Supporting migrants on both sides of the border

By Kyra Gurney | October 12, 2021 | The Americas | Freedom from Violence & Exploitation, Youth Empowerment

Over the past three years, GFC partner Al Otro Lado has assisted thousands of migrants and refugees in Mexico and the US. Nicole Ramos, the Director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, reflects on the impact of GFC’s support.

In 2018, Al Otro Lado was at a crossroads. The humanitarian and legal services organization, which serves deportees, migrants, and refugees – including children and youth – on both sides of the US-Mexico border, had been operating with an all-volunteer staff since 2012.

But that model was no longer sustainable. Thousands of migrants were arriving at the border in Tijuana, Mexico, where the organization is based, and Al Otro Lado had decided to take the US government to court to preserve the right of migrants to seek asylum. It needed paid full-time staff. The problem was that Al Otro Lado didn’t have enough funding.

So, when Global Fund for Children connected with the organization around that time and offered flexible funding, it was “lifesaving,” said Nicole Ramos, the Director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project.

“GFC was one of our first funders, before we really had anything sustained,” Nicole recalled. “To have that extra support, and especially at such a critical time when we were dealing with the migrant caravans, dealing with the litigation, was amazing.”

Now, Al Otro Lado has 40 paid staff members and offices in Tijuana, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Over the past three years, the organization has helped thousands of migrants and refugees, including unaccompanied minors. It has also expanded its programs, which include providing free legal services and humanitarian support, educating refugees in Tijuana on the US asylum process, and reuniting children who have been forcibly separated from their parents with their families.

Photo from GFC's Tijuana convening

In 2020, GFC partners participated in a transnational conference in Tijuana, Mexico, that brought together over 75 civil society organizations to advocate for the rights of migrant children and youth. © Jeff Valenzuela

Al Otro Lado has also filed important lawsuits defending the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers. In September 2021, the organization won the lawsuit it had filed against the US government for turning back asylum-seekers when a federal judge ruled that US officials must process asylum-seekers when they arrive at ports of entry.

“It’s been a tornado-slash-whirlwind,” Nicole said.

Nicole attributed some of Al Otro Lado’s success to its participation in the network of organizations that are part of GFC’s Girls Experiencing Migration initiative, which is supported by Tides Foundation. This initiative brings together a cohort of 14 civil society organizations in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States that are committed to protecting the safety and rights of adolescent migrant girls.

At the first convening she attended for the initiative, Nicole recalled, she got to meet other activists working across the region to support migrants and refugees.

“We’ve maintained connections with several of those organizations whose missions or populations tend to align ever since that conference, as well as built new relationships,” Nicole said. “It’s really been transformative.”

A panel discussion during the Tijuana convening

Civil society organizations participating in a 2020 conference in Tijuana, Mexico, on the rights of migrant children and youth. © Jeff Valenzuela

Earlier this year, when one of Al Otro Lado’s clients disclosed that her 16-year-old brother, who was still in Guatemala, was at risk of being kidnapped, Al Otro Lado turned to the network for help. One of the organizations in southern Mexico made sure the teen could travel safely from the Guatemala-Mexico border to Tijuana, where Al Otro Lado helped him reunite with his sister in the US.

Al Otro Lado has continued to evolve during the pandemic. Since the organization is currently doing much of its legal work remotely, it has converted part of its Tijuana office to an early learning center for children in collaboration with an organization called PILAglobal.

The shift to virtual interactions has also enabled Al Otro Lado and two allies, Human Rights First and Haitian Bridge Alliance, to connect with migrants at different ports of entry. They have distributed an online survey in Spanish, English, French and Haitian Creole that asks about medical needs, access to food, and experiences with violence in Mexico. More than 23,000 people have responded.

“The diversity of nationalities and languages has been something that tells its own story, but the level of violence that people are subjected to while they’re waiting at the border has been absolutely staggering,” Nicole said.

“Two-thirds of our clients have been the victims of violence, threats, or extortion while they’ve been waiting at the border.”

The data collected through the survey has enabled Al Otro Lado and its allies to identify people in immediate need and to strengthen their advocacy efforts by establishing themselves as credible sources of information on the situation at the border.

Based on her experience with GFC, Nicole said she would encourage other funders to look for grassroots organizations “that need a little bit of a lift,” and find ways to help them grow beyond financial support, including by building networks.

“Without a little bit of a lift, we wouldn’t have been able to get to where we are today and where we are today is we just won a massive lawsuit against the federal government,” she said. “We didn’t even have an office. We just had ideas, we had some programs, we were working really hard, and to have that vote of confidence from GFC was amazing.”

Header photo: An image of a wall at the US-Mexico border. © Jeff Valenzuela

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