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A legal observer looks on as migrants walk to the border. 

Back in June, The Chronicle told you about a local immigration attorney and her work with the immigrant detainees in the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon. Last week, Chelsea Strautman, Esq. was called to the border where she met with the migrant caravan that has been traveling to the United States.

Strautman was contacted by a woman who lives in Los Angeles. “Are you the lawyer that they said to call?” The woman asked. “The people in the caravan have your name.” The woman told Strautman that her cousin, who is Guatemalan, had just arrived in Tijuana and was sleeping outside under a tree with his wife, their 12-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. And, “Is there anything you can do to help?”

In the midst of national media reporting on the situation at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, we sat down with Strautman to hear her first-hand account of her time in Tijuana, Mexico, her work there and the reality of the situation facing both the migrants and Americans as the country works to determine our next course of action.   

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A view of the sports complex where migrants are being housed in Tijuana. Meant for a capacity of 3,500, there is currently an estimated 5,000 people staying there. 

Chronicle: Where are these immigrants coming from?

Strautman: These immigrants are coming from all over the world. There’s been several waves of the caravan, but they’re Central American, so they’re coming from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador – there are also people that have come from Cameroon and there are Mexicans also seeking asylum. 

Chronicle: Why are they coming here? What are they trying to get away from?

Strautman: Central America is an extremely volatile and dangerous place. There are a lot of drug cartels that have terrorized communities. Thousands of people are disappeared by these gangs, and the ties and connections between the actual national governments, state officials and these gangs is really circuitous and not very well understood, but there’s a lot of corruption in these countries. Sometimes there’s exploitation that happens that is coming from the police themselves if they’re involved in the cartels, or people are easily bought off to not investigate different crimes against these people in these countries. 

Honduras, I think, has the second highest homicide rate in the world. El Salvador is essentially a narco state run by narco traffickers. I just talked with the UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) Director of Honduras last night, and he told me that it’s extremely dangerous for women in Honduras and in that region where Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala meet. It’s estimated that approximately 80,000 young women and girls are disappeared somewhere in Mexico. Trafficking is really a problem, and if people do not join the gangs or run drugs for them or give them everything, they’re being held up for ransom or something. They’ll just kill people indiscriminately.

A lot of these stories that I was recording from these migrants, I was meeting with refugees effectively, and they’re just sobbing saying, “My whole family’s been murdered. I have two young daughters. If I go back, they’re going to steal them or kill me. I have nowhere to go.” 

So, effectively, these are failed states to some degree and these people do not have protection from their government. They’re not safe, so they’re fleeing. 

Chronicle: A lot of people have wondered why they don’t seek asylum in other countries along the way …

Strautman: Well, for this exact reason. All of those countries in that region are destabilized, so it’s not actually safe. You can’t flee to another part of Honduras because the gangs will follow you. El Salvador is even worse than Honduras. There’s also a lot of racism, cultural animosity that happens there. For example, Mexico is extremely racist against Central Americans and it’s not safe for them to settle in Mexico.

There’s a ton of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment similar to what’s being vocalized here in the States, but it’s very aggressive there. So, that’s why they’re coming to America, because America has always been thought of as this beacon of hope and safety and rule of law, and a place where this kind of criminality isn’t condoned or sanctioned.

Chronicle: What are the complications at the border that are contributing to this situation?

Strautman: We have long standing asylum laws that are set by international norms and also own jurisprudence around asylum and immigration law, and the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and the Department of Homeland Security are not following our own laws about asylum.

The Trump administration has been trying to implement all of these new and totally illegal barriers to seeking asylum. They’re saying that you can’t seek asylum if you have crossed the border, not in a place other than a port of entry. The problem is, I’ve been down at the port of entry. I’m trying to monitor and watch what happens when these people are presenting themselves at the border and CBP is turning them away, telling them to come back tomorrow. They’re saying if you don’t have proof of lawful presence in Mexico, you have to go back to the border of Guatemala and Mexico and get the proper migrant documents and then you can come back. Or, they’re just outright saying, “we don’t have asylum here anymore.”

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Mexican law enforcement stand guard at the border. 

Chronicle: From my understanding, that’s untrue and illegal, isn’t it?

Strautman: Exactly. The problem is that our rule of law is being dismantled by our government agencies. So truly, that’s why people are now having unrest and are marching to the border because CBP is not processing and admitting people who are seeking asylum in the way our laws require them to do so.

Even unaccompanied minors, who I observed personally, I walked to the border one night to the port of entry with a group of seven other attorneys and we were legally observing eight children between the ages of 13 and 17 who were trying to turn themselves in to CBP. Two were arrested by Mexican immigration officials and taken into custody. They have not been released and are likely in the process of being deported merely for trying to seek asylum. These are children who have come on this journey because their whole families have been killed or they don’t have anywhere else to go, and the US government is working in concert with Mexican officials to impede their ability to assert their lawful … it’s a human right. Every person in the world by international convention, the US is a signatory to international UN conventions about asylum, that every human being has a right to seek asylum.

Another attorney tried to bring in a woman who’s eight months pregnant, physically disabled and had a toddler with her. She walked this woman to the port of entry, talked with CBP officials, and they refused to let her come in.

Chronicle: Why would they refuse them, do you think?  Why is this happening?

Strautman: I think we’re seeing a rise and resurgence in anti-immigrant, nativist sentiments that are not unique to our country. There’s a rise in this kind of sentiment towards refugees and migrants around the world right now. There’s really this ideological divide that I think we’re seeing come to the forefront right now where half the population want to honor human rights and open our arms and accept people that are in need. Then there’s another kind of more conservative camp that feels like there’s not enough and we can’t help everybody, and we need to do what we can to be protective of American interests. It’s truly kind of a moral and spiritual battle happening right now, I think. I think a lot of what’s animating these policy moves is fear and a really stunted worldview.

To the extent of ulterior motives happening or, you know … the current administration has completely mobilized around this notion of “America first” and close the borders and put up walls. And there’s big money to be made in the detention industry. We currently have 14,000 migrant children in custody right now and somebody is making big money off that. There are more people in detention right now than ever in history, so I think there’s a financial benefit to be had.

This is the first of a series of interviews with Strautman discussing immigration issues and the situation at the border.

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