Fresh hope for migrants in the US but also mounting fears
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.