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: Allison Sharkey

Fellowship site: Sin Fronteras, Mexico City, Mexico

Organizational Profile:

Full Name of Organization: Sin Fronteras, Institución de Asistencia Privada

Abbreviation and initials commonly used: Sin Fronteras, I.A.P.

Organizational Address: Puebla #153
Col. Roma
México D.F.
06700 México

Telephone number: (55 55) 5514-1519

Fax number: (55 55) 5514-1524

Email address:

Website Information:

Names of Executive Director and Senior Staff:
Fabienne Venet, Executive Director
Christian Rojas, Deputy Director
Karina Arias, Coordinator of Networking and Promotion
Mariann Sarquis, Coordinator of Assistance and Services

Number of Employed Staff (full-time__14__; part-time__2__)

Number of Volunteers: Around 10 at any one time.

Objectives of the Organization:
Sin Fronteras promotes and defends the human rights of migrants, refugees and their families through legal representation and social assistance, education, and national and regional advocacy and networking for improved migration legislation, policies and programs.

• To advocate for the development of immigration policies that comply with international human rights standards, guaranteeing the protection of the immigrant population.
• To influence the training of officials and workers involved in the immigration process, with the goal of guaranteeing respect for the human rights of migrants.
• To help immigrant and refugee populations increase their capacity for self-sufficiency.
• To create strategic alliances with other civil society organizations so that we can strengthen our dialog with the Mexican government on the human rights of immigrants.

Domestic/International Programs:
• Direct Assistance
• Capacity-building and empowerment
• Advocacy, outreach, and collaboration
Date of Information: October 1, 2003
Information Supplied by: Gretchen Kuhner and Karina Arias

Brief History of the Organization:


Sin Fronteras was founded in 1995 by a group of social activists, journalists and academics to promote the human rights of immigrants and refugees. During its first two years, the organization focused on social and legal assistance for predominantly Cenral American asylum seekers and refugess in Mexico through a project with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, the organization came to realize its broader mission to work on guaranteeing human rights for immigrants in general, including refugees, residing in and traveling through Mexico, through direct assistance, education, information, and advocacy on a national and regional level.

In addition to providing legal representation and emergency assistance to help refugees and immigrants build new lives in Mexico, Sin Fronteras now provides human rights education to immigrant and refugee communities as well as to government workers who come into contact with immigrants and refugees, and documents human rights abuses suffered by migrants. The organization advocates for immigration policy in Mexico and throughout the region that guarantees respect for the human rights of migrants, efforts strengthened by collaboration with other organizations in the US and Central America.

Responsibilities of Fellow, Accomplishments, and Works Started and Completed:

I worked in four areas: immigrant and refugee rights education; The Assistance to and Empowerment of Migrant Women, Boys, and Girls Susceptible to Domestic Violence Project; organizational development; and policy advocacy and collaboration.

Immigrant and Refugee Rights Education:

Sin Fronteras has developed effective, practical, and at times emotionally powerful workshops designed to teach various immigrant populations (women, detainees, refugees) about their rights as immigrants. I translated the written materials for a workshop aimed at the growing non-Spanish speaking population of refugees and immigrants working towards obtaining FM-3 visa status, an immigration status that permits legal residency for up to 5 years, work, and travel outside the country. The workshop gives immigrants the information they need to stabilize their status but also emphasizes a do-it-yourself approach to completing immigration procedures that strengthens immigrant community self-sufficiency and frees up the organization to focus on tough cases and advocacy.

The most rewarding experiences I had at Sin Fronteras were assisting with workshops at the Immigration Detention Center, essentially a jail in Mexico City where undocumented (and sometimes even documented) immigrants and refugees are held while awaiting deportation or regularization. I helped with two different workshops for detainees, one on Methods of Regularization and Leaving the Immigration Detention Center, and the other on Applying for Refugee Status. I assisted with documenting the workshops, answering some questions from participants, and helping with any last-minute errands needed to keep the workshops running smoothly. What was most valuable to me was the opportunity to be inside the Detention Center and to meet detainees and hear first-hand about how they decided to leave their countries and the experiences they have had on their long and difficult journeys, having been taken advantage of by coyotes (smugglers of immigrants) and representatives of multiple branches of security forces from several countries, only to find themselves in detention with little information about why they are being held and for how long.

Finally, I helped the human rights education project by preparing materials for a workshop for civil service workers who come into contact with immigrants and refugees but are not familiar with all Mexican immigration law, much less international human rights law.

The Assistance to and Empowerment of Migrant Women, Boys, and Girls Susceptible to Domestic Violence Project:

Sin Fronteras provides legal guidance to immigrant and refugee women fleeing domestic violence in both their countries of origin and here in Mexico, and conducts workshops for women to know their options in dealing with violence and rape. A new project aims to document abuse suffered by immigrant women in their home countries and during their journeys. I worked with several other staff members as well as staff from a collaborating indigenous rights organization to develop the questionnaire to be used in interviews with women about their experiences of abuse. I participated in interviews in which women, some in detention, talked about the domestic violence that caused them to leave home and/or verbal and sexual abuse by security authorities and by coyotes.

Organizational Development:

I helped with the preparation of funding requests, having some experience with applying to American donors. I translated a significant portion of the Sin Fronteras’ web site, the pages dedicated to the organization’s work. The web site is an important source of information for organizations and institutions on immigration policy, statistics, and news. Working on the translation brought up some updating that needs to be done of the Spanish, and therefore the English, version, so I hope the updates can be finished and the translation posted soon.

Policy Advocacy and Collaboration:

I think that all of Sin Fronteras’ work is undertaken with the aim of influencing immigration policy, from the level of daily decision making by detention center and border authorities, up to the adoption of international accords. The organization does work directly on policy formation and adoption, such as when they worked in collaboration with Central American human rights organizations to finally acquire enough signatories to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families to enable it to enter into force. Though much more of my time was spent in other areas, I did edit and update a translation of the Regional Guidelines for the Protection of Human Rights of Migrants in Situations of Detention, Deportation, and Reception.

Sin Fronteras sees building working collaborations with other organizations and institutions in Mexico, the US, and Central America as the key to passing legislation that respects the rights of immigrants. During my time in Mexico City I was able to meet individuals and representatives of many organizations, both as a Sin Fronteras intern and on my own time, including UNHCR, The Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR), a Guatemalan refugee who after 12 years residing legally in Mexico still occasionally finds himself in the detention center, relatives of Mexican activists disappeared in the 70’s and 80’s, members of the organizing committee of the 1968 demonstrations that ended in a massacre of hundreds of activists, farmers struggling to save their village from being appropriated for a new Mexico City airport (and winning!), workers and attorneys trying to bring democracy to their teachers’, electrical workers’, and petroleum workers’ unions, and many other friends and acquaintences who testify to the worsening economic conditions forcing people to leave their communities in search of work. It may not seem at first like all these people have anything to do with immigration issues, but each of them taught me first-hand about the many different conditions that drive people to take the risk of seeking out a better life in a new country.


It’s rare to feel like you’re really ever getting to the root of the problem when working on immigration issues. There are so many levels on which work is needed, from advocating on individual migrants’ cases up to lobbying for the ratification of international migrant rights accords, and it’s hard for me to know where to put my energy. For example, in the Detention Center in Mexico City, detainees complained of not having access to information, affordable phone cards, family members, and articles for basic hygiene. Detainees and Sin Fronteras were able to successfully change the policy that allocated only four squares of toilet paper per trip, and Sin Fronteras has developed a relationship with Detention Center staff that allows them to resolve these kinds of issues.

Resolution of livability and other human rights issues inside the Detention Center has the potential to consume several staff members’ time, meanwhile, detainees are finding themselves detained for months even though there’s a 3-day limit in the Constitution because there are conflicting laws that allow for longer detention. So legislative advocacy is needed to align legislation with the Constitution. Then I realized in one workshop that nearly all of the attendees, some of whom had been detained for two months, had perfectly valid documents to be traveling in Mexico when they were detained, and that their detention was probably a favor to the US INS, which is trying to minimize immigration from their home country, Brazil. Which brought me back to thinking that US immigration policy is where we need to focus out energies.

In that same workshop a man tearfully showed us pictures of his wife and baby who he had to leave on a second attempt because there is no work in Brazil. So while I can work to make US immigration policy more humane, that still doesn’t do anything to solve the global economic issues that cause people to have to leave their homes.

I worked at Sin Fronteras under good supervision so my duties were well established on a day to day basis, but in the long term, it's frustrating for me to want to work on so many fronts at the same time.

I wanted to intern with Sin Fronteras in order to get some ideas about how to improve US immigration policy. As a union organizer in a union driven more and more by immigrant workers, immigration policy that allows people to stop fearing the INS long enough to fight for their rights on the job is crucial. I had been thinking that Mexican immigration law could provide an example for US policy, and that by seeing a Mexican organization’s style I would come away with ideas for organizing in the US. This second part of my plan came true, but not the first: from what I have seen, Mexican immigration policy is similarly enforcement-based and neglectful of human rights. Abuse of immigrants’ human rights is particularly prevalent along its southern border, where increased militarization looks awfully similar to the US' Operation Gatekeeper on the US-Mexico border. There are an alarming number of refugees and immigrants who have lost their limbs or been killed attempting to hop trains along the southern border, the cheapest but most dangerous way of traveling around the border area. Corruption of security agents is no doubt much worse in Mexico, and the detention of people with valid visas really surprised and angered me. Although Mexico earned an admirable reputation for welcoming South American refugees during the crises there, apprehension and detention of asylum seekers is a problem in Mexico, and newer refugees from the non-Spanish speaking world do not always find Mexico to be so welcoming.

While having a impact on Mexican immigration policy is completely out of my league, I do feel more inspired than ever to work on US immigration policy. The need is more and more clear to me now that I have heard testimony from immigrants who have suffered so much abuse in transit because there is no way for the majority of people to move between countries legally and safely. Now I also have a better sense of just how many people are impacted in the US, Mexico, and Central America by US immigration policy. US immigration policy affects Mexicans to such an extent that every US Congressional discussion on immigration and every pro- or anti-immigration rally in the US is front page news in Mexico nearly every day.

The end of this month I am going to the US-Mexico border for three weeks. I want to understand better how enforcement happens on the border and to talk with immigrants' rights and labor organizations in the Tijuana and San Diego area. I will be staying and volunteering at a safe house for immigrants in Mexicali. I want to see the wall that separates Mexico from what was the other half of Mexico until 1848. Afterwards I'm going to the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico to spend two months with human rights organizations that support migrants in the state and that address the development and human rights issues that cause a large percentage of Oaxacans to leave Oaxaca and head north to other parts of Mexico and the US. I am staying in Mexico for several more months in order to speak Spanish as close to fluently as possible so that I can be more effective working on immigrants' and workers' rights when I return to the US.

I learned a lot of practical skills from the staff at Sin Fronteras that I will bring back to my work in the US. The organization has developed a balanced program of both attending to individual migrants’ immediate needs and advocating for more humane immigration policy nationally and regionally. I will be able to apply this kind of balancing to union organizing, where individual daily injustices on the job have the potential to be the inspiration for fighting for better labor and immigration law. Sin Fronteras also seems to have figured out how to develop a decent enough relationship with government workers and decision makers that they can have some influence in how policies are carried out, while still remaining independent and critical. This is something that unions struggle with too, and gives me some things to think about with labor relationships. At Sin Fronteras I also was part of some really effective workshops, and will incorporate some of the techniques in the meetings I facilitate, particularly those where we’re focusing on knowing and standing up for your rights at work.

Thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to come to Mexico and work with Sin Fronteras. The experience has really been invaluable in inspiring me and giving me new skills and ideas to keep organizing for immigrant workers’ rights in the US.

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