On Mexico border, asylum-seekers take organizing into own hands

Whitney Eulich

In a corner of the plaza leading to the El Chaparral US border crossing, refugees and migrants start gathering in small clusters around 6:30 a.m. for the daily waiting game.

On a recent morning, as a light rain falls, individuals and families with small children arrive and separate into two groups: those waiting to hear whether today will finally be their day – after weeks in limbo – to meet with a US border agent and ask for asylum, and those hoping to get their names on the waiting list.

The process is entirely volunteer-run, and the men and women who manage The List, as the long, black-and-white notebook is known, are all asylum-seekers themselves, hoping to create a sense of order in a disorganized, potentially chaotic process of entering the US through a legal port of entry to ask for protection. They aren’t vetted, and say they get nothing – like a better chance of being called – in return. Each tenure typically lasts a few weeks, and ends when the volunteer has his or her number called.

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They face a bottleneck. The US is increasingly relying on a practice at the border called “metering.” It limits the number of asylum-seekers allowed to enter the US each day to launch the asylum-request process, to make the case that they can claim credible fear of returning home. Because of a combination of “zero tolerance” policies and a shortage of judges to hear and process cases, some observers estimate there’s a backlog of more than 1 million such cases in US immigration courts.

That pileup is visible on the Mexico side of the border, too. Metering means a growing number of asylum-seekers waiting – and self-organizing – at US ports of entry.

Melvin, who fled his home in Central America last summer due to political violence, is reviewing identification cards and passports and assigning numbers on a recent morning. People carrying passports from Ukraine, Eritrea, and Honduras, alongside others hailing from troubled Mexican states such as Guerrero and Michoacán approach Melvin one by one to get their names added to The List. People are told not to even show up again for at least a month, the minimum wait before they’re likely to be called for a chance to talk to US agents. Melvin estimates 500 people have had their numbers called in his first week on the job.

Later that morning, a handful of numbers in the 1000s are read from the notebook. The 10 people associated with each number – if they’re present – are swept down the block to meet with an agent. If they miss the call, they’ll be bumped down the list.

Now that the 6,000-strong migrant caravan has arrived in Tijuana, the wait at this port of entry is expected to grow to some two months or more. Already, it’s leading to desperate attempts to cross the border by other means – squeezing through the border fence or trying to swim around the barrier’s end in the Pacific Ocean. (The expectation there is that being stopped by Customs and Border Protection agents will provide an opportunity to ask for asylum on the spot – instead of waiting months in crowded camps and shelters or scrambling to feed one’s family until your number is called.)

“They are being corralled at the border,” says Maritza Agundez, a lawyer with the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, who was visiting a muddy, flooded migrant camp on a recent morning. Part of her volunteer work in Tijuana consists of talking with migrants about their asylum claims and helping them determine whether their case is strong enough to merit waiting and applying for protection in the US versus pursuing opportunities, like permission to work, in Mexico.

“They have the legal right to apply for asylum in the US. That doesn’t mean they will get it – most people won’t,” she says, adding that The List has its benefits, but is imperfect. It's an added layer of bureaucracy in an already long, complicated journey for many here. No officials watch over it and there’s plenty of room for corruption and abuse. There have been allegations of favoritism and racism over whose name is called in the past. The notebook is handed off to a representative of Grupos Beta, part of Mexico's National Institute of Migration, at the end of each day, with the Mexican officials keeping it safe overnight. At some point they’re told how many people the US will see that day, and they pass that information on to the volunteers.

This morning, a young Nicaraguan man who has been volunteering to oversee the notebook stands up to denounce the lack of clarity around the process. One of his allegations is that someone has come to sign up multiple people from Argentina, even though they aren’t actually in Tijuana yet. At one point a Grupos Beta representative looks around panicked, not spotting the notebook. Melvin signals that it's zipped inside his jacket. The Nicaraguan volunteer finishes his speech to a sea of shaking heads but no tangible conclusion, and the registration process begins again.

Once launched, the asylum process itself can range from months to years. The timeline can differ depending on factors such as port of entry, age of applicants, number of beds open in nearby detention centers, and “just luck,” says Sarah Boone Gavigan, an immigration attorney with The Central American Resource Center.

A 20-year-old man in a purple sweatshirt approaches Melvin around 8:30 a.m. He presents his Honduras passport and receives a number. “Come back in a month,” Melvin tells him, warmly.

The young man accepts the slip of paper with his number scribbled on it and then, head down, he turns to walk away. “After everything,” he says – his father’s murder after missing an extortion payment back home, the risky 15-day trek he made across Mexico – “I really wasn’t expecting this wait.” 

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