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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Women Lawyers in Migrant Camps

from the Oct. 13, 2021 Bulletin

immigration and border issues

The thousands of asylum seekers passing through México desperately need legal help. Immigration attorney Careen Shannon, hosted by the Center for Global Justice in Guanajuato’s San Miguel, recently interviewed two lawyers doing their best to provide that help, Rebecca Eichler in San Miguel and Meritxell Calderon-Vargas in Tijuana. Both have devoted themselves to this Herculean task, and now a new documentary — Las Abogadas: Women Attorneys on the Front Lines of the Migrant Crisis — is exploring their work. We’ve extracted the discussion below from the Center for Global Justice dialogue.


Careen Shannon: You both have been at this for years. What was it like during the Trump administration?

Rebecca Eichler: You remember the caravans coming from Central America? All of a sudden, 5,000 people were traveling through México, and I knew the route would take many of them through San Miguel. The rules to get into the US kept changing. For example, Trump stopped allowing asylum to those at risk of being murdered by gangs or domestic partners. They had no lawyers to let them know their rights, or lack of rights. I had an old VW bus for camping. I recruited three other lawyers to help, and we turned the bus into a mobile legal aid clinic.

I knew that many of the migrants had next to no chance of getting into the US. But they didn’t want to hear that. These migrants had miraculously made it this far, and they didn’t see turning back as an option.  They were thinking magically: “God will help us” or “When I tell my story, they’ll let me in.” We would counsel them as best we could, by coaching unaccompanied children, for example, to say the word “afraid” to the border patrol. They had to say the right words to get in.

Meritxell Calderon-Vargas: At 14, I had already seen both the government and organized crime treat people like a bag of beans. So I went to San Francisco and got trained as an organizer by the Center for Third World Organizing. The CTWO was great, but its methods didn’t work in México. We don’t have nonprofit networks here. The political parties do the operating in the communities.


Trump’s “Remain in México” policy kept migrants outside the US waiting for their cases to be heard. In Matamoros, on the Northern border, migrants huddled for safety, in what amounted to be a huge refugee camp, only without services because these migrants didn’t rate as official refugees.

A few nonprofits tried to help in Reynosa. They got 24 port-a-potties for the 3,000 people.


What are conditions like now?

Calderon-Vargas: In Tijuana, people are living under the El Chapparal bridge, next to a river of sewage.


I specialize in women victims of sexual assault. Before their journey, some migrants take a contraceptive. They expect to be raped. I’ve met women who’ve been raped seven times, along the way or in camps.

Another danger: Supposedly Christian organizations are going into the camps to recruit drug traffickers, use little kids for child pornography, and force women into sex trafficking. And Mexican lawyers promise passage into the US for cash. Scams!


The scammers see people like me as obstacles to these schemes. They left a headless rooster on my doorstep as a warning. But I promise you, I’m going to find out who they are and I’m going to burn their asses!


To enter the US, there’s a process called “metering.” What’s that?


Eichler: This practice started under Obama with Haitian migrants. They came in too great a number to process quickly, and only a limited few could cross in per day. Immigration officials on the Mexican side would give out little pieces of paper, like the “take a number” when you’re waiting in line at a store. The wait could be months.


Calderon-Vargas: Black migrants didn’t even get on these lists! They live in a racist hell. They’ve been attacked with machetes, guns, and sticks by Central American migrants. Their tents have been set on fire.


We’ve been talking about the Northern border. What about the Southern border?


Eichler: People cross into México at Tapachula in Chiapas. Migrants call this place “Atrapachula” because thousands get detained there and deported, actions funded by the US government. To stop people from riding the rails, trains now travel at higher speeds, and concrete posts have been put up that knock riders off who are trying to hang on.


Calderon-Vargas: We know of cases where indigenous Mexicans get deported because they only speak Mayan and have no ID. They’re asked to sing the Mexican national anthem as proof they live in México, but who knows that! Even mentally ill US veterans have been deported. I reached out to the US expat community to see if they want to help, but they seem more interested in the arts.


The US and México are violating the human rights of asylum seekers “guaranteed” by international law. As lawyers, what do you think can be done?


Calderon-Vargas: At this point, we lawyers in México are not looking to get justice for anyone. That’s impossible, like putting a band-aid on cancer. We just document the facts and hope this might help people later.


We need a high-level international meeting called. Each country’s immigration laws should be looked at and then harmonized, based on the Vienna conventions on human rights.


Seeing people in migrant situations every day and hearing their stories can wear down your spirit — but you also feel compelled to work even harder.