Two Minnesota attorneys' trip to the border captures 18-hour standoff with officials

Kara Lynum volunteered to represent asylum seekers in Mexico in Dec. 2018.
Kara Lynum is a St. Paul-based attorney who volunteered to represent asylum seekers in Mexico in December 2018.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Kara Lynum is not a stranger to the U.S-Mexico border: She was there during the surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014. She's volunteered in detention centers in Texas.

"You'd be sitting there talking to a mother, who's really similar to my age, telling me those horrible stories about sexual assault and gang violence and gang recruitment of her children, who were sitting right next to her having to listen to their mother explain these horrible stories," she said. "It really stuck with me."

Lynum made her fifth visit to the border area for five days in December 2018 to volunteer to represent asylum seekers. The St. Paul-based immigration attorney traveled to San Diego with Ana Pottratz Acosta, an assistant teaching professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

The duo felt they needed to go, as there aren't many lawyers there who specialize in asylum law. Migrants are forced to navigate a complex system on their own, often unsuccessfully.

President Trump, who called the situation on the border a "crisis" during a prime-time speech Tuesday evening, is scheduled to head to the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday. Pottratz Acosta and Lynum, two longtime immigration attorneys, agree that there is a crisis — a humanitarian one that the Trump administration has brought upon itself.

MPR News provided them a recorder to document parts of their trip. They described a section of the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana in Baja California, Mexico, that goes right into the ocean.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence.
The U.S.-Mexico border fence in the Las Playas Area on Sunday, in Tijuana, Mexico.
Sandy Huffaker | Getty Images

"It's really odd to be seeing metal fencing literally going into the ocean," Pottratz Acosta said.

"And obviously hastily added wire at the top of the border," added Lynum. "And we just got out of an Uber and the last thing the guy said to us is, 'be careful of the coyotes,' and drove off."

Lynum and Pottratz Acosta knew they'd be representing asylum seekers in Tijuana. Thousands of migrants have made their way up from Central America to Mexico, heading for the border.

The attorneys did not know about the backlogs and bottlenecks they would encounter.

At the San Ysidro Land Port in San Diego is a long walkway, about a mile, to get to the U.S. port of entry. Lately, it's been lined with armed Mexican authorities — who Lynum said appeared ready to detain asylum seekers heading for the United States. On the Mexican side, in Tijuana, migrants from Central America have been waiting in camps.

"It's just a big open cement plaza. So there is a small pop-up tent, like a tailgating tent, where they house the list management under," Lynum said. "And there is a little queue of people signing up."

The list is an unofficial tracking system created by the migrants themselves, according to the attorneys. The U.S. government doesn't recognize it. It's a first-in-first-out system, managed by a person who is also waiting to ask for asylum. The United States has set a limit on the number of people allowed to ask for asylum each day — Lynum said it was about 40 when they were there in mid-December.

On that list, there are 10 names per number, Pottratz Acosta said, and it's all through word of mouth when people get called.

Attorney Ana Pottratz Acosta stands for a portrait.
Mitchell Hamline law professor and attorney Ana Pottratz Acosta stands for a portrait inside of a United Family Medicine clinic in St. Paul in May 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"If there are 500 numbers waiting to be called, that's about 5,000 people," she said. "So it's a crazy backlog and the people at the end of the list potentially could be waiting months before it's their turn to present."

About 20 minutes east of the San Ysidro Port of Entry is Otay Mesa, Calif. Pottratz Acosta and Lynum headed there a couple of days after arriving. With a group of attorneys and two members of Congress from California — Rep. Jimmy Gomez and Rep. Nanette Barragan — 20 asylum seekers lined up. They included eight unaccompanied minors, two families with children and one single adult male.

Lynum said border officials told everyone they didn't have the capacity to process the asylum seekers. Typically, migrants are screened at the border and then taken to a facility. But this time, the group was in a standoff with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents while Mexican authorities stood by.

Included in this group was the Honduran mother seen in a Reuters photo that went viral — she was running from tear gas with her two small children.

"They were telling her to go to a different port of entry," Lynum said.

At this port of entry, a line on the ground separates the two countries. Once on U.S. soil, a person is allowed to ask for asylum.

A section of the reinforced U.S.-Mexico border fence.
A section of the reinforced U.S.-Mexico border fence on the Otay Mesa area, San Diego County, as seen from Tijuana, in Baja California state, Mexico, Sunday.
Guillermo Arias | AFP | Getty Images

"We're just going to stay until these people are processed," Lynum said in a phone call that evening, "which might be all night."

That's what happened. After 18 hours waiting on U.S. soil, sleeping outside with a member of Congress, the group got in. The unaccompanied minors went in first. The families, including a 3-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old, followed.

Lawyers said they don't know what changed. Lynum suspects that because it's a busy port of entry for commuters and visitors and because the group was sort of an eyesore, the Border Patrol decided to let it in before the morning rush.

Pottratz Acosta said she finds it frustrating that, on the one hand, the Department of Homeland Security says people should apply for asylum the right way, at a port of entry, instead of crossing illegally. But on the other hand, it prevents certain people from doing so.

"The fact that they were deliberately not following the law and just flagrantly engaging in action that was so obviously illegal in front of a team of lawyers, in front of two members of Congress," she said. "It's hard to believe. If it hadn't happened in front of my own eyes, I would have a hard time believing that this actually happened."

At a congressional hearing last month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said capacity issues have kept Border Patrol agents from processing asylum seekers. But she also emphasized that the department is working to stop drugs and other illegal activity from seeping into the United States.

"We want to discourage those who are claiming asylum fraudulently," she told the House Judiciary Committee, adding that 80 percent pass an initial evaluation but only 10 percent are granted asylum by a judge.

But immigration lawyers say asylum decisions vary based on where in the country they apply and which judge hears the case.

In Minnesota's Bloomington immigration court, denial rates from 2013 to 2018 have ranged from 70 percent to 97 percent, depending on the judge, according to TRAC Immigration, a project from Syracuse University.

Attorneys also said everyone they met in Tijuana who was seeking asylum had a valid claim.

"People talk, 'Oh, it's just the caravan,'" Lynum said. "You don't walk 2,000 miles to get away from nothing."