had the largest population of Haitian asylum seekers. Russian asylum seekers tend to rent hotels and motels in the city center near the port of entry.

But during the pandemic we have noticed less diversity in the people coming through. Many of the asylum seekers can pass for Mexican. We’re not seeing as many Black, Middle Eastern, or Russian asylum seekers. The Black asylum seekers we see at the border have been cornered into getting residency or refugee status in southern Mexico. They’re able to travel freely in Mexico, but their intention is to go to the U.S.

Michelle: You’ve been working with pregnant women who cross the border and spoken about their children being stateless. Could you talk a bit about that?

NR: If you’re pregnant and in Mexico, it’s going to be hard to get to the public hospital. Because of the pandemic, hospitals here are really full. We’ve been working with pregnant women who entered without inspection, or who presented at a port of entry in distress, obviously in labor. They get apprehended and then transported to the nearest U.S. hospital. They have their baby. They think they’re going to go to their families after that, and then CBP will show up as soon as they’re medically cleared to travel—usually a day, maybe two—and bring them back to Mexico. We’ve seen them turn back Mexican moms, but also Central American and Haitian moms.

This is before the moms have the opportunity to get an official birth certificate or Social Security card, so their babies are essentially stateless. They have hospital paperwork, but you can’t register for government benefits or vaccinations or anything like that in a hospital. You need a birth certificate at minimum in this world.

With other NGOs along the Texas border, we’ve helped some women secure birth certificates. But if you’re a woman who doesn’t have the good fortune to run into an NGO, how are you going to do it? How are you ever going to register your baby anywhere unless you bribe someone? What we’re seeing is not only the attempt to keep out asylum seekers, but an erosion of and disregard for birthright citizenship—and the creation of stateless children.

The right wing cares about babies, especially the babies of U.S. citizens. But one has to wonder if they care only about white babies, not brown babies, not babies born to non-citizens.

AW: You’ve been critical of the Biden administration for hiring Cecilia Munoz, who played a big part in setting up the Obama deportations.

NR: It seems like Biden is appointing people who were part of the Obama administration, which wasn’t good for immigrants, especially asylum seekers and immigrants with family ties to the U.S. They’re telling us they’re not ready for dramatic change, that they want to go back to the status quo. And they’re not necessarily willing to say I was wrong. Cecilia Munoz hasn’t said, “What I did caused harm to hundreds of thousands of people and I want to atone for that and figure out how to correct it.” We’re just supposed to blindly trust that this time they have the interest of those people at heart? That doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t you put in people who’ve been on the ground dealing with these policies? Why wouldn’t you pick lawyers who are challenging policies that are recognized as human rights violations?

AW: Munoz has said, basically, that it’s the job of the executive branch to enforce the law and the job of the Congress to make the laws. She’s said people should have been harder on Congress, not on Obama and her in the executive branch. I don’t agree with her, but I was wondering how you would respond to that argument?

NR: I would say you have a moral duty to disobey unjust laws. That’s been said by Martin Luther King. It’s been said by Saint Oscar Romero, who we killed with our tax dollars. Just because it’s the law doesn’t mean it’s correct. It was the law to send Jews to concentration camps. Of course she would make that argument, because it gives her an out for the complete devastation she and other people wreaked on hundreds of thousands of families.

A lot of the people coming into the U.S. are victims of our own foreign policy, and we have an extra moral obligation to welcome them and figure out how to integrate them. And we could stop all of this migration if we actually engaged in serious policy discussions and took actions that weren’t harmful to Latin America.

MK: When we volunteered at RAICES, what shocked us was how much discretionary power officials have at every single level. It seemed like a random ICE officer could decide to let someone go on humanitarian parole, or reverse another officer’s decision.

As for Munoz, why can’t she admit that Obama made a mistake? He grossly miscalculated. He thought if he appeared reasonable to Republicans about deportations, they would back him with DACA.

NR: There’s a difference between reformists who want a better system and abolitionists who say the system on its face is unjust—and that we should never incarcerate people for seeking a better life.

MK: How do you balance putting out day-to-day fires with the broader goal of abolition or systemic change? Or do you see them as symbiotic?

NR: I see the day-to-day work in two parts. Part one is community education. We talk about how your case will flow through the system and how state actors may violate your rights; that way, you have the information to determine whether it’s a system you want to enter. If you do, you’re entering it informed. This creates trust with the community, giving them something of value in terms of information. And in exchange for that trust, they’ll often share experiences where their rights have been violated. We start to collect those different data points and see trends in violations, which then enables us to bring impact litigation.

That litigation is part two. We bring to bear our clients’ experiences, which they share with us because they trust us. We share stories of individuals who have been turned away when they ask for asylum, and we present this evidence to different larger nonprofits whose organizations have litigation components. Now we’re represented now by CCR and SPLC. Our first case was in July 2017; we’ve filed eight more federal lawsuits since then. Our attitude is “This is bullshit, let’s sue the government.”

So that’s how I envision the relationship. It’s a circle. One propels the other. Yes, we want to talk about abolition. We need to bring forward a platform that shows how the system is violent. But it’s hard to have a discussion about abolition in a theoretical vacuum, without talking about the really horrible things that happen to people when they’re incarcerated.

AW: We have a lot of students who are idealistic and energetic. Last summer, as part of our program at AUP, we took some of them to volunteer with RAICES and prepare detained asylum seekers for interviews. What advice would you would you give these students? What might prepare them for work in immigration advocacy or similar fields?

NR: We’re never going to have enough capacity to represent all the individuals, and so if we want more justice we have to create something completely different from what we have right now.

When you get into those direct service jobs, that’s all that you focus on—direct service. Whether you’re doing it as a nonprofit or as a private attorney, you start to fall into the space where everything feels really heavy, hard, impossible, oppressive—where it feels like it will never get better. I think thinking about advocacy outside of the individual asylum case helps you not go insane.

What’s invigorating, what helps for longevity, is to try to think about ways the system or the structure itself can be challenged. There are lots of ways to do that outside direct representation of one person. I teach our interns and students how to use FOIA. Anybody can use it. When the government inevitably refuses to respond within the requisite time period, you can sue to get more information. And this information is powerful. There’s a chapter in Jacob Soboroff’s book, Separated, that I assign to my students because it talks about the Department of Homeland Security meeting where the family separation policy was decided. DHS was presented with three different options, and family separation was the nuclear option. They were like, “Let’s go with that one.” Other people said, “That’s the nuclear option. It’s highly illegal.” And they were like, “Yeah, that's the one we want.”

So we talk about how to use Office of Inspector General complaints, how to use multimedia pieces from YouTube or Instagram, and different sorts of advocacy strategies to bring attention. How to work effectively with congressional advocates and your representative’s office, who are charged with dealing with your particular issue, and how to weave that in with interviewing and human rights reporting. That way the issues being raised to a more public level are the ones the community being impacted has determined must be most immediately resolved.

Another thing: we’ve been doing advocacy before the special rapporteur system of the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. (Not that they do anything or the U.S. listens. I mean, they do things and other countries listen, but the U.S. is like, “Whatever, we don’t care.”) But the more there are those kinds of public hearings against the U.S., or the more the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders sends up communication to the president about why the hell we’re on a watch list, those become advocacy tools that you can use with the media, Congress, Senators, and be like, “Look, we’re the laughing stock of the United Nations.”

I think doing that sort of campaign- or issue-based advocacy can really help crystallize what some of the issues are with the asylum system. And it keeps you feeling like you’re fighting not just for an individual, but for something a little bit broader and more systemic.

Richard Lou’s 1988 exhibit installed a wooden door on the border between Mexico & the US in Otay Mesa. (It lasted two days before it was torn down by Border Patrol.) Lou, who identifies as Chicano, is the son of a Mexican mother and Chinese father. He was born and raised around these parts. Photo credit: James Elliott.

MK: A personal question: it seems like you keep taking risks in your life. You walked away from a federal public defender job and moved to Tijuana; you started this nonprofit from nothing. Where do you think this sense of risk comes from? Did you have it in your twenties, your teens? Does it come from your parents?

NR: It definitely doesn’t come from my mom. My mom is a big scaredy cat. [Laughter.] I didn’t know my biological father very well because he passed away when I was very young—but I’m told he was a great risk taker and world traveler. He didn’t marry until his forties, and he didn’t have me until he was fifty-two. And so that’s where I’m told I get that sense of adventure.

In law school everyone is thinking, I have to get a job. The first semester of my third year, while everyone was like, “I need to know where I’m going to be working—a firm, a nonprofit, a fellowship, a clerkship,” I was just like, “I do not want to participate in this. This feels really emotionally hostile and it’s making me feel really inferior and inadequate.”

I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I didn’t grow up speaking it. My mom is from Puerto Rico and doesn’t speak it; my dad spoke it but he passed away. I told myself it was important to learn Spanish if I wanted to work with more diverse groups of people. I worked on my savings and tried to pay off the rest of my student loans. After I took the bar exam, I went to Argentina and lived in Buenos Aires for eight or nine months. Everyone else was like starting their life, and I very consciously was like, “I’m not going to do that. I just need to think. I need to decompress.” I knew that whatever I chose to do afterward was going to be soul-crushing, so I took the time to think.

I had two job offers from federal defenders, Alabama and Idaho. I chose Alabama because they execute more people than any other state per capita, even Texas. (Texas has a larger death row, but also a much larger population.) I soaked up that experience. But when I got to my sixth year, I started to feel claustrophobic. A few years prior Alabama had passed one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of state legislation in the country, criminalizing many interactions with undocumented immigrants. This was causing the immigrants to leave in droves. I felt like I needed to go.

That’s how I ended up in Tijuana. And I guess if I had to think about the theme of all this, it’s that I try to take time to ask myself, “What is my heart telling me I need to do? What is the universe or God saying about where I should go?”And I go on an instinct, a hunch. I try to listen to my gut. It tells me what will make my heart happy, what feels morally correct. I don’t really calculate the risk. I trust that even if there is a risk, even if there is pain or a negative consequence, this is what I’m supposed to learn.

MK: How do you avoid burnout?

NR: I have five dogs, that’s how I deal with burnout. [Laughter.] I came to Tijuana with one cat. Now I have five dogs and three cats. And I just keep renting places that are bigger so I can have more street animals.

MK: How did you end up adopting dogs?

NR: A pregnant dog showed up at my door, and like an idiot I was like, “Sure, come on in.”

Apart from animal rescue and animal hoarding, I feel so lucky that people trust me with their stories. It’s such an incredible honor for me to hold that space. I feel inspired by our clients, because no matter what’s happened to them they’re still here. They’ve made it here. They want to keep going, and they have this sort of indomitable belief that things will get better. Those who are abused or trafficked have something inside of them that helps them believe they have the right to safety and freedom—and they’re going to take their chance and get it. Who am I to say I can’t get out of bed?

One of our recent graduates, Eva Bonsignour, volunteers with Al Otro Lado. Eva was part of an amazing group of students we took to Texas in the summer of 2019 to work with detained migrants at RAICES. Humble, passionate, and fluent in French and Spanish, Eva now works with asylum seekers from all over the world. We asked her to write a bit about her experience with Al Otro Lado:

I have witnessed how Al Otro Lado has grown into a lifeline for thousands. During my work managing the department’s WhatsApp—an account created to facilitate evidence submission for clients—we receive news clippings, death certificates, images of physical abuse, and unpursued police reports. They reflect the gang violence plaguing large parts of Central America.

The voice memos, messages, and images we receive offer chilling testimony to the United States’ high threshold for systemic violence. Al Otro Lado clients and non-clients reach out with concerns regarding asylum cases, food insecurity, imminent physical threats to their safety, medical needs, requests for family reunification, and other issues generated by a policy designed to be cruel.

My first assignment as an intern with Al Otro Lado’s translation department was to update client court dates in an Excel spreadsheet. Changing dates from July to August initially felt clerical, but I soon recognized that these delays reflected an asylum system bereft of integrity, justice, and accountability. That initial monthlong delay has turned into six or more for those under Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a policy introduced by the Trump administration that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases are adjudicated in the United States.

The consequences of the MPPs manifest differently for each demographic. African asylum seekers—the recent surge of whom results from Europe’s increasingly harsh border policies—face racism and discrimination, sometimes to the point of persecution and relocation within Northern Mexico. Others, notably from Honduras and Guatemala, recently learned that their family members back home have lost everything to Tropical Storm Eta and must now find work to support themselves and those they left behind.

With hearings on hold due to COVID-19, the physical and psychological toll of waiting indefinitely for a chance at asylum relief has become excruciating. The humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is getting worse.

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

Links for the week:

  • The reckoning continues at the Centers for Disease Control. ProPublica has published a gripping investigation about how the Trump administration undermined the CDC. Last week we wrote about Lawrence Wright’s piece in the New Yorker, which also mentioned the CDC’s attempt to send a team to China to investigate early on during the crisis; here, ProPublica says it was unable to do its job for a couple of reasons. First, the Trump administration had begun withdrawing funding from the agency, severely hampering its ability to surveil diseases:

    As funding expanded and contracted in recent years, the CDC had to cut over 300 posts overseas, including both Americans and foreigners. By the time Schuchat noticed the blurb about an outbreak in Wuhan, her agency no longer had an office inside the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, its counterpart in Beijing. While the U.S. agency once had more than a dozen Americans in China, by January only three remained.

    This means that when the pandemic actually broke out, the CDC had to rely on the word of its Chinese counterparts rather than investigating fully itself. But second, as we know, CDC officials ran up against Chinese recalcitrance and secrecy. ProPublica confirms Wright’s account but gives more detail:

    On Jan. 3, Redfield phoned his agency’s closest ally in Beijing, George Gao, the director of China’s CDC, a microbiologist trained at Oxford and Harvard. Gao said his agency had sent a field investigation team to Wuhan. But during conversations in the next few days, many of Redfield’s questions about the mystery disease went unanswered. Gao, who was usually open and talkative, sounded guarded, according to several officials familiar with the conversations.

    Nevertheless, Redfield assured federal health and national security officials that information was flowing from China thanks to his rapport with Gao, knowledgeable people said.

    On Jan. 6, Redfield sent Gao a carefully worded letter offering the help of CDC experts. Expecting the Chinese to accept “very soon,” CDC leaders began preparing a team to go to China, emails show.

    To Redfield’s chagrin, however, the conversations with Gao came to a sudden halt. Ominous news accumulated: the first recorded death, Jan. 9, the first case outside China, Jan. 13. In the secure, high-tech room where the CDC brain trust met, the mood turned dark as the scientists began to fear they were confronting a pandemic.

    In short, the CDC was caught in the perfect storm: long-term withdrawal of support and funds, a tense geopolitical standoff between China and the United States, and administrative denialism by the governing bodies in both countries.

  • Like everybody, we’ve been shocked by this week’s Capitol breach. (Have we settled on a word to describe it yet?) An overwhelming amount of material has been written; the analyses we’re drawn to depict the breach not as an aberration but as a culmination of long-term historical processes.

    Here are some articles that drew our attention:

    • Zach Carter argues that the bigger issue is rot in the Republican party, which has turned increasingly toward anti-democratic solutions to maintain power. “The Republican rot, in short, did not arise in January 2021 or even 2016,” he writes. “The party elite has been advocating various strains of authoritarianism for decades because they are the surest way to ensure that the unpopular policy agenda of the American elite remains politically viable.” 

    • Jennifer Schuessler gives a helpful history of sedition, reminding us that white supremacists also attacked legitimately elected governments during Reconstruction:

      More straightforwardly successful was an 1898 coup d’état in Wilmington, N.C., when white businessmen and former Confederates conspired to dislodge a biracial government and gut Black economic power. The ensuing riot left scores of people dead and most of the city’s Black citizens stripped of voting rights for decades.

      There were numerous such episodes of violent white supremacist “redemption” across the South, many of which have only begun to be recounted honestly.

    • Eric Foner also cites the 1898 coup and reminds us that January 6, 2020 was a moment when “two strands of the American experience, both deeply embedded in our national history, collided.” The Georgia “election results are the culmination of a mass, interracial movement to transform a state that long denied its Black population the right to vote into a genuine democracy.” On the other hand, “January 6 may be the first time the Confederate flag was openly displayed in the Capitol building… now, as in Lincoln’s time, the danger to American democracy ultimately lies within.”   

    • Adam Serwer at The Atlantic gives more detail on the Wilmington coup, and the longer evolution of the history of conservative minority rule. If you want to learn more about the “Redeemers” and the mythology of the Lost Cause, read also Kimberlé Crenshaw in The New Republic.

    • This article by Jan-Werner Müller defends the right to noisy protests and even to get very close to Congress, while explaining why this one crossed the line. This piece was clarifying, because we don’t think a Capitol breach is categorically wrong. For instance, 300 Taiwanese students peacefully occupied the country’s parliament in 2014, barricading the entrance. In that case, unlike here, they were protesting illegitimate state action. (Here’s Albert’s piece in Los Angeles Review of Books on the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan.)

    • Our friend Sebastian Veg in an email:

      It might be time to revise our history of constitutional coups and the end of the Weimar Republic. Events yesterday confirm the key role of conservatives. I guess ultimately the Republic was saved by Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence, as well as the federal and supreme court judges appointed by Trump—exactly the forces that failed to oppose Hitler in the decisive moment. Still all of those conservatives enabled Trump for far too long and the genie may be out of the box now. 

Up next…

For the book club, we settled on these for the first two meetings: Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat (short) and Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (long). More soon on the logistics, but feel free to start reading. We can’t wait to talk about them with you!

And for next week’s newsletter: We’ve been following events in Hong Kong closely. This week the Hong Kong government used its new national security law to arrest 53 pro-democracy politicians and freeze $200,000 worth of assets. For our next newsletter, we’ll talk to Sebastian Veg, a historian of China and one of the world’s leading experts on the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Is there hope, and what can we expect in the future?