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CCIJ’s Kalli Flores-Lyon: Fighting For Immigrants’ Rights From Both Sides of the Border

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

CCIJ’s newest addition to the team, Kalli Flores-Lyon, spoke to our intern Danna Castro Galindo about their experiences advocating for immigrants’ rights from Tijuana as well as from their new role at CCIJ. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your background before coming to CCIJ?

I’m originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I grew up there and lived there through college. Oklahoma is where all of my roots are and where all of my mom’s family is from, but all of my dad’s family is from Mexico. My dad is from Mexico City and he came to Oklahoma when he was like 10 years old, so I have a little bit of family ties to the immigration process.

I just recently completed my bachelor’s degree in global justice from the University of Oklahoma; I graduated online in May of 2020, but I had almost finished all of my degree by December of 2018.

In January of 2019, I went down to Tijuana, Mexico at the border to start working with an organization called “Al Otro Lado,” and we worked with asylum seekers and potential asylum seekers that came through. We had a clinic down there, so that’s where I got a lot of my firsthand experience. I lived there for several months and after that I came back home to Oklahoma and I finished my degree.

Back tracking a little bit: Growing up, were there any events or people who influenced you to pursue this career path?

When I was really young, one of my best friend’s grandmother was a child advocacy attorney. I went with her, you know, just tagging along when she had to go to the courthouse. I was very young so I wasn’t always privy to every detail that was going on because sometimes these cases can be very heavy, but I knew the work that she was doing was advocating for kids. I was also a part of Girls Scouts and one of the programs that we helped with was this program where we helped facilitate daughters to be able to go see their mothers who were incarcerated. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world: the United States is at the top, and Oklahoma is at the top of the United States. These rates are especially true for women in Oklahoma, so that definitely had an impact on me.

Also, there’s that connection with my dad’s family history. All of my cousins, tíos, tías, todos – they’re still in Mexico, and that is a family that is separated by a border.

Can you talk about your experiences in undergrad and what led you to create your own major?

I started in the College of International Studies and was studying general international relations where I was really focused on the intersection between international relations and wider justice systems.

Unfortunately, a couple of my professors sort of had a white savior mentality, very capitalistic and [focused on how] countries in the Global North give so much to these countries in the Global South. I ended up having a lot of discourse between me and one professor where we disagreed on a lot of things, because she had worked in the field, but I was not quite agreeing with some of the things that she was teaching.

From that experience, I ended up taking a step back from finishing my degree, and that’s when I went to Tijuana. After my experiences in Tijuana, I wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree, but I knew that I wanted it to be on different terms. I basically went through the College of Arts and Sciences and did a planned program degree where I was able to take most of the coursework that I had already done and just combine it with a few more justice based classes to create the degree of global justice. Very long story short, I was eventually able to graduate, and even though it was a pandemic, I felt really good about the degree that I was able to put together and the trajectory that I was going to have after that.

Kalli in Tijuana during the time they volunteered for Al Otro Lado.

What are the main hardships you’ve experienced while working in this field and what helped you overcome them?

I think there’s kind of two areas, and one is sort of personal: How do you deal with second hand trauma when you are working with populations that have been marginalized, traumatized, taken advantage of, abused by the system, fleeing their country for really horrible reasons?

In order for them to pass a credible fear interview and even get into the US, we would have to do an intake, take their story, and let them know what are the important parts for the legal system of the United States. To individuals, their whole entire story is important and valid, but to the legal system that is not necessarily the case, so you have to kind of take in all of this information. Sometimes it was very heavy and it was challenging to know how to care for people while also caring for yourself.

The other side of the difficulties comes from navigating an ever changing legal landscape. The main thing that comes to my mind is that when I was there we were obviously under the Trump administration, and they had just implemented what they call the Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP. Essentially, when folks were finally able to cross over the border despite waiting for months in the metering system, despite not having their rights as asylum seekers honored, they would finally come to the US, they would get a court date in a San Diego immigration court, and they would get kicked right back to Tijuana to wait.

There were a lot of challenges but also a lot of joy, and there was a lot of learning that I did. I don’t think I would be as competent in the work that I am doing now had I not had those experiences as well.

What were some of your most rewarding experiences volunteering in Tijuana?

During the clinic we always had someone to watch the kids because folks will come to the clinic with their kids, and you’re not going to talk about your super traumatic backstory while your child is there, so we always had kids playing in their little play area. Throughout the day there were always kids laughing, drawing pictures, learning new words, or playing with each other, so there was always that joy.

Also, one thing that really connected us always was food. On the bottom floor of the building we were in there was a giant kitchen where Comida No Bombas (Food Not Bombs) would always cook food and serve it there. And for our MPP clinics, we knew that it was going to take a long time, people had to come and be there almost all day, so we coordinated – I ended up doing a little bit of everything. On the one hand, I was running upstairs making sure everyone was with their lawyer and, on the other, I was downstairs making arroz con pollo. It was crazy but also so wonderful to share a huge meal with a lot of people that wouldn’t normally be in the same place and see everyone’s spirit get lifted.

“One thing that really connected us always was food.” Kalli during their time as a volunteer in Al Otro Lado.

What advice would you give to people who are struggling with self care?

My advice to other people doing that type of work is to try to establish really strong boundaries about when you’re working and when you’re not working, or when you know you are having a harder day being able to say no to different projects. Also, just being honest with yourself and honest with the team that you’re working with.

Reading about the effects of secondhand trauma was also helpful because I went in thinking “Well, none of this has ever happened to me so I’m fine.” But no, when you work with people that you care about, it affects you too. We need to make space for hard and difficult emotions instead of just shying away from them. I think it’s easy to just bury yourself in workaholism instead of actually taking space to take care of yourself and your emotions.

Finally, what drew you here to CCIJ?

I first heard about CCIJ from Katie Kavanagh (CCIJ’s senior attorney) when she was in Tijuana, helping with the Pro se clinics. Katie and I actually started working together because we were attempting to present some minors at the port of entry so they could try to seek asylum. It was a very crazy evening, and we were facing backlash from CBP; they did not want to let us cross those minors. It was a very long night and, after that, Katie and I stayed in touch – she’s definitely been a mentor for me.

Later on, when she was telling me about CCIJ, I was so impressed with the work that was being done, specifically the mission of working to get folks out of detention. That sounds like a simple mission, but it’s so important to me because when I was in Tijuana, and I was on that side of the border, I started to feel a lot of guilt that people would come to us and we would send them across the border for them to go be detained and for horrible things to happen to them in detention. I think being able to work on this side, with folks who are in detention, and trying our best to get them out so that they can live their full lives like that is really rewarding as well.

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