A week with Al Otro Lado

by Cecelia Friedman Levin, Senior Policy Counsel

I just returned from volunteering with the Border Rights Project at Al Otro Lado in Tijuana, Mexico.  At the end of each day, volunteers often shared their “highs and lows” of what they experienced during the day.  In that spirit, I share my own.


  • The inhumane, unlawful and shameful treatment of asylum seekers. Our government is required to give all those seeking asylum at our border an opportunity to enter the United States and present their case. Never was there a requirement they wait en masse in another country, or keeping unaccompanied children in limbo, or a requirement that asylum seekers are placed on an arbitrary and illegal list and wait months living in unsafe conditions. Whether or not the U.S. government acknowledges it, the list is very real, and the process of “metering” increases the dangers and risks asylum seekers face.  (For more on “La Lista”, listen to the prologue segment of This American Life from Sept. 2018 here)
  • The fact that our government will make it as difficult and inhospitable as possible for asylum seekers to be able to present their case. I had to tell parents that they may be separated from their children, that they and their children will only be able to have one layer of clothing on in the hielera. If asylum seekers are subject to the “Remain in Mexico Program” even after they PASS an interview on their credible fear, they may need to return to Mexico while their court case is pending. Let that sink in. Over 240 asylum seekers who established a credible fear must wait *in Mexico,* when they are filing for protection *in the United States* and their case is being heard *in the United States.*  Not mention that DHS is completely botching this whole process when applicants do show up for their hearings.  I’m grateful to Al Otro Lado, Tahirih Justice Center, ACLU, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and others who are challenging this horrific and illegal policy.

The Highs:

  • The staff: Most of the on the ground staff are long-term volunteers who every day dedicate themselves to “radical acts of love.”  They provide a warm and genuine welcome to asylum seekers, food, a play space for children and legal information about the process. They are incredible.
  • My co-volunteers for the week were law students and their professors, NGO attorneys, undergrads, faith leaders, mental health professionals, and anyone and everyone in between. I’m grateful to and for their companionship and support during the week.
  • I played cards with a group of children while their parents were listening to a legal orientation. This actually fills me with mixed emotions. While I loved being with these kids, I pray they will have the safety and security that their parents so desperately want for them.

Now what? Please do something, anything, to support asylum seekers and those on the ground helping them EVERY. DAY.  Here are my suggestions depending on your time and capacity.

  1. Volunteer:  AOL provides legal orientations to asylum seekers every day and can use your support, especially if you are a legal professional, Spanish speaker or speak any other language fluently. Sign up to volunteer here: bit.ly/AlOtroLadoTijuanaTrips
  2. Donate: Give anything you can to Al Otro Lado generally and specifically to their Border Rights Project. To donate, click here.
  3. Give: Support the Border Rights Project by donating supplies they need on the ground. See their Amazon Wish list here.
  4. Help: Look into other programs that assist asylum seekers in your area.  Have buckets of frequent flyer miles? Donate them to help reunite refugee families. Help grassroots organizations like Bridges of Love Across the Border
  5. Call Your Representatives and Senators.  Tell them about what is happening to asylum seekers at the border and urge them to hold the Administration and DHS accountable for their assault on asylum protections.