At a time of ambivalence to immigration, attorneys gather in Tijuana to help those desperate to enter U.S. legally

Nora Phillips stood five miles from the United States border in a hilltop neighborhood of cinderblock homes and low swooping electrical lines.

Inside the migrant shelter, hundreds of Mexicans, Central Americans and Haitians crowded, desperate for a way to cross into the U.S. — legally.

“Merci pour votre patience,” Phillips, 35, said, thanking the French-speaking Haitians for their patience.

Phillips, of East Los Angeles, was one of 45 immigration attorneys who had converged to hear their pleas.

Some had been deported before. Others were hoping to ask for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Some had tales that many would find sympathetic; a few had back stories that would make others cringe.

Phillips had persuaded the other attorneys — some from as far away as New York — into volunteering in early October for a two-day legal clinic in Tijuana.

“At a minimum, in a democracy, you deserve to know what your rights are,” said Phillips, who guzzled down orange DayQuil as she fought a cold. Her 5-year-old daughter tagged along for the clinic. “My job as an attorney is to take a case at face value and assess whether you qualify for anything under the law that currently exists.”

The work Phillips and the other attorneys undertook was far from new. But it happens at a time when, more than any time in recent memory, the issue of mass migration — whether by immigrants from Mexico and Central America or refugees from Syria and other parts of the world — is generating intense global anxiety and setting the tenor for a presidential election.

“I don’t want to rip families apart,” Hillary Clinton said during the last presidential debate, reiterating a promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform to give legal status to millions in the country.

By Cindy Carcamo for Los Angeles Times
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