Fresh hope for mi­grants in the US but also mount­ing fears

Daily Messenger - - National - Whit­ney Eulich (Wide An­gle)

In a cor­ner of the plaza lead­ing to the El Chap­ar­ral US border cross­ing, refugees and mi­grants start gath­er­ing in small clus­ters around 6.30am 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 dis­or­gan­ised, 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.

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-or­gan­is­ing, 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. 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 in the 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. "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. 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 am. He presents his Hon­duras pass­port and re­ceives a num­ber. "Come back in a month," Melvin tells him, warmly.

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