We hear many stories about El Paso and the other border-crossing points in Texas, as we should. But the largest crossing point in the entire hemisphere, with tens of thousands of people waiting to cross over into the U.S. is in Tijuana, Mexico.
We don’t often hear about the families that face four to six months in Tijuana before they can even cross over into U.S. detention. We don’t hear that when their numbers are finally called, they cross over into a “hielera,” or “icebox.” We don’t hear that, even after they survive the hielera, they are most likely to be sent back to Mexico to await a distant court date in the U.S.
To understand how serious the situation is in Tijuana, one must first understand the procedural nonsense that the Trump administration has concocted. The entire process, from start to finish, is a nightmare for already traumatized asylum seekers fleeing horrific violence. After spending time at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, and with the Tijuana Border Rights Project, known as Al Otro Lado — advocates working to shepherd migrants through the asylum process there — I spoke with a number of migrants at many different stages in the process. Here are some of their experiences in trying to navigate the Trump administration’s asylum procedures.
Getting a Number
A migrant arrives after spending months on the road, coming from all over Latin America, not just the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), to the Tijuana border. Those arriving from Latin American countries have probably heard about some amount of wait time in Tijuana after you get a number. I remember one lady, however, who arrived early in the morning after getting off a bus from elsewhere in Mexico. She had with her a small son, his suitcase, and a teddy bear. I asked the boy if he knew where he was going. He told me they were going to see his “tia” who lived “on the other side.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him how long he would be waiting to cross over. At that, his mother thought it would be only a matter of days. “They don’t keep children here for very long,” she said to me with assurance that could only have come from rumors spread along the route to Tijuana.
For those coming from Africa — the Congo, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau — it’s much worse. They likely land in Ecuador or Brazil and make their way north, much more slowly than those coming from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. They are fleeing tribal conflict or political unrest. I interviewed one young woman fleeing Guinea-Bissau after being arrested in a political demonstration. She told me that, after arrest, the police had gang-raped her. Though her obvious pain made me a believer, I asked her what evidence she had of that to show the immigration judge or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). She said she had nothing but it turned out she had been in the hospital for two weeks recovering from her injuries. Migrant advocates can help her secure that documentation while she waits in Tijuana.
When they arrive in Tijuana, the migrants go to the Chaparral border point very early in the morning and are told to stand in line to take a number. They’ve come to the border thinking, “Today is the day we go to the United States.” Again, parents come with their suitcases and children. Everyone has their documents ready to cross over. I show them the numbers which Al Otro Lado’s office keeps track of, hoping they understand that they will not cross for months. Once that reality settles in, we try to direct them to shelters or just to our offices to talk it over.
While in line at the border point, the Mexican “Grupos Beta,” wearing yellow vests, who take their orders directly from CBP, go from person to person to harass them, telling them they need to have original identification documents or that their certificates proving parenthood are insufficient.
The Grupos Beta has no legal authority to tell the migrants anything. In fact, this is just the beginning of an entirely illicit process meant to dissuade them from seeking their legal right to asylum. Some migrants are discouraged and leave the border. Others continue to stand in line, hoping that today is the day they will get a number. One man, from Haiti, was told by the Grupos Beta, in Spanish – a language he does not understand – that his documents were insufficient and that he needed to go back to Haiti to get better documents. After I translated for him, I suggested that the Grupos Beta have no authority to tell him that and that he should just stay in line to get a number – he might get lucky – or to come back tomorrow. He stayed in line and thanked me when, in fact, he did get a number.
When they finally reach the two women – themselves migrants and enlisted by Grupos Beta to help dispense numbers — sitting under a tarp with a notebook, they are given a number and learn the reality that they are stuck in Tijuana, likely for many months. To the question, “What do we do now?” there is no good answer.
The number system is a bad joke. Ten people at a time get the same number. That means that a span of 100 numbers actually represents not 100 people, but 1,000 people. One day in mid-September, the last number given out was 4,055. The last number called that day to actually cross over was 2,929. That means 1,126 numbers, or more than 11,000 people, had yet to be called and were waiting in Tijuana.
Rumor has it that Grupos Beta can be bribed, and even that $300 is the latest price to jump the line and the wait period and cross over. Because of this, migrants will collect at the crossing point on any given day, even when they know their number will not be called. They mill around, usually in national groups, because you never know when somebody is going to be put into the van and crossed over. One day recently, a group of Cameroonians blocked the van because many of the people aboard had not had their names called.
How many people are called every day? It depends on what CBP tells the Grupos Beta. Last week, it was 37 one day, 16 the next, 33 the next and so on. On September 9, no one at all was allowed over, just as happened for two weeks in July. At that rate, it’s easy to see how wait times can easily surpass six months. Why are there days when no one is allowed into the vans to cross over? Because CBP says they have no more room in their migrant jails.
Waiting in Mexico
Migrant jails in San Diego, even if full, are not the CBP’s only option. They can release migrants into the U.S. (usually with electronic ankle monitors) with court dates, or they can send them to other migrant jails. I recently met one man from the Congo at a migrant jail in Kankakee, Illinois. He had surrendered himself to CBP in Laredo, Texas, and was immediately sent to Kankakee where he had absolutely no contacts. When I first met him, he asked me: “Where am I and why am I here?” As luck would have it, he eventually was granted asylum simply because asylum hearings tend to go better for migrants in more liberal places further from the border, like Chicago or San Francisco, then they do in San Diego or cities in Texas.
But there is a third and final option — and this is CBP’s new favorite toy. Since January, many migrants are released from detention back to Tijuana as “MPPs,” meaning they are under Mexican Protection Protocols as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program.
The MPPs in Tijuana are now the largest group of migrants waiting to test the asylum waters. They have already survived their first detention — the hielera — and have been before an official who has the discretion to send them back to Mexico with a court date many months in the future. When their court date finally comes up, they don’t get the hearing they have been anticipating. Instead, they get another court date with instructions from the judge, this time to fill out an MPP form and get a lawyer. The form takes only a few minutes and shouldn’t require postponing their hearing at all. As for a lawyer, everybody knows that very few will appear for their asylum hearing with a lawyer, and that it’s almost impossible to get a lawyer when you’re stuck in Mexico waiting for a court date.
As of the last few days, CBP in Texas has begun conducting MPP hearings in tents built on the border. The migrant MPPs are not present at these hearings. If connected at all, they are connected by video-conferencing, a new system reputed to be functioning badly.
The MPPs get back on the bus to Tijuana. Their reception in Mexico is not warm. They usually get only a 60-day visa — not enough time until their court date. Overstaying exposes them to arrest. Mexico does not give them work permits, so they have no legal means to support themselves or their families. Many wind up working illegally, particularly in the sweatshops that line the Tijuana River. I met one young man working 11 hours a day, six days a week for 100 pesos a day (a little over $5).
Al Otro Lado, a border rights project in Tijuana, estimates that there are now 20,000 MPPs in Tijuana alone. Since the MPP program began in January, only one migrant has been granted asylum, and that was in early August.
The horrors truly begin, though, when a migrant’s number is finally called at the border. Individuals and families are put into a van with their belongings. From Tijuana, they are taken to a migrant jail three stories below the border itself in a CBP building. This jail is another hielera. Their belongings are taken and put into garbage bags. They are allowed only one layer of clothing. Most will keep a sweater on and write important phone numbers or addresses on their arm in the event their belongings are “lost.” They are separated from their children, and worry about their ability to stay warm and healthy. They’ve heard the reports of children getting sick in the hielera. As we walked the lines at Chaparral in the morning, we find that many of the migrants have heard of the hielera and are dressed accordingly. What they don’t know, even when they get to the day on which their number is called, is the “one layer only” clothing policy. As you tell them to take off all the t-shirts and get their jackets next to the skin, hats and socks on, etc., they look at you incredulously and many will ask, “Why are they doing this?” Another unanswerable question.
Why does the hielera exist? CBP says it’s to prevent the spread of disease. But if health is their concern, they should be giving out blankets instead of foil, providing bedding (not to mention showers, sanitary items and adequate food), and turning down the air-conditioning. The Guardian reports that migrants often faint from dehydration and lack of food. Several deaths, particularly of children, have been widely reported. Obviously, the point of the hielera is to get migrants to self-deport, to say they’ve had enough of CBP’s cruel system and to return to Mexico or elsewhere.
Those who wait in Tijuana face enormous odds. The local populace doesn’t want them there because they are stretching the city’s already scant resources even thinner. Many fear the migrants will turn to crime to survive, though there are few reports of that happening yet. While they wait, migrants crowd already stressed shelters or live in tent cities where conditions are predictably deplorable. These migrants will take any job that will help support the family — jobs that the locals think should stay with locals. Some will seek out their countrymen and we found that some shelters and even some run-down apartment buildings have become dominated by people from one country. One large apartment building near downtown is full of Haitians waiting for their number to be called. As the months have passed, they have even established their own Haitian restaurants and a place for religious services.
Navigating Asylum in Tijuana
While waiting in Tijuana, many locals will visit Al Otro Lado, the organization that assists migrants in applying for asylum. On any given day, their spartan offices near the border are filled with migrants and MPPs who have come to talk with a volunteer lawyer who can tell them what their rights are and what to expect from the asylum hearing. Many have no idea that the persecution they faced in their home countries can lead to a legal grant of asylum. Under U.S. law, persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation can give rise to the legal definition of “credible fear” of retribution if they return to their country. That credible fear, once proven to the judge, is grounds for asylum. Coming to the U.S. for a “better life” or to rejoin the rest of your family will not grant one asylum.
Many migrants pour out their stories to the volunteers at Al Otro Lado. A Mexican woman with two children is fleeing Michoacán in Mexico because her brother is the leader of the gang that a rival gang has vowed to wipe out — including members’ families. There is the young man from the Congo who is gay and constantly beaten by anyone who finds out — including his own family, who has vowed to kill him. A small group of Turkish professionals, including lawyers, showed up at Al Otro Lado one day, talking of the imprisonment and execution of large numbers of lawyers by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Luckily, they spoke English and Russian and could help us with the family from Chechnya that spoke only Russian. I asked the Chechnyan mother what she wanted most for her children right now and she said: “Do you have any toothbrushes?” When I recovered from the surprise of the simplicity of the question, she asked: “Could they possibly take one little toy from the child care center?”
The gang-related stories are many. One middle-aged single mother from Chiapas spoke of having lived in Connecticut without papers for nine years, giving birth to two children, and returning with them to Chiapas. She is now fleeing Mexico with her 19-year-old son, who is not a U.S. citizen, and the other two children, who are. The drug cartel in the family’s village has threatened to kill the entire family if her older son does not work for them. She asked me, “Do you actually have to have been stabbed before the immigration agents will believe you?” She faces the strong possibility that her two younger children will board flights to Connecticut without her and her son, who would be left to await asylum hearings. It’s hard to imagine a more inhumane and nonsensical result.
The stories are endless. When Al Otro Lado has the resources to verify or corroborate the stories they hear, it is tragic how many turn out to be totally true. To date, Al Otro Lado has filed many lawsuits, some on behalf of juveniles in a variety of courts, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine a denser population in one city of people who have endured intense suffering for so long. The so-called rapists and murderers that President Trump talks of don’t show up at the Chaparral checkpoint in Tijuana. They must be at another border crossing.