TIJUANA — Every morning the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, a stream of commuters flows into the San Ysidro port of entry to cross into the United States. Nearby, in the open air of an adjacent plaza, crowds of asylum seekers patiently arrange themselves in line. This contrast is striking: Both groups hope to enter the United States, but for the people who have come to request international protection, the journey is plagued with uncertainty.

Lately, that uncertainty is by design. Despite the Trump administration's insistence that asylum seekers enter the United States legally, it has rolled out a series of policies at the border that make it nearly impossible for them to do so. And it's created a kind of purgatory for people who are trying to play by the rules. Many asylum seekers can't come in legally; if they try, this administration doesn't always let them stay, despite the harms they'd face in Mexico or in their home countries.

Waiting and waiting

While volunteering at the border this winter, we observed that asylum seekers are no longer allowed to approach the U.S. port of entry. Instead, they're told they must first request a number from what is known as "the list" and wait, often for weeks, until it's their turn. This "list" is ostensibly necessary because of limited processing capacity — though these capacity issues haven't previously caused problems, and rates of asylum claims have not significantly increased in recent years. This unofficial, sometimes arbitrary practice is called "metering," and U.S. border officials have increased it in recent months.

For those fleeing persecution and torture, the list can have life-or-death consequences. Many of the asylum seekers in the plaza have fled horrific gender-based or gang violence. The risk that their persecutors will find them during the delay is real, particularly for Mexicans and those targeted by transnational criminal organizations. Even for those who haven't been tracked down by their persecutors, migrants in Tijuana face significant discriminationand are targets for organized crime. Women and young migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, sexual violence, extortion and forced gang recruitment.

After providing their name and identity documents, asylum seekers receive a number, which marks their place on the list of those waiting to present themselves at the border. Although it's unclear who created the list, one of the most disturbing aspects is that neither the U.S. nor the Mexican government takes responsibility for the queue. Instead, a few asylum seekers are tasked with managing the list and recording the information of their fellow asylum seekers. The disclaimer of responsibility by U.S. and Mexican governments for the list appears intended to reduce their accountability, though legal challenges are pending.

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Asylum seekers shelter in Tijuana, Mexico — Photo: Vito Di Stefano/ ZUMA

Sitting ducks

Over the course of two weeks in Tijuana, we observed the daily routines of the plaza. As new names are recorded, those who received their numbers weeks before wait to see if today is the day they will finally be called. Some buy smoothies and tacos at nearby stands, seamlessly fitting into the early rush hour. Eventually, the list managers begin calling numbers based on information they've received from Mexican and U.S. officials.

The arrangement lacks any semblance of confidentiality: Full names are announced in public, and the list itself is maintained in a composition-style notebook. Given the nature of asylum claims and the reach of organized crime, this public announcement of those who intend to seek asylum carries significant risk.

Some of those selected for entry begin to write the phone numbers of U.S. contacts on their arms in permanent marker, anticipating that border patrol will confiscate their documents and phones. We also saw mothers rolling up their children's sleeves to write their own names and phone numbers on their children's bare arms, due to the ongoing threat of family separation. After a brief wait, the group is taken into the custody of the U.S. government, and detained.

While we were in Tijuana, the Trump administration began to implement its latest effort to restrict asylum, the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as "Remain in Mexico." Under this new policy, the U.S. government claims the authority to return migrants to Mexico to await their U.S. court dates — returning them to the vulnerability that characterizes most people's wait in Tijuana.

Disregarding the rules

This new policy violates domestic and international law. Last week, our organization — the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies — joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center in filing a legal challenge to the legality of the MPP in the U.S. federal court. But until the court issues a decision, the unlawful returns continue, with significant human costs.

For example, while in Tijuana we spoke with one man — "Daniel" — who was among the first to be subjected to the MPP. Daniel* fled his home country in Central America after a powerful gang attempted to extort a close relative, who was murdered when he refused to pay; the gang then began threatening Daniel and his family.

After waiting through the list and presenting himself at the port of entry, Daniel was allowed to enter the United States. Officials woke him in the middle of his first night in U.S. custody and said it was time for an interview. The conversation was brief — a few minutes — during which he shared his fear of returning to Central America and answered some basic demographic questions. Then Daniel was sent back to his cell. Later that day, U.S. officials returned him to Tijuana.

The interviewer never asked if Daniel was afraid to go back to Mexico or if he had any medical conditions — both factors that are supposed to exempt people from being sent to Mexico. Nevertheless, the interviewer wrote that Daniel stated he had no illness or fear of staying in Mexico. When we translated a written copy of the interview back to him, Daniel was shocked. He emphatically stated that he feared the gang members would locate and kill him in Mexico. He also said he suffers from a serious illness, readily giving the name of the underlying bacterial infection.

The MPP is just the latest in the line of actions taken by the Trump administration to profoundly restrict lawful immigration. And in the past few weeks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have also begun questioning journalists and lawyers who work along the border. For lawyers, this could have serious implications for the privacy of their asylum-seeking clients.

Each of Trump's policies — from imposing capacity limits at the ports of entry to increasing arbitrary detention to attempting to alter substantive asylum standards — is unlawful and cruel. Together, these measures erode a fundamental right that has been affirmed by domestic and international law for decades: Refugees should not be returned to harm. We must recognize the humanity of those fleeing for their lives, and adhere to a fair system for evaluating asylum claims.


See more from Migrant Lives here