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November 15, 2022

Like Waves Eroding the Wall: A Week in San Diego with the ABA's Immigration Justice Project

Amelia McGowan
Author Amelia McGowan

Author Amelia McGowan


As someone who has practiced and taught immigration law exclusively in the interior of the United States, the border wall at the U.S.-Mexico border is a jarring sight. While immigrants throughout the United States face unjust policies that operate as “invisible walls,” the physical walls, barbed wire, patrol cars, and cameras at the border that divide and surveil, drive home—in a very visual way—the inhumanity of these policies. In late October, I had the opportunity to join colleagues from the ABA's Commission on Immigration to visit the ABA's Immigration Justice Project (“IJP”) in San Diego and participate in their work at the border. We had the opportunity to witness the IJP staff, their clients, and partners breaking down the injustices that divide families and communities—just like the powerful waves that erode the border wall jutting into the sea. 

We spent the beginning of our trip at the IJP offices learning about the IJP's staff and their critical work supporting immigrants in San Diego and surrounding areas. The IJP provides life-saving and empowering direct representation to immigrants detained at the nearby Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC), including immigrants who have been adjudicated mentally incompetent as part of the National Qualified Representative Program. IJP’s work includes a universal, merits-blind representation program for people who are indigent and detained or under custody, funded through San Diego County. Through the Legal Orientation Program, they also provide know-your-rights presentations and individual orientation sessions with unrepresented people detained at OMDC to arm them with the information and tools to represent themselves in court. Finally, the IJP's robust pro bono program recruits, trains, and mentors volunteer attorneys to expand access to justice and due process for immigrants in the area. 

We then had the chance to handle pro bono IJP cases of our own—preparing parole requests alongside asylum seekers detained at OMDC. Because many in our group had not represented detained clients, IJP staff first provided a comprehensive, practical training on how to prepare an effective parole request. We then received our client assignments and traveled to OMDC to meet with our clients.  Our clients told us, through volunteer interpreters as necessary, about the terrifying experiences that pushed them out of their home countries as well as their harrowing journeys to the U.S. border. They told us about their loved ones in the United States that they hoped to see soon. When not meeting with clients, some members of our group also performed screenings for detained people seeking legal representation and protection in the U.S.  

Pro Bono Trip Images

Pro Bono Trip Images

While the people we met in detention were now at least temporarily safe from persecution and torture in their home countries, walls and detention centers confronted them as they fought for their lives in the United States.  On a tour of the facility with officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CoreCivic, OMDC appeared in every sense a prison for people fleeing unthinkable persecution and torture. At the same time, we saw the hope that IJP staff brought within these walls—life-saving representation, empowering information, and accompaniment. We saw the resilience of asylum seekers advocating for themselves and others detained with them. We heard the lifesaving work of volunteer interpreters helping our clients access counsel and tell their stories. And we experienced the joy of a client being released to pursue his case in the home of his loved ones.

Outside of our detention work, we met Pedro Ríos from the American Friends Service Committee, who gave us a tour of the border wall at the San Ysidro port of entry. It abutted the parking lot of Las Americas Premium Outlets, where the wall and its razor wire loomed behind banners featuring the faces of cheerful shoppers and ads of high-end stores.  The shops belied the deadliness and inhumanity of the location—in 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers fired teargas at a crowd of migrants—including women and children—on the Mexican side of the border, and in 2020, a CBP agent fatally shot a man there. Pedro recounted the U.S. government's plans to build a taller border wall and efforts by local religious leaders and other advocates to stand in solidarity with migrants and protest the expansion of the wall, the militarization of the border, and violence against migrants. He then accompanied us to Borderlands State Park, where the border walls snake through the desert—with bustling Tijuana on the other side—and cameras and border patrol vehicles kept a watchful eye.  Our tour ended at Friendship Park, a historic, cross-border meeting point where friends and family in Mexico and the United States have historically had the opportunity to meet. We learned that since early 2020, the U.S. government has largely closed it to the public (save a few hours on the weekends) and that it intends to close it permanently.  It is also at this point where the border wall descends into the sea, slowly corroding from the pounding waves.

Yet despite these detention centers and walls, I left with hope. Just as the waves wear down the physical wall, I saw that each client visit, each legal orientation, each act of advocacy breaks down the “invisible wall” that asylum seekers face when seeking protection in the U.S. I'm thankful to IJP, to Pedro, and to our clients for this valuable lesson—they've energized me to do the same.

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