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Councilmember takes mission to border

Altruism is a concept near and dear to many Claremonters.

For more than a century our community has been committed to volunteerism. This, combined with our diverse and educated populace, has meant we donate our time, money and skills not just locally, but also to causes and organizations with a worldwide reach.

Take, for instance, freshman Claremont City Councilmember Jed Leano. His day job is immigration lawyer, a vocation that provides a skillset both useful and highly topical, given the Trump administration’s controversial stances on immigration.

Last Friday Mr. Leano put those skills to work when he traveled to Tijuana, Mexico and joined a group of volunteer attorneys with Al Otro Lado (“to the other side”). The nonprofit is a direct legal services organization that helps indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees navigate the increasingly impacted and complex legal maze of seeking asylum in the United States.

He visited a church-run shelter near Tijuana where 87 people—47 of them children, and the vast majority of those toddler age—were awaiting adjudication of their asylum claims. The shelter had three rooms, each with mattresses on the floor where one family slept and stored their belongings. There was one restroom, one shower for men and another for women.

Mr. Leano brought food, supplies, toys and clothing to donate to the migrants. Everything was gone less than a minute after he placed the items on a table.

His reaction to the conditions on the ground was near instantaneous. “After the shock wore off, I immediately started thinking ‘What can I do to improve this?’” He’s currently planning how he might return with more essentials, and to build bunk beds and room partitions in an effort to improve the migrants’ living conditions.

Mr. Leano’s activism was sparked by what he had been reading and hearing about the appalling conditions at the border.

“It was eye-opening,” Mr. Leano said. “It was difficult to see. Before going down I was bracing myself. I was a little bit fearful of what the conditions would be for people on the other side, and my worst fears were realized. The actual conditions are far worse that what I thought. The sheer volume of people down there trying to apply for asylum is unbelievable.”

And, some of the policies and practices being implemented at the southern border are outside the bounds of United States immigration law, he contends.

When a person outside the United States approaches a port of entry and says they wish to apply for asylum, Mr. Leano explained that under federal law, the request has to be processed.

“Those are very basic requirements, not only under our regulations, but also because we’re members of the [United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees],” which the US signed in 1951, he said.

Part of the problem, Mr. Leano said, is US Customs and Border Protection, in conjunction with the Mexican government, is operating a quasi-lottery system to process migrants approaching the two ports of entry at the southern border, San Ysidro and Chaparral.

It works thusly: Every morning, Mexican officials emerge and announce three numbers, representing about 30 asylum seekers. The migrants are required to physically be there when their number is called. If they miss the announcement, they must start over.

“And, in order to get yourself on the list, you have to present an ID,” Mr. Leano said. “That’s totally illegal. There is no ID requirement to request asylum in our immigration law, but they’re doing it.”

Further complicating matters is most people fleeing their home countries are doing so as a result of an emergent threat to their safety, Mr. Leano said, and collecting important documents isn’t always possible.

He also said the process is inherently tainted by blatant, open discrimination.

“People who are LGBTQ are just not being given numbers,” he said. “Transgender people, if they walk up, no number for you. People of African descent who are citizens of Central American countries, they are being asked for two forms of ID. It’s literally just because they’re black.”

Mr. Leano contends “the entire system is totally illegal.”

Additionally, the United States “does not call for the empowerment, in any of our laws, for the enforcement of border procedures by any outside authorities,” he added. “So for us to then partner with some outside forces who are in turn discriminating against people, is completely outrageous.”

He also reported another significant barrier: not every asylum seeker is aware that the list exists. “The lawyers I talked to down there believe that there are about 8,000 to 10,000 people who don’t even know about the list, and are just trying to make their way through this without any guidance,” he said.

And perhaps most disturbing is the fact that unaccompanied minors—the most vulnerable asylum seekers—are not allowed to sign up for the list, even if they have the required documentation. They are simply turned away.

“And that is flatly illegal,” Mr. Leano said.

Prior to this year, asylum seekers waiting to be notified would, after undergoing clearing a security check, be temporarily “paroled” into the US with the understanding they would either receive a notice to appear in US immigration court, or will be asked to leave the country if their credible fear claims were denied. Some people have referred to this as a “catch and release” policy.

The Trump administration sidestepped this legal process in January 2019, when it ordered US Customs officials to implement Migrant Protection Protocols, under which non-Mexican immigrants seeking asylum at the southern border were returned to Mexico to await word of their fates.

“That means that, logistically, how do you notify them that they are in fact going to be given a court hearing because their fear was found to be credible from the interview?” Mr. Leano said. “In essence, it’s as if they are intentionally trying to reroute people so that even if in the event that their fear is credible, it becomes exceptionally difficult for them to find the outcome and actually report to a court date.”

To make matters worse, once folks have been called in for their credible fear interview, the facility in which they wait—sometimes for up to 16 days—has been nicknamed “Hielera,” which in Spanish means “cooler.” There the inside temperatures are kept in the 60s, and all detainees are allowed just one layer of clothing, Mr. Leano said.

“That makes no sense to me,” he said. “There is no policy reason or safety reason why people should not be allowed to wear an additional layer of clothing, except that you want people to be uncomfortable.”

His family’s donations to the Tijuana shelter were spurred on by need. His pro bono legal help was motivated by another factor.

“I wanted to be able to understand what is really happening procedurally, so I could share it,” he said. He also hopes that by shedding light on the situation, “the real conditions don’t just become something that you read about on your Instagram or Twitter feed. I hope that the human side of this story becomes real. We talk about this like it’s a political issue, but it’s really now a humanitarian issue.”

US asylum laws are stringent, Mr. Leano said, and for good reason: only the truly credible qualify. His work with Al Otro Lado has only strengthened his resolve to help give those seeking to come here the opportunity to do so, with dignity and within the legal framework of established  immigration law.

“This is simply the opportunity to apply,” he said, “and you should not be treated inhumanely for asking for that chance. It is a fallacy in the argument to say, ‘We’re full. We can’t accept all of them.’ We’re not trying to have all of the asylum seekers be accepted. We’re trying to process their duly filed and legal applications for asylum, ” he said.

A major reason the federal government should provide those seeking asylum an opportunity to be heard is because of our participation in United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, he said.

“And how we carry that out is a statement on our values as a country,”?Mr. Leano said. “You either treat people with dignity and respect or you don’t. And to dehumanize and criminalize the mere act of asking for asylum in a foreign country, there is no legal basis for this.”

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com