Pictured Above: Lisa Votino-Tarrant paints a section of the border wall in Tijuana. | All photos courtesy Lisa Votino-Tarrant

Unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes, it’s difficult to envision the kind of chaos taking place at the United States/Mexico border, where our ever-shifting national policies on immigration and asylum seekers have left thousands of people in a perpetual state of limbo. 

Like most of us, Southampton activist and community organizer Lisa Votino-Tarrant had been watching the mess unfold on cable news last December, when her six-year-old daughter Lily saw a now-infamous picture of a Honduran mother and her children fleeing a smoking tear gas can near the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico.

Church services where people can communicate with their relatives across the border are held every Sunday at Friendship Park at the border wall

Lily turned to her mother and demanded that she do something to help them. While Lisa doesn’t speak Spanish, she’s devoted her life to social justice, community and kids, and she couldn’t ignore her daughter’s plea.

This Memorial Day weekend, as East Enders prepared for beachgoing and barbecues, Lisa embarked on her fourth trip to Tijuana in the past five months, working with a loose coalition of volunteers and asylum seekers themselves who are helping migrants in Tijuana cope with the arbitrary and bizarre series of hurdles they face as they seek to come to the United States.

Lisa has been sharing her story with community groups across the East End during the time she’s spent in the U.S. over the past few months, including a discussion with a packed crowd at a forum sponsored by Indivisible North Fork and East End Action Network at the Dark Horse restaurant in Riverhead May 21.

In Tijuana, there are two border entry points to the United States — the heavily used vehicle entry point at San Ysidro and a pedestrian bridge called El Chaparral, she said at the May 21 forum.

The border wall ends in the Pacific Ocean.

At the Chaparral pedestrian bridge, asylum seekers present themselves at a table staffed by two people with a spiral notebook, who write a seemingly random number of names under a number, and then rip a slip of paper from the back of the book and write that number on it to hand to asylum seekers as a record of their spot in line, said Lisa, who was shocked at the low-tech setup. 

During this process, she said, some parents end up being separated from their children because the keepers of the book had finished up the numbers mid-family and put other members of the family under another number. On average, it would take about two months for the migrants’ numbers to come up.

Until late January of this year, people seeking asylum then had to come back to the border to be ready to cross on the day their number was called. They would then cross at El Chaparral and turn themselves in to U.S. Customs & Border Protection on the United States side. They’d then be taken to detention center containers that had formerly served as cold storage, and were still kept at 37 to 40 degrees, while they awaited a “credible fear” interview to determine whether they were really fleeing for their lives. They would then be given a court date three to four years from their entry into the United States.

These rules changed overnight during her first visit to the border, when U.S. Customs & Border Protection began sending asylum seekers back to Tijuana to await their court date.

A sign of encouragement at La Oficina in Tijuana

Lisa travels everywhere with a Sharpie marker, which she put to uses she’d never expected on her trips to the border, writing contact information on adult migrants’ arms and on babies’ backs, to ensure they will be able to stay in contact with their loved ones if they are separated.

“When you turn yourself over, you’re often put into a cage and not given edible food for a week,” she said. “It’s cold, and you can’t wear layers — they take your jackets.”

On the Tijuana side of the border, along with volunteers originally from a group called Sanctuary Caravan and now with a loose affiliation calling themselves asylum seekers, Lisa helps to staff a makeshift office they call La Oficina in a former nightclub, where migrants can shower, use the bathroom, get food and make phone calls, as well as get advice on current legal issues with crossing the border. She also accompanies asylum seekers when they make the border crossing and has become a curator of sorts for an impromptu art gallery that has sprung up on the walls of La Oficina. 

While there is a great deal of humanitarian infrastructure on the U.S. side of the border, Lisa said there’s just one legal advocacy group, called Al Otro Lado (To The Other Side) in Tijuana, and the asylum seekers are the only other organization set up to help migrants.

The border wall.

When the U.S. began sending migrants back to Tijuana, she said, it placed a great burden on a community already struggling with homelessness and danger, where migrants cannot seek formal employment as they wait for months to go to court in the U.S.

“There is a war on our border with aid,” said Lisa. “They’re randomly dropping people off in areas that tax recourses. Two out of three people scheduled for court didn’t show up because their court dates were changed. Policy by tweet, on the ground, is mass chaos.”

She pointed out that one U.S. judge was baffled by the insistence of prosecutors that people who don’t show up for their court date be deported, especially since the people were not in the United States, but were in Tijuana trying to get across the border to make their new court date.

She thought there was a silver lining in this system — families weren’t being deported. But then, on Valentine’s Day, the first families began coming back to Tijuana.

A homesick reminiscence of Guatemala in the impromptu art gallery at La Oficina.

“Tijuana is a very dangerous place right now,” said Lisa, who added that she believes it would be difficult for the average person to be able to help there. “It’s not for everyone. I’ve had guns pointed at my head by the Federales. If you have a low immune system, don’t go.”

She added that she is now making shorter trips to Tijuana, giving her time to recover at home from all she’s experienced at the border.

On Sunday afternoons in Tijuana, Lisa would visit church services organized at Friendship Park at the border wall, led by Pastor Guillermo Navarrete of the Methodist Church of Mexico. Along the Mexican side of the wall, artists have painted murals of hope, with sayings like “Love Trumps Hate.”

“You don’t need a permit to make the wall better,” she said. “A deported veteran group meets there. These are people who have fought for our country, and we’ve kicked them out.”

At the border

Lisa added that people she’s met who have walked thousands of miles across Mexico after fleeing violence in Central America were often skilled workers — veterinarians, doctors and teachers —  who had proved incorruptible by gangs and crooked police services in their home countries.

“We’re making it so people have no choice but to go back to their countries, where they will be killed,” she said. “Our government is doing this in our name. We’re allowing these things to happen in our name. I’m not cool with that.”

Lisa said the best way for local people here to help is to send monetary donations to help keep the asylum seeker office in Tijuana open. The volunteers there are not part of any formal non-profit organization, and the needs there are constantly changing. She also urged East Enders to sponsor migrants, so that the United States government knows there are U.S. citizens who care about their fate.

More details and information on how to donate to Lisa’s ongoing work can be found here.

— Beth Young

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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