Over the past few years, the Trump administration has enacted controversial policies at the U.S.-Mexico border. That includes a family separation policy that led to more than 2,500 children being separated from their parents.
After public outcry, President Trump signed an order to end separation. But he continues to make the border a focal point of his administration.
Michelle Velasquez is cofounder and attorney at Civitas Law Group. She's volunteered at the border twice. Once to work at a detention facility in Texas, and again this fall to provide legal assistance to asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico.
Velasquez says asylum is a legal claim that someone can make based on their fear of persecution in their country.
"There's absolutely nothing illegal about coming to the border and asking for asylum. Asylum seekers who are currently in the country and going through that process are not here unlawfully," she says.
Claims can be based on an asylee's fear of persecution from their government because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or membership in a particular social group.
Velasquez says the majority of people at the border seeking asylum are from Central America — mainly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But she says there are also people from all over the world.
"Which was sort of eye-opening for me when I was in Tijuana, not having really realized that there were people from all over the world who would use the southern border as sort of a port of entry to make their asylum claim," notes Velasquez. "So, these included people from Cameroon, from Russia, from Iran, from Eritrea, from Haiti, from Venezuela, Cuba."
She first went to the border in 2018. But since then, Velasquez says there have been a few major changes. For example, there's now a metering system, which is a system where people have to wait in line to claim asylum. They present themselves to a board, are given a number, and wait until their number is called to begin the asylum seeking process.
"This essentially means that people are sort of stuck in limbo in Tijuana or in other border cities. Just kind of waiting to see when their number will be called," Velasquez explains.
She says there aren't enough shelters and people have to rely on charity while they wait. And people are really vulnerable.
"They're vulnerable to kidnapping, to extortion — all sorts of terrible things are happening to people. I've met an individual who missed a court date because he was beat up and landed in the hospital from being robbed," says Velasquez.
Even Mexicans seeking asylum have to stay in Mexico, the country from which they're fleeing persecution.
There's a migrant protection protocol also known as the "remain in Mexico" policy, according to Velasquez. Asylum seekers from Spanish speaking countries other than Mexico have to return to Mexico as they wait for their case to be processed.
"The biggest problem with that, just from a practical standpoint, is access to attorneys, to legal help to make their asylum claim," Velasquez explains. "Asylum is a complicated process. There are a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of specialty in asylum law. And so it's already really difficult to win a case, particularly if you are representing yourself."
Velasquez says if a person is able to be released into the United States, they might be able to connect to some support systems there already, like family, find employment or find a legal resource.
"That's not happening because they're being returned to Mexico," she says. "So, it's already difficult and challenging to find legal assistance once you're released into the United States. But it's exponentially higher if you're remaining in Mexico to try and make your claim."
Finally, Velsquez says there's a safe third country rule. The rule says if you are arriving at the southern border by land, you cannot claim asylum in the U.S. unless you have made a claim of asylum in a third country, and you have been denied asylum in that third country.
She says these rules do not affect asylum seekers who filed their claims from the United States before these laws were implemented.
People may not realize it, but Velasquez says there's definitely a community of people from Central America and other countries living and working in Milwaukee who have asylum claims. She says there is certainly a need for legal resources for those folks here as well as at the border.