At the US’s latest border hotspot, aid workers brace for volatility

<span>People lined up along the border walls separating Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, to apply for asylum on 7 May.</span><span>Photograph: Ryan Sun/AP</span>
People lined up along the border walls separating Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, to apply for asylum on 7 May.Photograph: Ryan Sun/AP

Jacqueline Arellano is driving up and down the 15 freeway in southern San Diego county on a recent morning in mid-April, boxes of donated clothing and safety gloves in her trunk.

She stops in a Home Depot parking lot and hands a man the spare stroller she grabbed from her house. He’d mentioned to her earlier that day how tiring it was to move around the city with his toddler in his arms.

Arellano is director of US programs for Border Kindness, a non-profit migrant relief organization that runs weekly Day Laborer Outreach programs in San Diego and Imperial counties. Organizers hand out donations in spots where migrants congregate, and while doing so listen to people’s stories and answer their questions, as best as they can.

The needs at the US-Mexico border here in California are larger than ever. In April, San Diego was the busiest sector for arrivals of the entire US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, immigration has risen to the top of voters’ concerns in the November presidential election, with Joe Biden facing bipartisan calls to stem the flow of people crossing the border and Donald Trump vowing an aggressive crackdown.


The eight years she’s spent doing this work have given Arellano a window into the ever-shifting dynamics of immigration at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Back in 2016, when she first started to make these outreach runs, the people she met at the various Home Depot parking lots were primarily day laborers, waiting to be picked up by contractors working across the region. Many were undocumented, originally from Mexico, and had been based in the US for some time.

After Trump moved into the White House the following year, the workers’ prevalent fear was being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and facing deportation, she said. So while handing out donations, volunteers would also pass on red printed cards that informed workers of their rights when faced with Ice.

Gradually, Arellano and other aid workers realized that the information they were sharing was no longer relevant to the day laborers they were meeting. “Within the last couple of years, we’ve seen global migration reflected in the community,” she said. First they saw an increase in people arriving from Haiti, then people from all over the world. The people arriving now speak languages other than Spanish, she said, and they have more recently arrived on US soil. Crucially, they are not trying to avoid immigration enforcement authorities. Rather, they have filed for asylum and want to see their cases work their way through the system.

Of the 43 men who lined up to receive work gloves that day in mid-April, most are from Mexico and Haiti, but there are people from Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala, Brazil and Ecuador. After handing out supplies, Arellano spends an hour talking one-on-one with some of them. A few ask about basic necessities, like where to buy food.

One man from Ecuador shows her paperwork saying he is expected at immigration court in Chicago. “So he’s over here in San Diego with a court date in Chicago – has no idea what to do. He doesn’t have an attorney. He doesn’t know how to get an attorney. He has no money. He was asking me literally: ‘How do I get a phone? What is a Western Union? Where do I go?’”

Giving formula to a baby shouldn’t be a political issue.

Erika Pinheiro, executive director of Al Otro Lado

Newly arrived migrants often don’t know how to navigate the immigration system even as they’re relying on it to secure legal status in the US, Arellano said. She connects them with partner organizations that can help provide legal services, shelter and other assistance, like Al Otro Lado, a non-profit providing legal and humanitarian aid to people.

These connections with other aid workers on the ground have become increasingly essential as the needs of people at the border keep changing and expanding. “This is being held down by groups of ordinary people, by groups of friends, in large part,” she said about the support system for newly arrived groups. “It shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t be just groups of friends coming together to plug our fingers in a sinking ship.”


Part of the breakdown in resources for asylum seekers, according to Dara Lind, senior fellow at the American Immigration Council, a non-profit immigration advocacy group, is inaction at the federal level. “All the civil society help in the world isn’t sufficient to actually make sure that people know where they’re supposed to go,” Lind said.

Because Congress hasn’t made meaningful updates to the immigration system in 34 years, Lind explained, the system is coming apart at the seams, affecting both border enforcement and legal immigration.

In the California desert, migrants, including children, have been detained in open-air border camps before their asylum requests can be registered. Most receive a court date to appear for an immigration hearing more than a year away – that’s just how backlogged the immigration court system is.

Still, Lind said, “it hasn’t created sufficient urgency for Congress to fix it. And instead, it’s become a way that presidents of both parties have justified taking aggressive, proactive executive action because someone needs to do something, and Congress isn’t doing its job.”

Lind said despite years of border crises, no one is holding the federal government accountable for both the human suffering and the overall inefficiency that aid workers like Arellano see day-to-day at the border.

Erika Pinheiro is the executive director of Al Otro Lado. Among many services, her organization provides life-saving supplies at the open-air detention sites on the California-Mexico border. Providing supplies in the desert is becoming more perilous as border patrol moves these sites into more remote areas, Pinheiro said.

“It’s a very hostile environment to work in,” she said, listing armed robbers, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, rising temperatures, concertina wire – and hostility from border patrol agents. “We’ve had our staff followed, pulled over multiple times, harassed, told to leave,” she said.

Al Otro Lado is one of several organizations seeking to address immediate emergencies at the US-Mexico border. Volunteers with another arm of Border Kindness, for example, hike into the desert to place water bottles, tinned food and weather-appropriate clothing for people crossing the border in remote locations.

Financial support for humanitarian aid is waning, Pinheiro noted. “The philanthropic funding, I think due to a lot of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle, has really dried up,” she said. California has also cut state funding, particularly affecting the shelter system for individuals waiting for their day in immigration court, and Pinheiro said donations from individuals were also down.

“The work has become so politicized, whereas really giving formula to a baby shouldn’t be a political issue.”


In this election year, both Al Otro Lado and Border Kindness are bracing for further repercussions. “Regardless of outcome, elections are always destabilizing for the immigrant community,” Arellano said.

Should Biden win re-election, she expects to see the situation at the border remain largely unchanged. The past years, Arellano said, “in many ways have been the worst it’s ever been at the border”, but there’s been less public outrage than Trump’s immigration policies elicited.

If Trump wins a second term, however, she expects a “further decimation of legal protections and processes that can really impact people for years”.

Pinheiro expects Democrats to push through changes in asylum law if Biden were elected. While adjudicating cases more quickly could help alleviate some of the pressure, she cautioned, expediting asylum requests could also result in fewer people receiving asylum who are qualified for it.

“Forcing asylum seekers to go through these interviews while still detained in border patrol custody is not the answer,” she said, especially if they are not given access to information and legal representation.

Should Trump be elected, Pinheiro expects humanitarian aid and legal workers at the border to face increased criminalization. During the last Trump presidency, she and other lawyers, human rights activists and journalists were put on a watchlist and interrogated at the border, she said. Targeting humanitarian and legal assistance could be a Republican administration’s way of stopping groups like Al Otro Lado and Border Kindness from documenting what’s happening at the border, she fears, and would curtail their ability to respond to people’s needs.