Around 7:00 one morning last month, a large open plaza in the Mexican border city of Tijuana began to fill with migrants. They huddled in tight groups in the plaza, called El Chaparral, which hugs the San Ysidro port of entry into the United States.
It was chilly, windy and wet—typical February weather in Tijuana. Many of the migrants had awakened early and travelled for hours from distant albergues, or shelters. A few warmed themselves with a Styrofoam cup of hot champurrado or a tamal purchased from a local street vendor.
Editor’s Note: Lea la versión en español aquí.
The rest of Tijuana was slowly waking up. Partygoers emerged shakily from seedy nightclubs on nearby Calle Coahuila and walked past pharmacies advertising bargain-priced Viagra and Cialis. At the edge of the plaza, white and green taxis battled Uber drivers for the business of both tourists and locals, and commuters headed through the rusty border fence on foot, leaving behind the maquiladoras in Tijuana for the Las Americas Premium Outlets in San Diego.
It was a journey the people shivering in El Chaparral could not make.
The 7:00 am start time is not random. It’s when the migrants are officially allowed, on every morning of the week, including weekends, to approach a small red canvas pavilion located in the plaza, where they can enter their names with a ballpoint pen on what everyone calls “la lista” (the list).
The list, contained in a large, frayed composition notebook, is effectively the gatekeeper to the sprawling U.S. immigration system at this section of the U.S.-Mexican border for those fleeing oppression or poverty in their homelands.
It represents a collaborative effort by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Grupos Beta, the self-described humanitarian wing of the Mexican National Institute for Migration (known by its Spanish initials as INM) to control the flow of asylum-seekers into the U.S.
Its legality is highly suspect, at best.
Some immigration advocates argue that it effectively creates a barrier to entry, violating U.S. guarantees that permit asylum-seekers to make a direct claim at a port of entry or anywhere in U.S. territory for up to one year after arrival, regardless of their method of entry.
Formally called “metering,” the list system was adopted by CBP in 2016 to slow the influx of Haitians arriving at the San Diego and Calexico ports of entry, according to the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. There are currently lists at each port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tijuana’s lista is the largest.
On the surface, the list system is straightforward. Those wishing to seek asylum can add their names to the handwritten list between 7:00 am and 10:00 am, seven days a week. They are assigned a number, and told to check back at the pavilion or on a website listing the last number called daily.
When the list managers begin to call out names through the megaphone, the plaza falls mostly silent. If their names are called, individuals present their identification and then wait for Grupos Beta agents to load their belongings into a waiting INM van, which drives them roughly a mile along a gated, dirt road to PedEast, the border facility operated by CBP and private contractors from Paragon Systems.
CBP then takes them to Otay Mesa, a secured detention center, where they are held until they are interviewed by officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, who determine whether their claim is worthy of a judge’s attention.
A rough average of around 40 people successfully passed through the list daily in February. By the end of the month, the Tijuana list’s backlog contained 3,000 names, and it was getting larger every day.
Just getting on the list is no guarantee that a claim will be approved. Due to the complexity and restrictiveness of U.S. asylum law, many will not qualify, despite their claims of trauma and violence suffered in their home countries.
But even though the impersonal and chaotic bureaucratic process that begins in El Chaparral seems designed to discourage asylum-seekers, it is no deterrent.
“No hay de otra,” one asylum seeker from the Mexican state of Michoacán muses when I ask him why he tolerates the frustrations of la lista. (To protect their anonymity, the names of migrants interviewed for this story have been withheld.)
“There is no other way.”
He was right. Asylum-seekers who try to present their claims directly at the border, even though they are entitled to do so under law, do not even reach customs. Instead, they run into a stern Mexican policeman directing them toward the red pavilion.
Others waiting in the plaza that morning made clear they were willing to endure the conditions in the shelters, the makeshift bureaucracy of the red pavilion, and the seemingly endless wait for their number to come up.
“I am on a quest for stability,” a Cameroonian migrant told me.
“I put my faith in God that I’ll get through this,” added a Honduran man traveling with his 17-year old son.
A Global Bottleneck
I spent three weeks in and around El Chaparral last month as a volunteer interpreter and translator for the Al Otro Lado Border Rights Project, a primarily volunteer-run and donation-financed legal aid organization for migrants based in Tijuana.
The experience was an eye-opening look at how Washington’s chaotic, hardline immigration policies are applied at ground level—and how they have created, in the process, a burgeoning humanitarian crisis on our southern border.
El Chaparral is now a gathering point for thousands of people from across the globe who are not just seeking brighter economic prospects across the border; many are fleeing for their lives.
Since November 2018, Al Otro Lado has worked with individuals of at least 37 different nationalities passing through Tijuana.
Most come from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In February 2019, I saw that the largest component of migrants waiting to get their names on the list at El Chaparral came from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.
Others came from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Yemen, Turkey, and Russia.
A surprisingly large contingent came from Central and West African countries, including Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, Mauritania, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Their stories of suffering and survival are harrowing.
One Cameroonian man sits quietly in the plaza. As he begins to share his story with me, his eyes reveal deep melancholy. We sit staring out at the rolling hills of Tijuana and San Diego from a rooftop near the border, trying to retain the heat of the setting sun.
He was one of the 200,000 people displaced after the Cameroonian government’s brutal crackdown against Anglophone secessionists and others after December 2017. Aloof from politics for his whole life, he was falsely accused of being a secessionist when the military raided the business of a friend. Arrested and tortured, he narrowly escaped into the jungle when his captors lost focus, only to be recaptured and tortured again.
“I saw and experienced things that I did not believe humans were capable of inflicting upon one another,” he said.
In a lucky turn of events, a stranger broke him out of detention. He escaped his country in the back of a truck covered in pig feces, with his face wrapped in cloth to blunt the odor. With the help of an airport worker, he evaded Nigerian customs before landing in Mexico City.
A death order awaits him in Cameroon. He is placing his hopes for survival on “la lista.”
But for him, and for other Cameroonians, the clock is ticking. The Mexican government held many refugees from Cameroon in a mass detention center for days in Tapachula, Chiapas, before allowing them to continue on their journey. Some have humanitarian visas, which are different from permanent asylum claims. Others have notices to vacate Mexico within 15 days.
Central American migrants face particular brutality.
After the so-called “caravan” of migrants began heading north and became a hot political issue in the U.S. and Mexico, the official response to their plight turned from hostility to violence.
In late November, CBP forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at a caravan group predominantly composed of people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Media reports suggested that the caravan participants had staged a demonstration and tried to scale the nearby border fence. According to a Mexican source who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from government reprisals, Mexican security forces first corralled the migrants into the drained canal next to the border, largely contributing to the unrest preceding the attack.
The incident was followed by a large increase of Mexican and U.S. security forces in Tijuana and San Diego in November and December. The number of Mexican security forces actively patrolling Tijuana streets dwindled through January and February but is expected to grow over the next few months as successive new groups of migrants arrive from Central America.
Additionally, many Central Americans exercising their right to approach the border and ask for asylum are often not even sent to the red pavilion to add their names to the list at El Chaparral. Instead, they have been detained and deported by the U.S. or Mexican governments to their countries of origin.
In one example, a formerly deported Salvadoran woman explained to me that when she last tried to apply for asylum, the CBP agent who detained her only asked her if she was Central American before forcing her to sign a document that led to her deportation.
Migrants also endure hostility from Tijuana locals, who openly complain about Central Americans in particular, often referring to them as “dirty hondureños,” regardless of their nationality, and blame any local delinquency or drug use on them.
One afternoon, I met a young man with a warm manner and kind eyes from El Salvador who showed up at the plaza in late February. He had escaped in the wake of death threats from the Maras gang after refusing to help them run drugs. On the way north to Tijuana with four friends, he was accosted by traffickers who demanded he smuggle drugs on foot across the desert. Everyone refused.
Of the five in his group, he is the only survivor. The others were kidnapped, and he does not know what became of them.
Unaccompanied youth roam the streets near El Chaparral. I met a boy from Guinea, a girl from Mexico, and several from Central America. Some are LGBTQ and thus at an increased risk of harm. They resort to scavenging for food and selling candies to passersby on street corners.
One shared with me his deepest dream: becoming a professional soccer player. His knee likely needs surgery and he walks in pain.
La lista is off-limits to unaccompanied minors.
Mexican officials often place them in the custody of the Mexican National System for Integral Family Development (DIF), from where they are then deported, according to National Lawyers’ Guild border monitors.
Legal aid organizations must twist arms to convince CBP to receive these unaccompanied minors. When minors approach agents by themselves, CBP regularly turns them away. No due process, just a stiff arm.
But when adults accompany minors to present themselves to customs, CBP’s tune is different.
The agents roll their eyes and let out a sigh. “Stand aside.” They pat them down and process them begrudgingly.
The unlucky ones who have escaped the eyes of authorities are stranded in Tijuana, left on their own to look for refuge. Their absolute numbers are unclear.
How the List Works
Around 8:00 each morning, one or two orange-jacketed agents of Grupos Beta, the organization designated by the National Institute of Migration to supervise the Mexican immigration system, show up at the pavilion.
On their backs of their jackets are the words: Protección a Migrantes (Migrant Protection). But they in effect do the work of the U.S. government in controlling the daily flow to the border. They are integral to a process that keeps thousands of migrants in daily peril of armed robbery, kidnapping, starvation, or even death—and deters many from exercising their constitutionally-protected right to claim asylum.
CBP delegates list management to Grupos Beta. Given that the list stays on Mexican soil, CBP can distance itself from administering the list.
In reality, CBP authorities determine how many migrants they will receive from the list on any given day. Every morning, during the three weeks I spent in Tijuana, I watched Grupos Beta communicate this number, known as “daily capacity,” to those anxiously waiting at El Chaparral.
La lista appears to operate with the tacit approval of U.S. authorities.
In a lengthy emailed statement, a San Diego-based CBP spokesperson said the increase in asylum-seekers had forced the agency to “manage the queues”—effectively bottling them up in Mexico to reduce the pressure on U.S. border authorities.
“As we have done for several years, when our ports of entry reach capacity, we have to manage the queues; and individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities,” she wrote, citing a 121 percent increase in the number of individuals processed—some 93,000 claims—in fiscal year 2018.
The agency processes asylum-seekers “as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency’s overall mission or compromising the safety of individuals within our custody,” she continued.
The number of individuals processed through the system depends on “case complexity available resources, medical needs, translation requirements, holding/detention space, overall port volume, and ongoing enforcement actions,” the statement explained.
The statement went into more detail about the question of daily capacity:
“Port of Entry facilities were not designed to hold hundreds of people at a time who may be seeking asylum. And we are also charged with keeping the flow of legitimate trade and travel. Balancing these demands, keeping illicit goods and people out of the country, and managing the influx of Central Americans seeking asylum (along with everything else we do) requires a careful balance of our resources and space.”
When asked if CBP has requested additional funding or resources to process the increase in constitutionally protected asylum claims, the San Diego office deferred to its Washington headquarters.
At the time of publication, they have not responded.
While I was at El Chaparral, I witnessed the Betas make all final decisions about who would be admitted on the list and whose names would be called. But the arbitrary nature of the list was underscored when, on one occasion a woman missed her number, and a legal observer interceded, challenging Grupos Beta’s authority to make rules for the list.
The Beta eventually stepped back and allowed the woman to board the van and present her asylum claim to CBP.
Grupos Beta tasks migrants with receiving and calling names on the list, to reinforce a narrative that they are merely there to provide assistance. In return, the Betas promise these people, known as list managers, that they will gain an earlier, secured spot on the list itself.
Past list managers have been punished or thrown from the list entirely for providing information or appearing to cooperate with legal observers and human rights advocates, I was told by a spokesperson for Al Otro Lado.
Grupos Beta could not be reached for comment regarding its role in administering the list, despite calls to several listed numbers and one written request.
Facing the long waits on the list, many give up entirely. Roughly half of those on the list were not present in February when their names were called.
Some migrants, facing waiting periods at El Chaparral that have grown to over two months, resort to bribing Grupos Beta to skip the line.
One morning, a multi-generational family appeared on the line, and the patience of the patriarch leading the group was running thin.
“We have an arreglo (arrangement) with the Beta,” he mutters, after a Mexican national policeman blocks his path.
Minutes later, without being called from the list, several Beta agents discreetly load his family into the vans.
The number-calling ritual enacted every morning at El Chaparral is a somber, yet chaotic process. And it can also be violent.
Some migrants have reported to Al Otro Lado that they were physically beaten between their departure from El Chaparral and their handoff to CBP custody.
The PedEast facility at San Ysidro processes some 25,000 border-crossers daily, including both pedestrians and 22 lanes of vehicle traffic. Asylum seekers who enter the CPB facility for processing disappear from the sight of human rights observers.
The only legal aid organization with a consistent presence every morning at El Chaparral is the Al Otro Lado Border Rights Project. When individuals’ numbers are called, volunteer attorneys, interpreters, and others conduct emergency outreach to inform asylum-seekers of the requirements of U.S. asylum law.
But over the short period I was at El Chaparral, the Betas made it more difficult for pro bono attorneys offering emergency legal consultations to speak with those crossing regarding their cases.
By the end of February, they had moved asylum-seekers behind a thick white fence to wait for the vans. Emergency legal consultations had to be conducted through the fence.
One morning, I watch as a small girl bundled in a scarf and a tiny pink jacket pulls a gray suitcase taller than her toward the van waiting to take her family to the border crossing. Her mother carries her sister and bags in front of her with solemn resolve.
Two Cameroonians enter at the other side of the gate. They turn back to grasp the hands of their remaining friends through the thick white fence rails of the INM parking lot.
Then a departing joke to their friends through the fence: “We don’t speak to you Mexicans any more. We are Americans now.”
To the Other Side
I volunteered at Al Otro Lado as an interpreter of Spanish, French, and English. But whatever the language, the message to asylum seekers preparing to cross on any given day lands with a thud.
Once you are taken to one of the holding centers on the border, nicknamed hieleras (iceboxes) because temperature are kept uncomfortably low, you will likely be forced to strip down to your bottom layer of clothing. You will not have a bed or pillow. This applies to the elderly, children, women, and the sick.
There is no guarantee you will have access to medical services.
You could be in the hieleras for weeks before your asylum interview.
CBP will likely attempt to force you to sign deportation and family separation documents. (The volunteer attorneys caution migrants not to sign anything they don’t understand.)
There is a strong possibility authorities will try to separate you from your children. Children traveling without a parent or legal guardian and proof of the relationship, or U.S. children who are citizens and traveling with non-citizen parents, are at an extremely high risk for separation.
Parents write their names and birth dates and a contact number in the U.S. on their children’s arms with permanent markers. Tears flow and hugs do not end.
Most of those who make it to Tijuana and add their names to the list believe that they’ll receive a friendly welcome from U.S. customs, or at least a fair hearing of their plight.
But disillusionment sets in fast.
“I thought that the United States was a place that respected human rights,” one self-identified LGBTQ man from Jamaica sighs as he contemplates the conditions in CBP detention. “But now I see that is not true.”
At the time we spoke, he was stranded in the list backlog.
The Price of Rejection
The list at El Chaparral, frustrating as it is, represents only a portal to further roadblocks that may await the asylum-seeker who crosses the border: family separation, indefinite detention, and possible deportation.
U.S. asylum law covers people who fear for their life in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, or political opinion, or for belonging to a particular threatened social group (e.g., LGBTQ people, ex-paramilitaries, victims of domestic violence, etc.).
Asylum-seekers have the right to an interview in their native language. This is their chance to give a detailed explanation of what happened to them, who harmed them, and why.
They must also explain why the police at home are unable to protect them, and why they are unable to relocate within their home country.
Failure to present a convincing case means they will not see a judge and will almost certainly be deported. But even if an applicant passes the interview, they could be detained for months, or in some cases returned to Mexico, to await their court date.
One morning, on their return trip from handing off migrants to CBP, Grupos Beta dropped six shell-shocked children and three women at El Chaparral. Alone and without protection, they were again vulnerable to the same dangers they fled while they awaited their day in court.
Conditions in migrant shelters operated by the Mexican government are rudimentary. Immigrant advocates I spoke to say many are threatened with kidnapping or extortion by organized crime groups.
Early this year, the Department of Homeland Security claimed the authority to return asylum-seekers to Mexico under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
In a January 2019 statement, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen called the MPP a “humanitarian approach [which] will help to end the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”
Conceding it was an “unprecedented” move, she claimed the protocols were necessary to address the “urgent humanitarian and security crisis at the Southern border.”
Multiple organizations, including Al Otro Lado, have joined in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to challenge the legal basis for MPP.
The MPP represents “violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as the United States’ duty under international human rights law not to return people to dangerous conditions,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the organizations participating in the lawsuit.
For many of those waiting in El Chaparral, Tijuana is a dead end.
The second week of February, I met a Honduran couple and their two children. As the father shared the story of their exodus from Tegucigalpa, he was fearful. Tears welled in his eyes.
“I never planned to leave [Tegucigalpa],” he told me. “But the pandilleros (gangsters) came to my home in masks. They beat me to the ground with the butt of their rifles in front of my children.”
His youngest is nearly two years old.
“They demanded we leave our home within 48 hours. They are now living in it. We took everything we could and fled.”
Traveling across Mexico by bus with limited funds and temporary Mexican humanitarian visas, their journey had not been pleasant.
Devout evangelicals, they were lucky to find a pastor in Tijuana who lodged them for almost two weeks. But then he left town for a mission trip. They couldn’t stay.
The distraught father called me one morning. The high number they had been given meant they would wait at least a month before they could take the bumpy journey in the van to CBP.
Out of money and uncertain of whether they could find a place in a shelter, he was afraid they could not survive the wait.
“We don’t know what to do,” he admitted.
The family never returned to collect their translated documents or shelter information.
It was the last time we spoke.
Editor’s Note: A Spanish-language version of this story is available here.
Additional Reading: Scheduling Glitch Affects First Hearings for ‘Remain in Mexico’ Returnees
Roman Gressier, a news intern and contributing writer for The Crime Report, was a volunteer with Al Otro Lado from Feb. 7 to Feb. 28. A graduate of the CUNY Baccalaureate Program at John Jay College, he is a former applied research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome.