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What It’s Like to Help Immigrants at the Border Right Now

Exter met with reporter Eleanor J, Bader on Holocaust Memorial Day to share her experiences, and offer Lilith readers a first-hand account of the human rights violations—as well as the acts of kindness, compassion, and solidarity—she witnessed.

Eleanor J. Bader: What motivated you to want to help asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants? 

Hillary J. Exter: I’m the granddaughter of Jewish Immigrants from Russia/Poland. About a year ago, my brother began genealogical research and discovered that our paternal grandfather had had a brother who was slaughtered in the Minsk ghetto. My grandparents never talked about their history but I know that they came to the US separately in the 19-teens and slowly brought other family members over. They used to tell me that streets in America had diamonds and they were overjoyed to be in a place where they could live in relative peace and comfort.

After learning about my great uncle’s murder, I started volunteering with Connect2NY and have been visiting Edith, now 94-years old, who was sent to England from Austria on the Kindertransport 80 years ago. Her parents were exterminated but they saved her. 

Her story, and my grandparents,’ motivate me to want to help people who are fleeing violence and brutality today.

EJB: Tell me a bit more about your work with the immigration clinic sponsored by the New Sanctuary Coalition. 

HJE: We provide basic self-help to immigrants who come to the clinic—people we call friends. Most of the volunteers are not lawyers but there are immigration attorneys on hand who guide the volunteers in identifying possible relief, including filling out asylum applications so the applicant’s rights are protected.  

The clinic is open once a week but we may see a friend for several consecutive weeks; as volunteers, we do whatever follow-up is necessary throughout the week.

EJB: Why did you decide to travel to the Tijuana-San Diego border?

HJE: When I learned about the New Sanctuary Coalition’s 40-day Sanctuary Caravan, a national mobilization of volunteers going to the border, I knew it was something I could do. I attended trainings in New York City and online, and as soon as I arrived at the border. My group was a real mix: a Quaker family, a theology student, a few college professors on semester break, some church groups, and random individuals.  They ranged in age from their 30s to their 70s. Rabbi Barat Ellman was there and was part of an interfaith service at a border wall.

EJB: Can you describe the asylum seekers you met?

HJE: Asylum seekers come from all over the world.  While the majority are from the Northern Triangle countries El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, I also met Nicaraguans and there are also significant numbers of asylum seekers from Ghana, Cameroon, and Haiti.

As you’d imagine, being at the border is really intense. I spoke to a number of people who’d had family members killed by gangs and feared they’d be next. There were also a lot of LGBTQ people who’d fled violence and persecution. 

People told us about going through such horrible things, terrible trauma in their home country and in their long journey north, and I saw a number of asylum seekers missing limbs or with scars, often the result of violence.

EJB: It sounds emotionally exhausting.

HJE: It is. You meet so many people who have been through so much, but I felt like it made some difference for people to know that there are people in the US who care about them. Everyone was so lovely, so grateful.  In the course of 15 minutes you can make a deep connection.  For example, I spoke to a young, gay man who comes from a society where there is a lot of discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people. I encouraged him to go to a wonderful legal organization, Al Otro Lado I saw him there a few days later. He asked me why I’d walked over to him, why I chose to speak to him. All I could say was that there are times in your life when you meet someone and you don’t know why, but you feel a special connection. He said he’d felt the same way, that maybe God puts someone in your path for a reason. We’ve been communicating ever since, as he waits for his hearing. The fact that I was able to help connect him with legal resources that might literally mean the difference between life and death is incredibly humbling.

EJB: What kind of work did you do with the asylum-seekers?

HJE:  For many of us, our job was accompaniment, essentially bearing witness. We also gave basic information–going over the asylum process, explaining that for those seeking asylum, one of the first steps, after presenting themselves to Customs and Border Patrol, involves going through something called a Credible Fear Interview (CFI). The interview was their chance to describe their situation and explain why they can no longer live in, or return to, their country of origin.  

We further explained that the CFI is conducted by a non-lawyer. This person decides whether he or she believes the asylum applicant has presented a legitimate fear of violence or persecution, a claim that has to meet a number of criteria. If they meet this threshold and are found to have a credible fear, up until recently, they would be allowed to enter the US. They would then be placed in deportation proceedings and often in detention, and would then have a year to file an asylum application. Typically, people were sent from Tijuana to detention facilities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, or elsewhere and often transferred between them. In January, the US announced that after presenting themselves on the US side, they will be returned to Mexico while their asylum application is pending. I imagine this will be challenged by advocates. 

We also provided emotional support and some volunteers did childcare to give parents a break and allow advocates to discuss the situation without the kids overhearing everything.

Finally, we let people know that some folks get out of detention fairly quickly—after a few days—and at least in San Diego, a Rapid Response Network has been set up to help them find shelter or join family members or friends in other parts of the country once they’re released. In addition, we shared the New Sanctuary Coalition’s phone number in New York City. 

Overall, there are many roles for volunteers and the effort was incredibly well organized. In fact, the people who coordinated the volunteer effort were some of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.

EJB: How quickly does the process move once a potential asylee arrives at a Port of Entry?

HJE: When people arrive in Tijuana, they give their names to a self-organized group who maintain “the list,” something advocates assert is unlawful. The asylum seekers are then given a number. This serves as a kind of waiting line before they can present themselves to US Customs and Border Patrol. 

The US is allowing about 30 people a day to be processed so the wait is extensive and can mean months in Tijuana, one of the busiest Ports of Entry into the US. The list is maintained in a place called El Chaparral and hundreds of people go there every day to see if their number has been called. If they’ve just arrived in Tijuana, they go to El Chaparral to get a number.

In most cases, once a number is called, that’s the last time the volunteer will see that person because we are not allowed to accompany them when they present themselves to Customs and Border Patrol or for their Credible Fear Interview. I have tried to locate people, including some families, through the ICE database, and they don’t appear—so I have no idea what happened to them. 

EJB: What’s next for you now that you’re back home in New York? 

HJE: I hope sharing my experience will motivate more people to get involved in opposing what is happening at the border and volunteer there and in their home cities. Still, I know that some of the people who have established credible fear will not win their asylum cases and will be deported.  Others will be turned away at the border. Knowing that we could have protected them, but didn’t, is frustrating and enraging, but I’m doing what I can to be proactive and give a hand to people in desperate need.