From The California Sunday Magazine. Written by Daniel Duane. Photographs by Yael Martínez
NICOLE RAMOS, a 38-year-old lawyer from suburban New Jersey, sat nervously petting one of her many cats on a red couch next to the Buddha statue in the Tijuana apartment where she lives alone. Then Ramos’s phone buzzed with a text she’d been expecting all morning. More than 100 Central American and African migrants were passing through downtown Tijuana to a shelter already overcrowded with men and women who had just been deported from the United States.
Ramos and her two partners in a shoestring nonprofit called Al Otro Lado, or To the Other Side, are the only American attorneys based in Tijuana who work pro bono with both asylum-seekers and deportees — people approaching the United States from the south seeking safety and those pushed into Mexico from the north, banished by the U.S. government. Ramos shoved her bulky old laptop into a leather shoulder bag, grabbed her car keys, and stood up to do what she does many days a week for almost no pay.
All over this desert metropolis, in shelters and churches that care for migrants, Ramos provides a service that no Mexican or American government agency or NGO will. She absorbs the worst stories anybody has ever heard, full of rape and severed body parts and murdered children, and then she explains that any migrant who walks up to a U.S. border gate declaring fear of persecution has a legal right to apply for asylum. Ramos cautions that, since Donald Trump was elected president, Customs and Border Protection officers have been systematically denying people that legal right; she encourages everybody who has no prayer of qualifying for asylum to settle in Mexico; she promises the handful who do have a prayer that she will walk to the border gate with them and argue on their behalf; and she makes sure everyone understands that, thanks in large part to one of President Trump’s earliest executive orders, winning that argument with Customs and Border Protection condemns asylum-seekers to months or years in private, for-profit American detention centers. Continue reading