Mexicali – A Mexican Border City That’s Often Forgotten | The Center for Victims of Torture

Mexicali – A Mexican Border City That’s Often Forgotten

Monday, March 16, 2020

Andrea Cárcamo is senior policy counsel.

As you move around the city of Mexicali, Mexico, you frequently drive next to a large, high wall that cuts through the town. The roadways are busy and many people walk along the wall, hurrying under the dark shadow it casts so they can get quickly to their destination. This wall separates the city from the United States. On a recent visit, I wondered what the people who live in Mexicali feel like as they walk or drive past it. What does it feel like to know someone wants to keep you out? And if you were someone who had escaped torture and violence, what would it feel like to be forced to wait, seemingly indefinitely, to make your case for asylum?

These questions were heavy on my mind in January, when I traveled with a group of CVT staff to Mexicali, a city approximately 135 miles from Tijuana, Mexico. We visited the city, among others, to assess the mental health needs of asylum seekers, humanitarian workers and attorneys. We chose Mexicali because it is one of the Mexican border cities where asylum seekers have been forced to wait while their U.S. Immigration cases are pending. This is the result of a policy created by the Trump administration referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy (officially, and inaccurately, known as Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP).

The Mexicali/Calexico border. Photo by Urmy Shukla.

During our time there, we visited several organizations doing great work on the ground, particularly Border Kindness. These dedicated individuals told us that there weren’t a large number of newly arriving asylum seekers in the city at that time, but many had already been there for several months because of MPP. During our team’s travels, we found that in Mexicali and at other parts of the border, the arrival of asylum seekers seems to be sporadic, as sometimes officials bring them from other parts of the border. For Mexicali, a large influx of asylum seekers occurred when one of the much-publicized caravans arrived there in 2018. The need for shelter, food and clothing and all manner of basic resources skyrocketed at that time, and the city has been catching up ever since.

While there are shelters in town where asylum seekers can stay, the numbers of people and the length of time each person is forced to wait has stretched the limits of existing resources. In conversation with people there, I found that there were some trusted shelters, but others were known to be corrupt – besides things like charging people for basic articles necessary for personal hygiene, we were told that girls had been seen being taken from shelters at night. Children and young girls are particularly vulnerable there and at other shelters along the Mexican northern border.

Every step in the asylum process is difficult. Asylum seekers in Mexicali have to present themselves at 4 am to Border Patrol in Tijuana to be taken to their court appearance in San Diego, which is about a two-hour drive away. In other words, unless asylum seekers want to leave their shelter at 2 am, they have to leave a day before their scheduled time. Thankfully, local organizations, Border Kindness in particular, have worked hard to provide asylum seekers with rides and hotel stays before their court hearings. This is only possible because of generous donations. It makes a huge difference, though, as this way, asylum seekers are at least temporarily saved from becoming yet another one among those who have been kidnapped, raped or even tortured in a border city. Many do not make it to their court appearances for this reason. However, instead of recognizing this as a serious issue, the government uses the absence as “proof” that asylum seekers did not have a legitimate claim.

It is important to note that every time asylum seekers must go to court, they also go through Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) custody. This means that families have to go through the infamous hieleras or ice boxes. These are holding areas that are notoriously cold; we have clients at our projects in Minnesota and Georgia who describe their time in the hieleras as among the worst of their torture/trauma experiences. We were even told that children start acting up before leaving because they are so terrified of going there. Our government is traumatizing children simply by putting them through the hielera every time they go into the country for their court date.

The one day we visited the court, I was struck to notice that once in the court, asylum seekers are first escorted to the bathroom – the long journey takes a toll on everyone. But then I was disheartened to see that the judge in this situation could not make any decision on their cases because all the asylum seekers had been handed a legal document in English by the U.S. government. Because of this, the judge gave them time to go back to Mexico and find a person to help them understand the document. During my visit, all but one family was asked to return a month later to court. This means another trip, another day through the hieleras, and more uncertainty regarding their case. I can’t even imagine how they can find someone to explain what the document means in the context of their case, even if someone speaks English. They need a U.S. immigration attorney, but certainly most attorneys are located in the United States for obvious reasons. The barriers that MPP imposes on asylum seekers to obtain legal representation are impenetrable and are eroding the U.S.’s longstanding reputation for respecting due process.

Nevertheless, in our visits we met with and observed many organizations and individuals who have devoted their lives to helping people in these terrible situations. We met individuals working well over 40 hours a week, and noted that they are exposed to trauma every day. In our work at CVT, of course we know the strain and stress this can create. These souls are working to help others with everything from housing, legal advocacy, health care and basic shelter, food and clothing. They don’t ask for anything in return, but because of the nature of this difficult work, they could use some mental health care themselves. We’re hopeful that we can create a project, and find funding, to help them.



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