In Tijuana, wait times for the asylum process are increasingly drawn out, exasperating migrants. Border patrol agents have turned away people who had hoped to present themselves for asylum.
For the thousands of migrants and refugees now stranded in Tijuana, the more than 2,500-mile journey from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, marked the beginning of a long process in search of asylum in the U.S.
Blanca Bermudez, from San Salvador, El Salvador, joined the migrant caravan in Tapachula, Mexico, with her 18-year-old daughter, a niece and two small children. They had left El Salvador in May with hopes of securing asylum in Mexico but waited for five months to no avail. Upon joining the caravan the family endured long days walking under a scorching sun, carrying the children for hours on end.
Last month they arrived at the first migrant shelter opened by Tijuana city officials, the converted Benito Juarez sports complex, which has since been closed because of overcrowding and squalid conditions.
“The U.S. government doesn’t understand all of these sacrifices we’ve had to make to get here.”
In Tijuana, wait times for the asylum process are increasingly drawn out, exasperating migrants like Bermudez. At ports of entry like Tijuana, border patrol agents have turned away people hoping to present themselves for asylum. The U.S. policy of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the country each day, known as metering, provides no clear indication of wait-times or place in line, and leaves the majority of migrants and refugees in Tijuana in the dark.
Bermudez spoke to Capital & Main just days after U.S. Border Patrol agents launched tear gas at migrant families and kicked off a five-hour border shutdown in response to a protest on the Mexico side. The mother, who could see the metal barrier from her tent in the Benito Juarez shelter, said her family left El Salvador in search of a better future for the children. “The U.S. government doesn’t seem to understand all of these sacrifices we’ve had to make to get here,” she said. “We’re looking for work.”
She recalled sleeping at a gas station in southern Mexico with the small children, 4 and 2 years old, only lightly blanketed from the elements. Her granddaughter cried from being so cold. “At that moment I regretted bringing them with us,” she said. In the past weeks they’ve gotten sick from stomach flu, fever and the cold.
At least 6,192 migrants and refugees have arrived in Tijuana since last month, according to local officials, and still more are expected to arrive.
Now in Tijuana, the family has yet to sign up for their turn to petition for asylum in a notebook that has informally tracked more than 5,000 asylum seekers to date. Those who are registered can expect to wait at least two months for the chance to file their asylum applications with U.S. authorities. At least 6,192 migrants and refugees have arrived in Tijuana since last month, according to local officials, and still more are expected to arrive in the border city.
Hoping to speed up the process, migrants and refugees began a hunger strike last month to pressure the U.S. government to allow at least 200 asylum-seekers to apply daily. Others unwilling to wait weeks to present their asylum claims try to cross the border fence at Tijuana’s beach, in order to turn themselves in to American border officials.
Meanwhile, mothers like Fanny Martinez, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, choose to wait. Martinez is staying at El Barretal, the new shelter run by the Mexican federal immigration agency in eastern Tijuana. Martinez has secured asylum in Mexico and hopes to work for four months to send money back to Honduras, where she left two daughters in her mother’s care. Martinez traveled to Tijuana with her 7-year-old daughter who just last week was rushed to a hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
“Truthfully, I’m worried about staying here. We’re not familiar with Tijuana. We don’t know how people will treat us, “ she said. By the spring she plans to work on securing asylum in the U.S.
Cynthia Santiago, a Los Angeles-area lawyer who has visited the shelters to provide free legal advice, says this is a particularly difficult time for asylum seekers. “If the government wanted to they could facilitate a quicker and smoother process to move asylum seekers through,” she said, but the Trump administration is using asylum “to prove a point in his political agenda.”
The Trump administration has made a concerted effort to curtail asylum petitions, with President Trump citing the “continuing and threatened mass migration of aliens with no basis for admission.” The rule was quickly blocked by a district judge; however, the administration has recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow officials to enforce the policy.
In a closed congressional briefing Jud Murdock, Customs and Border Protection’s acting assistant commissioner, said the agency is limiting asylum applications as a means of deterrence, contradicting earlier statements made by CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
Senior House Democrats Zoe Lofgren, Bennie Thompson and Jerrold Nadler said the statements “clearly indicated, given the context, that the Department’s decision to limit processing was primarily motivated by its desire to deter migrants from seeking asylum at ports of entry,” according to a letter obtained by Buzzfeed.
Capital & Main
Nidia Bautista is a bilingual reporter covering gender, immigration and politics. She has written for Al Jazeera, Latino USA and CityLab.