Originally published by The New Republic

On a weekday morning in early June, Ruben Garcia arrived at the Casa Oscar Romero building leased by Annunciation House, the hospitality center that he founded and that has served the indigent and immigrant community in El Paso, Texas, since 1978. He wore a striped button-down shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, his disheveled white hair loosely tumbling to one side. Garcia was orchestrating logistics for roughly 800 migrants arriving into the region that day. He received no government salary for this work. He was not doing it at the direction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the $9 billion agency charged with detaining and transporting migrants. He was taking responsibility for these desperate and poor asylum-seekers because no one else would.

For several months spanning the spring and summer, volunteers such as Garcia made up an unheralded network of care ensuring basic safeguards-food, security, and transportation-for migrants caught up in a cynically manufactured crisis at America’s southern border. As the Trump White House pushed an image of chaos and lawlessness wrought by families in search of asylum, people in cities like El Paso offered support to those families. Some of those at the heart of this volunteer network, including the area’s congressional representative, worry that the White House’s campaign may have been a contributing motive for an alt-right fanatic who in August killed 22 people at a local Walmart in El Paso patronized by the city’s immigrant community.

Emails among El Paso officials from March show that they deferred to Annunciation House’s capacities in discussions with ICE about where to send migrants who had been recently detained at the border as part of President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. Throughout the summer, Garcia, a Jesuit-trained volunteer in his seventies, advised ICE agents on a daily basis where to send hundreds of migrant families among 30 hospitality centers-churches, nonprofits, community- and city-run shelters, and more-throughout far west Texas and southeastern New Mexico and beyond.

Only a few months earlier, Garcia said, he had relied on ICE agents to transport migrants with pending asylum cases to these centers. Upon their arrival, they would be fed and housed until they could make more long-term arrangements as they awaited their court dates. But in March, the authority to release asylum-seekers abruptly transferred to U.S. Border Patrol, which refused to deliver them to these orderly respite centers. Instead, the agency started releasing thousands of people, often with just the clothes on their backs and no means of contacting friends or family, into city streets across New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California.

One of those places was rural Deming, New Mexico, which received 4,700 migrants in 2019, more than a third of the town’s population, mostly between the months of April and July. Now, from 100 miles away in El Paso, Garcia was coordinating with Deming’s officials to arrange transportation for migrants there.

With a tired sigh, Garcia struggled to capture the dilemma these towns are facing. So, I’m Border Patrol, you’re the mayor of Deming, Garcia said. I call you and say, ‘I’m gonna release 150 people.’ You say, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I say, ‘Here’s the phone number to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, be my guest.’

Shifting responsibility for the releasing of migrants from ICE to Border Patrol, the enforcement arm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was a huge change to official Department of Homeland Security policy. It followed the quiet termination in October 2018 of the Safe Release system, which since 2009 had involved Border Patrol and ICE agents providing asylum-seekers with a phone to contact family or friends already living in the country, and delivering them to a bus station or airport with their tickets already booked-or to a humanitarian shelter that could assist with travel. The end of Safe Release set the stage for a highly localized humanitarian crisis when the number of asylum-seekers began to rise this spring-soon after, the Trump administration announced a national emergency on the border, citing the sharp increases of asylum seekers in border towns.

According to a letter undersigned in May by the mayors of 22 cities in border states, some 168,000 migrants traveling in the previous six months received care from local governments and humanitarian centers, forming a regional network that served as a de facto refugee resettlement agency. The brunt of the effort was borne by smaller cities near the border. Hundreds of huddled migrants left on street corners; missing paperwork; a daily scramble for available beds-all the tumultuous result of the Trump administration’s refusal to deal with the fallout from its own immigration policies.

This report was based on conversations with more than a dozen local officials and humanitarian aid workers, as well as a review of internal communications between officials in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley-the two CBP sectors where refugee border crossings were highest in the spring. These interviews and internal records reveal an informal system of asylum assistance highly dependent on overworked volunteers, and document the immense strain placed on cities, towns, and nonprofits that have attempted to help the migrants. They show, at the very least, a woeful pattern of incompetence and neglect on the part of the federal government. They may also show something more nefarious: a concerted attempt to create a climate of crisis by detaining and releasing migrants in the most chaotic way possible.

On that morning in June, Garcia thumbed his iPhone, communicating with various officials: El Paso Mayor Dee Margo; El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar; the city’s fire chief, a county judge, a commissioner, a county attorney, even a campaign staffer for Beto O’Rourke. On at least three occasions, the office of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham provided him with buses to take people out of Texas. Garcia’s unofficial jurisdiction included not just Deming and El Paso, but also Dallas in Texas; Lordsburg, Mesilla, Chaparral, Anthony, and Albuquerque in New Mexico; and, occasionally, even Denver, Colorado. As the liaison handling arrangements among dozens of shelter spaces, cities, counties, and federal agencies, he was the only one who knew how much bed space was available on a given night.

As we were talking, a group of 60 adults and children entered the cafeteria of the Casa Oscar Romero and sat at the long table, unfolding the chairs resting against the walls. In the kitchen, volunteers dished piles of fried chicken into large metal bowls. The building also had rooms with beds, blankets, and toys; on the walls were instructions for how to read plane and bus itineraries. A map featuring all of Greyhound’s routes across the country was posted near the entrance, where a boy squirmed on a bench.

Welcome! I bet you’re all tired of riding on buses, Garcia bellowed in Spanish, as the families filtered into the cafeteria.

Yes, very tired, one woman offered.

Well, good, the bus ride is over.

As people lined up to receive plates of chicken and biscuits, Garcia showed me a receipt for the food totaling more than $500. In all, Annunciation House has paid roughly a million dollars this year on hotel room accommodations alone for asylum-seekers, Garcia said. A full accounting is difficult to make, since the effort is spread out among so many towns and cities, stretching all the way from Texas to California. In July, as part of a $4.5 billion package ostensibly to improve detention conditions at Border Patrol and ICE facilities along the border, Congress budgeted $30 million to reimburse governments and nonprofit organizations that had spent resources on the improvised resettlement effort. But to qualify for this support, they would have to apply to FEMA for the funds, which would be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. The amount will almost surely fall short.

Furthermore, the heavily bureaucratic method to apply for the funds, which requires applicants to submit estimates through layers of bureaucracy within FEMA’s Emergency Food & Shelter Program, disadvantages the countless smaller churches, ministries, and community groups that burned through money and resources assisting tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, sometimes without keeping careful records. Reimbursement requests submitted by larger nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities and United Way, are more likely to be successful because they are represented on the national FEMA board that decides which applications to greenlight.

For their part, Garcia said Annunciation House would not apply for reimbursement, in order to avoid the taint of association with the federal government. But Garcia said he would welcome federal assistance, should the city receive it, with the major expense of transportation, which Trump’s national emergency declaration appears to authorize.

If the military is to be used to assist Border Patrol with the influx of arriving refugees, Garcia later said in a press release, then the military’s transportation capabilities should be used to transport refugees to faith communities in larger cities who can receive and assist refugee families.

A nearly 800-mile drive from El Paso, in the town of McAllen, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel has been at the forefront of migrant family arrivals since 2014. Pimentel oversees the ever-relocating Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley respite center in this town, where asylum-seekers are transported after their release from detention at Border Patrol facilities. Before this year, the number of people arriving at her door ranged from less than a dozen a day, to so many that they had to take refuge in large emergency tents propped up behind a church in the city’s downtown district.

Nothing, however, prepared Pimentel for the overwhelming number of people released by Border Patrol this year. Previously, according to The Monitor, the high-water mark for Catholic Charities in McAllen was October 2016, when the nonprofit cared for 5,600 people. That number nearly doubled to 10,645 in March of this year, including a single day that month in which the center accommodated more than 1,300 people-an unprecedented number for a 24-hour period, in a space designed to hold just a few hundred.

During a visit in March to the building, I saw lines of people spilling out the front door, waiting to receive clothing for children and infants. Nurses were checking people who seemed sick, and a volunteer helped families make travel plans. There was a sense of ordered chaos; volunteers wearing teal T-shirts raced around the facility, speaking with migrants, and ordering food.

The week before, Border Patrol had given Pimentel only three days’ notice that it was going to release thousands of people per day into McAllen, Brownsville, Harlingen, and other cities across the Rio Grande Valley for the foreseeable future-a pace that didn’t start to dissipate until the summer. Previously, Border Patrol agents would inform Pimentel well ahead of time that they were transporting families directly to Catholic Charities in McAllen, including how many and when. But now, as in El Paso and elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley, border agents were dropping off migrants directly at bus stations instead of at local organizations like the Catholic Charities building. It was a change that confused Pimentel.

My surprise mostly has been the fact that they started distributing them throughout the whole [Rio Grande Valley], she said. You know, why are you dropping them off at the bus stations, when you have always brought them to us? Why change that? For me, it was a big question mark. Like, why would they want to do that? It was almost as if they were causing chaos.

In March, in the city of Brownsville at the very southernmost tip of Texas, city officials and volunteers were also left questioning the motives of Border Patrol agents after they dropped off about 50 asylum-seekers on a street corner in the city’s historic downtown district-half a mile from a Greyhound bus station. On that day, there were only a handful of volunteers at the Good Neighbor Settlement House, an old two-story building in a low-income neighborhood that provides a food pantry and bed space to migrants as well as the local homeless and poor.

Also, none of the people dropped off by Border Patrol had any of their official documents, which would have allowed them to travel within the United States-another unprecedented development. When Good Neighbor’s director was alerted of this situation, she led them inside the settlement house, where the group was kept separate from asylum-seekers who did have paperwork. Of the nearly 250 people accommodated that day, half were small children.

Border Patrol dropped off two busloads of people, no documents, [meaning] we can’t even lend them a phone to make arrangements; they’ll just get detained again while traveling, Belinda Bradford, a full-time employee at Good Neighbor, told me. Two hours later, she recalled, Border Patrol comes with a box, and says, ‘Oh, we forgot to give them their paperwork.’ Really? She sighed. Maybe they thought they could get away with it?

It turned out that Border Patrol agents only brought the paperwork after they were contacted by Tony Martinez, then the mayor of Brownsville. Martinez told me that he suspected the agency was purposely creating an unmanageable situation to turn the Trump administration’s rhetoric about a crisis at the border into a reality. There seems to have been an assumption that we couldn’t handle it, an expectation that we’re unable to manage the mass release of asylum-seekers, Martinez said. But I’m a problem solver, and if you give me a problem, I’ll give you your pick of solutions.

Ronald Vitiello, former acting chief of the Border Patrol under President Obama and acting director for ICE until he was ousted by Trump in April, claims that post-release planning was simply not his job. Neither CBP nor ICE are appropriated [by Congress] for this after care, we [did] it because it’s a best practice and because it makes sense and helps communities and our relationships with these towns, but nobody in the government is funded for that, he said in a phone conversation. These mayors and the cities, they came to expect a service brought to them by the government, they got used to it, [and] when the numbers overwhelmed everybody, they looked to us to fix it.

A preview of the federal government’s new position toward released asylum-seekers came last October, when officials with the Department of Homeland Security informed humanitarian groups in San Diego that agents would no longer help with post-release planning. The policy was clarified on March 27, when then-CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said that CBP and ICE would begin releasing asylum-seekers en masse into border towns. In front of the bollard border fence and near the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso, where migrants were being held behind razor wire, McAleenan, now the acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, painted a grave picture of CBP facilities bursting with human beings, a situation he called unprecedented. The mass releases were being done with reluctance, he said.

It represents an increase in flows that will follow, McAleenan said. That is not something we want to do, it is something we have to do given the overcrowding in our facilities.

By that point, mass drop-offs of migrant families had already been occurring for a few weeks in El Paso, as well as sporadically in late 2018. On March 15, the city’s fire chief, Mario D’Agostino, emailed ICE official Marc Moore pleading with the agency not to release additional migrants into the city because shelters were at capacity. That request was ignored, and 147 people were dropped off at El Paso’s downtown bus station four days later-prompting the local office of emergency personnel to dispatch employees who then assisted migrants with purchasing tickets. The city regularly uses its own resources in such situations, deploying their own EMT staffs, for example, to screen migrants who have often been held in crammed and fetid conditions, with critically deficient access to hygiene products, sleeping space, and nutrition, leaving many in precarious health after an often harrowing journey.

A total of 35,000 of these asylum-seekers passed through a network of hospitality centers in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque between December and March, according to D’Agostino. The direct releases were so overwhelming that Representative Escobar, the congresswoman from El Paso, in a March 1 letter, begged McAleenan to alleviate some of the local burden that falls on my community.

Though agents are supposed to detain migrants for no more than 72 hours, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general observed that 3,400 of 8,000 detainees at several different Border Patrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley during early June had been held for longer, with many stays longer than ten days. In April, a government inspector visited a station in Clint, Texas, near El Paso, and found hungry children and adults living in lice-infested cells for weeks on end, sometimes being taken to a quarantine cell if they contracted scabies, chickenpox, or other diseases.

The fact that Border Patrol has exerted wide discretion over who it detains, and for how long, made some immigration attorneys wonder whether agency leaders were timing the release of migrants for maximum impact. Back in the Rio Grande Valley, for example, The Monitor reported that asylum-seekers were being held in Border Patrol custody for as long as ten days-even as the agency publicly claimed facilities were at critical capacity and unable to handle the increased numbers of new arrivals. The prolonged detentions didn’t make any sense, argued attorney Karla Vargas of the Texas Civil Rights Project, for an agency trying to clear bed space as quickly as possible. She sees this as a sign that the agency may have chosen to do mass public releases for cynical reasons.

Why are these empty, if we have this chaos happening at the [CBP] processing centers? Vargas said. I think it’s part of the narrative that the administration is trying to put forth that CBP is being overrun by immigrants, and therefore they need more money, when in reality it’s the way they’re mismanaging people and focused on stockpiling people in these processing centers instead of getting them to the next phase of the immigration process.

Garcia, the director of Annunciation House in El Paso, also suspected a political dimension to the timing of the chaotic mass releases. I think it goes beyond negligence, I really do, Garcia said, Especially when you start talking about the treatment of human beings.

The first locality to challenge the Trump administration’s decision to end its Safe Release policy was San Diego County, which voted in April to sue the current and former heads of ICE, CBP, and Border Patrol for what it called a sudden and unlawful change in policy. The complaint alleged that the policy shift meant that border agents were now releasing asylum seekers from federal detention without the previously-provided assistance in reaching their final destination(s) outside the County. The suit seeks a reinstatement of that assistance and reimbursement for the resources San Diego has devoted to caring for asylum-seekers.

That assistance, the San Diego lawsuit said, had long included helping asylum seekers locate contact information for relatives residing in the U.S. and facilitating phone calls between asylum seekers and those relatives. ICE would then transport people to points of departure, such as bus stations, train stations, and airports, and even offer food for the journey. It remains unclear, according to the complaint, why this policy was ended; it came to an abrupt halt, without explanation, last year.

The San Diego suit caught the attention of officials in New Mexico and West Texas. Albuquerque eventually filed a joint lawsuit with the state of New Mexico, citing duress similar to that claimed by San Diego County-and the newer suit goes into far more detail about the state resources deployed to pick up the federal government’s slack. It alleges that the New Mexico office of the attorney general, as well as the state’s youth and family services department and office of emergency management, spent resources investigating reports of human trafficking, while workers for the state labor and transportation departments were directed to coordinate travel plans for asylum seekers. In addition, according to the complaint, state police were on alert in communities receiving large numbers of people, and the state sent $750,000 in emergency grants to the cities of Deming and Las Cruces and Luna County to manage migrants rapidly being released from federal custody.

There were other public safety consequences, well beyond the scope of the lawsuits. With the number of families crossing the border on the rise in April, a far-right militia group made national headlines after its gun-toting members filmed themselves briefly detaining hundreds of migrants along the border, a few dozen miles south of Las Cruces. On April 15, just three days after Border Patrol began dropping off asylum-seekers there, one extremist called the city threatening to take action if necessary. A few months later, somebody called in a death threat to the mayor’s office, requiring the police department to assign several cops to trail the mayor at a city council meeting.

In an interview, Mayor Ken Miyagishima blamed the president’s rhetoric for the elevated threats. They hear the top elected official in the U.S. making [anti-immigrant] comments, and it just lends itself to the animosity among friends, neighbors, relatives, Miyagishima said.

Las Cruces accommodated 16,750 refugees since April, according to its own count, and still received about 150 daily until recently. After rushing to supply transportation between local hospitality centers, bus stations, and airports, the city agreed to put up $500,000 toward city worker overtime pay, partial reimbursement for local nonprofits providing refugee hospitality services, and rent for an old armory near downtown that now acts as an unofficial central processing center. The money came from a special fund the city generates by leasing out a hospital building.

Very few cities have this fund like I’m describing to you, Miyagishima said. And if you stop and think about it, what about all the savings that the federal government is saving right now? Normally it’d be a federal employee doing a lot of this work, and we have volunteers doing it.

According to the city’s interim manager, William Studer, the city was planning to submit a list of expenses to FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program in late July, and was hopeful that funds would be disbursed within 60 days of approval. FEMA is supposed to reimburse funds already spent as well as supplement future expenditures through September 2020, covering such items as food, lodging in shelters or hotels, transportation costs, and basic necessities like hygiene products and diapers. Las Cruces expects to spend $90,000 per week for the next year. Together with the half million in reimbursement it’s already seeking, that will put its total request at $5.5 million.

And that’s just one town.

With only $30 million budgeted by Congress, it’s difficult to see how every town or nonprofit organization that contributed to the relief effort will be fully compensated by the federal government. The costs to Annunciation House and the city of McAllen each reached at least $1 million, while the state of New Mexico and the city of Albuquerque claimed total expenses of $1 million. Among Las Cruces, McAllen, and the state of New Mexico, that’s already approaching a third of the budgeted funds. Yet nearly two dozen other cities likely expended far more than usual on caring for asylum-seekers, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Berkeley, Dallas, Denver, Austin, Phoenix, and Tucson, and a smattering of smaller towns in all four border states.

Although charities can request funds, it’s hard to imagine the smaller ones successfully navigating a bureaucratic process that hasn’t been widely publicized.

On a Tuesday evening in early June, I checked in with one of these charities: Mustard Seed & Rainbow Ministries, a tiny church located in Chaparral, New Mexico, a community some 30 miles southeast of Las Cruces. The setting sun cast orange and purple hues over the red earth. Inside, rows of mustard-colored pews filled the main hall, while smaller rooms were stuffed with cots, piles of dirty laundry, and boxes of clean donated clothing and hygiene supplies.

Since February, the church had been taking in about 60 asylum-seekers at a time from nearby El Paso. By the time of my visit, their last group had numbered around 25. While Pastors Joe and Iliana San Nicholas said they found their work spiritually rewarding-the church’s Facebook page features videos of asylum-seekers singing Christian songs-they were both clearly exhausted. During the weeks when migrants stayed with them, they sometimes had to stay awake until four in the morning waiting with them at the bus station-only to then have to transport another group to the airport a few hours later.

It’s been rough, Iliana said. But I understand, as a Christian and as a pastor, that when you start tapping into the kingdom of God and what God expects us to do, [helping refugees] is one of them, because God loves the immigrants.

For weeks, Iliana had tried asking the city of Las Cruces for financial help. Officials gave her the run-around, she said, and in the end told her that the funds it was sending to nonprofit organizations were only for those based in the city proper. The couple estimates they’ve spent more than $10,000 of their own money on the effort, handing out cash to families and purchasing backpacks, clothes, food, soap, toothpaste, and gasoline. They’ve barely scraped by. The church’s small septic system wasn’t able to handle the volume of people using the facilities, and had to be replaced at a cost of $3,700-a discount, Iliana said, offered by a plumber connected with the church. When asked in early August if she planned to apply for FEMA funds, Iliana said it was the first time she’d heard it was possible.

At the bus station in March in downtown McAllen, the city’s old, clustered core, about two dozen asylum-seekers waited to buy bus tickets, clutching manila envelopes containing documents from CBP and ICE. Their intended destinations were written on the front of the envelopes. It has been a familiar sight since 2014, but a near constant one this past March.

One of these asylum-seekers was Suyapa, from a small fishing village near the capital of Honduras. She and her family had made their living by fishing, but she said that gangs demanding bribes to operate their boat made the business impossible. So she fled with her daughter, who sat nearby blowing on a noisemaker as the pair waited to board a bus to Dallas.

In Honduras, Suyapa said, her eyes misting with tears, I couldn’t work anymore, I couldn’t bring home bread for my children. After walking to the border for three months, she was held at a Border Patrol processing facility in McAllen known among migrants as the perrera-the dog kennel-for its cage-like cells. Then Border Patrol took her and her daughter to the city’s Catholic Charities respite center, where she received fresh clothing and volunteers ordered pizza for her cohort. She planned to stay with a friend until her asylum hearing; in the meantime, she will have to periodically check in with an ICE officer by phone.

Americans, she said, need to understand that if we come here, it’s out of necessity, because we’d rather live back home. Life there, the gangs make it so difficult.

Suyapa was arguably one of the lucky ones, arriving in the U.S. before the federal government expanded its Remain in Mexico program, which requires most Central American asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their day in an American court. Since its implementation, the number of asylum-seekers arriving to humanitarian centers in McAllen, Brownsville, and El Paso have significantly fallen, from hundreds to as little as a dozen or fewer a day. Piloted in San Diego and then El Paso, the program was expanded by the Trump administration in an arrangement with Mexico across the entire border beginning in June, with Mexico expecting to receive as many as 60,000 asylum-seekers to Mexican border cities, where the threat of violence and kidnapping is so severe and access to lawyers so difficult many have given up on their asylum claims. Recently, Mexican authorities in some cities have transported asylum-seekers deeper into the country, as far as Monterrey, in northeast Nuevo Len, and even Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. The policy and others are apparently meant to block asylum-seekers, as one National Security Council official admitted in an internal email. The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the policy.

On the diplomatic front, the Trump administration in late July strong-armed the Guatemalan government-the top sending country for families this year-into accepting a safe third country agreement in which migrants who passed through Guatemala would be required to first seek asylum there. The national asylum agency in Guatemala employs less than ten people; the move appears to be yet another impossible barrier meant to discourage people from requesting asylum in the U.S.

For Ruben Garcia in El Paso, the federal government’s callous position on asylum is a moral crisis of historic proportions. At the Annunciation House in early June, while he was still regularly assisting upwards of 500 asylum seekers a day, he compared the responsibility of caring for and housing refugees with past tests of the nation’s character, including the Civil War. This is one of those moments, he said, when the country defines itself. When we say, ‘All men are created equal’ in 2019, it has to include migrants and refugees, he said.

It’s very inconvenient to have tens of thousands of refugees arriving. It’s very inconvenient. It’s a lot of work. But it’s eminently possible, he said. That hard work is what makes us who we are. That’s where our pride comes from. Let’s be busy with that.

Read more –


Originally published by LA Times

The brewing crisis at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the U.S.-Mexico border is yet another deliberate insult to California by President Trump.

Let’s recap (so far). First he deployed a show of force better suited to Call of Duty than the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere. Customs and Border Protection shut down San Ysidro for hours at a time in recent weeks, wreaking havoc on the estimated 175,000-plus people who cross daily and the multibillion-dollar San Diego-Tijuana economy. Military helicopters have buzzed along the border to try to terrify the thousands of Central Americans amassed in Tijuana while waiting to seek asylum here. Then on Sunday la migra fired tear gas canisters over the border to push back these refugees, including women and children.

Even the California Highway Patrol took part in this sad charade, blocking off the northbound 5 and 805 freeways Sunday.

Government authorities have treated the migrant caravan like a war game, a traffic accident or an invasion – but not like what it really is: an urgent, but completely manageable, flow of refugees.

American and Mexican right-wingers have demonized the roughly 4,700 mostly Hondurans who are now camped out in a sports complex in Tijuana after spending six weeks walking across Mexico. But they aren’t the enemy. They just want what refugees the world over have always sought: a safe and stable place to live.

The United States government could easily have dealt with this in an orderly, dignified way.

But orderly and dignified is not the Trump way.

If you’re a Californian – even one in the anti-immigrant-zealot mold of Stephen Miller – you should be furious at how Trump has used the San Ysidro crossing as a sacrificial pawn in his political game. This isn’t just any old stretch of road, or some border with Canada. This is a linchpin of California culture, a flow and fusion of people that epitomizes how the United States and Mexico can peacefully coexist, united under commerce and trust.

The Tijuana-San Diego checkpoint has meant multiple things to us for over a century, depending on who was crossing it and when. For millions of Latinos, it is a western Ellis Island. My mom and her siblings legally entered the United States here in the early 1960s. My dad, meanwhile, passed through illegally in the trunk of a Chevy driven by a hippie from Huntington Beach and her Mexican American boyfriend.

You don’t have to be an immigrant to have your own checkpoint story, though. Whether you’ve been a drunken reveler on Tijuana’s Avenida Revolucin, a surfer returning to el Norte after a month hanging 10 in Todos Santos, a gearhead racing dune buggies in Baja, or a foodie seeking seafood in Ensenada, the San Ysidro crawl is something millions of Californians have had to endure. Californians visit Mexico, Mexicans do the reverse, and we don’t have a fit about it.

All of this is endangered, gracias to Trump.

With the threat of arbitrary shutdowns (Trump is already tweet-threatening to seal the border off permanently), the long waits to cross (it now frequently takes three hours) will worsen to the point that people won’t risk a trip lest they get stranded overnight or even for days. That hurts the Tijuana-San Diego economy (just an hours-long closure cost San Ysidro businesses $5.3 million, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce) as well as the tens of thousands of Americans who make San Diego their home but travel daily to Baja. And it’s downright deadly to those who regularly go to Tijuana for affordable medical care and pharmaceuticals.

The U.S. government has a right to question everyone who wants to come into this country, and there should be a process to do so. But instead of wasting our military’s time and money to scare refugees (the final bill will total around about $210 million, according to the Pentagon figures), Trump should’ve allocated funds to the Department of Homeland Security to expand their capacity to process applications for asylum in San Ysidro. He could have allowed the Central Americans to make their way to Camp Pendleton to wait to hear their future, as tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees did in 1975.

But humanitarianism is not what Trump is about. His choice of San Ysidro is deliberate: He wants to disrupt the lives of Californians – the people who hate him the most – and make us blame Central American refugees for the fiasco instead of him.

Don’t fall for it, Californians. Instead, we need to defend this gateway. Let’s go to Rosarito this weekend and have the time of our lives. Let the checkpoint booths be overwhelmed by our crossborder reality. This is the entry point to California, after all, not Trump’s America.

Read more:

Originally published by VOX

The center of the American asylum crisis is the El Chaparral plaza in Tijuana, which sits at the foot of the western pedestrian bridge to enter the US at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in California.

On Sunday, members of the migrant caravan, after a week of waiting in makeshift Tijuana shelters under poor conditions, marched up to the US side of the border to demand that the US admit them to seek asylum.

At the plaza at El Chaparral, Mexican federal police in riot formation blocked the marchers from going any farther toward the bridge. Then the march descended into chaos. Hundreds of marchers evaded and scuffled with Mexican police in an attempt to cross the border en masse. Some of the marchers threw rocks at Border Patrol agents. Agents fired off volleys of tear gas at the crowd, which included families and children.

US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants tried to breach a fence from Tijuana.

It was nearly inevitable that tensions at the border would boil over, and that they would do so at El Chaparral. For months, it has been the unofficial waiting room of the United States.

At San Ysidro and many of the other official crossings that line the US-Mexico border, families who have traveled thousands of miles, fleeing poverty and violence to seek asylum in the United States, have been stopped outside ports of entry before they can set foot on US soil and trigger their legal asylum rights.

Before 2016, and in some cases as recently as six months ago, they would have had no problem and no delay. But for the last several months, the Trump administration has made a practice of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day – a policy it calls metering. It’s the counterpart of the Trump administration’s months-long crackdown on asylum seekers entering the US illegally – telling those who do try to come legally that there’s no room for them, and ordering them to wait.

They don’t say how long the wait will be. And there’s no official way for asylum seekers to hold their spot or secure an appointment, no guarantee that they’ll ever be allowed to cross.

And so asylum seekers wait, for days or weeks or (increasingly) months: sometimes in migrant shelters whose capacity has stretched to the breaking point, sometimes huddling together on bridges, sleeping on the street, in the cold, vulnerable to the violence they hoped to escape in their home countries.

A group of Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- climb a metal barrier on the Mexico-US border near El Chaparral border crossing, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018.
Climbing a barrier to cross illegally into the US to seek asylum may be a more appealing alternative than having to wait for weeks to enter at a port of entry.
 Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

The violence that erupted Sunday was a distress signal, a sign that the situation at the border has grown untenable. The unofficial, sometimes arbitrary processes to let people in under metering are threatening to collapse into chaos, and it’s not clear if order can be restored.

The Trump administration’s proposed solution is to legally codify the idea that asylum seekers should be held in Mexico, in limbo. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the administration would sign an agreement with the incoming government of Mexico that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico after starting the asylum process – changing the current practice of allowing them into the US to wait for their asylum claims to be heard. Dubbed Remain in Mexico, the new policy, if enacted, would essentially formalize what’s been happening on the ground these past few months.

The basic fact is that too many people are waiting to seek asylum the right way in the US. In theory, they have a legal right to it; in practice, it’s by no means a guarantee they’ll be allowed to exercise it. In the hands of a president who routinely says that all asylum seekers should turn around and go home, and an administration that has sought to radically reduce the scope of asylum, the use of metering fits all too easily into a general strategy of attempting to reduce immigration to the US.

We’re not turning people away, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan declared to reporters in October. We’re asking them to wait.

The question is how long they can wait before it becomes functionally indistinguishable from being turned away – or before they simply get fed up with being in limbo, and take matters into their own hands.

Mexican police stand guard (R) as migrants walk on a bank of the nearly dry Tijuana River as they make their way toward the El Chaparral port of entry, after circumventing a police blockade, on November 25, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico.
The government of Mexico has helped the Trump administration maintain order at bottlenecked ports of entry – and press reports indicate the incoming Mexican government will sign up to take an even bigger role.
 Mario Tama/Getty Images

Limiting asylum at ports of entry has gone from an emergency response to the new normal

Under US law, once someone crosses into US territory from Mexico, they have a right to ask for asylum. The US government doesn’t have to grant them asylum, but it can’t summarily refuse them and force them to return to Mexico, either.

Logistically, though, there’s a limit to how many asylum seekers CBP officials can process at once. People seeking asylum are generally held in federal custody until they can undergo a screening interview with an asylum officer, and need medical and background checks shortly after their arrival. At ports of entry, officers also have to check the papers of people coming who already have legal status and scan cars for drugs and other contraband.

Under the metering policy, border agents check papers of people before they set foot on US soil – and prevent those without papers from entering to seek asylum.
 Mario Tama/Getty Images

Like a lot of immigration tactics Trump has used, metering – the practice of asking asylum seekers without papers to wait until ports of entry have the capacity to process them – was first instituted under the Obama administration, after an influx of Haitian asylum seekers arrived at the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro ports in San Diego in 2016.

Because there’s no official data on the use of metering, we have to rely on anecdotes and self-reporting to evaluate how common the practice is. McAleenan told reporters in October that on any given day, only three or four ports along the US-Mexico border were metering asylum seekers, and that Tijuana, where thousands of asylum seekers are waiting to cross at San Ysidro, is the only port of entry where metering is constant.

But while exact wait times are hard to pin down, reports and anecdotes from nongovernmental organizations along the border suggest that since this spring, metering has gone from a temporary measure at some ports to a near-constant state of affairs at most of the major border crossings where migrants arrive on foot.

At the port in Nogales, Arizona, for example, Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative said asylum seekers were restricted from mid-May through late July, with about three families being allowed to enter a day. Metering started up again in September, with at least one week where no one was allowed to enter the port.

In El Paso (Ciudad Juarez), the American Civil Liberties Union (citing the Mexican government) said in early November that as many as 450 people may be waiting on the Mexican side to enter. (In late October, McAleenan said the line was rarely more than two dozen people.) Asylum seekers who are admitted to the US tend to say they’ve been waiting for about five days, according to the ACLU’s Shaw Drake.

Central American migrants remain at the Migrant's House (Casa del Migrante) in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on November 15, 2018, as they wait for their turn to initiate the petition for political asylum in El Paso, Texas.
At casas de migrante (migrant shelters) along the US-Mexico border, like this one in Ciudad Juarez, asylum seekers often wait days or weeks before they can enter the US – if there’s space.
 Herika Marinez/AFP/Getty Images

In Laredo, Texas (Nuevo Laredo, Mexico), Juan Francisco Espinoza of Amar, a shelter on the Mexican side, told me in October that CBP generally allowed four to six people from his shelter to enter the port every 10 days – and that a group of African asylum seekers had been waiting for 30.

In the Rio Grande Valley, there are fewer asylum seekers waiting to get in (and they’re often not as visible), but anecdotal evidence suggests metering is common there too. At one port in Roma, Texas (Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico), the LA Times reported in June that the port was closed to new asylum seekers for nine days.

The trend is visible in official statistics too.

From spring 2016 through spring 2018, trends in families entering at ports of entry and families coming between ports of entry tended to rise and fall at the same time. But in spring 2018, the trends diverged.

Across every US Border Patrol sector, the number of families – the best available proxy for asylum seekers – coming in between ports of entry has skyrocketed from May to September 2018. Across ports of entry, during that time, the number of families coming in has actually dropped.

While Border Patrol’s regional sectors don’t match up perfectly with the regions into which ports of entry are divided, the regional comparison is suggestive. In California and West Texas, families used to be more likely to enter at a port of entry than between them. Now the situation is reversed. And in both places, wait times have skyrocketed – suggesting that the difference between spring and fall 2018 isn’t that fewer people are trying to come legally, but that fewer of them are being allowed to.

In other words, the Trump administration’s stated goal – for everyone claiming asylum to come in legally – isn’t something it’s at all equipped for. In many cases, seeking asylum legally, in accordance with international and US law, is simply harder than the alternative. And those who decide to wait anyway are in limbo, with no one willing to take responsibility for them.

Pedestrians weave through an encampment of migrants occupying the Paso Del Norte Bridge on November 4, 2018 in El Paso, Texas.
Some bridges, like this one in El Paso, have turned into temporary encampments for waiting asylum seekers.
 Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Even the most orderly port, in Tijuana, is stretched to the breaking point

Tijuana is the most appealing destination for asylum seekers traveling northward to the US for two reasons. It’s relatively safe, because the routes to the US aren’t as tightly controlled by criminal organizations and the city itself isn’t as dangerous as Ciudad Juarez. It also has migrant shelters with capacity for hundreds of people.

But capacity for hundreds, as the past few days have shown, isn’t nearly enough. There are currently approximately 4,700 Central Americans in a temporary shelter in a converted sports complex, and authorities estimate thousands more will come in the next few weeks.

There isn’t a physical line for those waiting at Tijuana. Instead, there is a notebook, supposedly managed by asylum seekers themselves (likely with the behind-the-scenes help of the humanitarian arm of the Mexican immigration agency).

An aerial view of the temporary shelter set up for members of the 'migrant caravan', with a section of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier visible (TOP R), on November 24, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. Around 6,000 migrants from Central America have arrived in the
A Tijuana sports complex has been turned into a temporary shelter for members of the migrant caravan. As of November 24, when this picure was taken, 6,000 migrants from the caravan had arrived in Tijuana; the current number is closer to 7,000. 
Mario Tama/Getty Images

When an asylum seeker first comes to the port, as a Venezuelan woman did with her family when I was there in October, she presents her information to an organizer bearing a clipboard, who copied down key data points. Next to the organizer with the clipboard on my visit was another with a large black guestbook, the binding worn away to nothing, with names and nationalities clearly written out and numbered in groups of 10.

Once CBP has settled on a number of people to admit that day, it tells its Mexican counterparts, who tell the shelters and the keepers of the notebook. Twice a day, in early morning and mid-afternoon, they’ll read aloud the numbers of the people who will be allowed to enter the US.

The notebook system, which is unique to San Ysidro, has hardly been a firm guarantee of asylum seekers’ rights or well-being.

There have been complaints of discrimination against people of certain nationalities, and instances in which people are turned away and can’t find anyone to give their information to. LGBTQ migrants, in particular, are at risk in Tijuana – LGBTQ members of a caravan last spring faced harassment from police and attacks by armed robbers as they waited to be allowed to enter.

And, of course, because the US government doesn’t officially acknowledge the notebook’s existence, there’s no US protection available for those who miss their names being called. (This also means that if the US and Mexico were to agree to a Remain in Mexico policy, it would apply to everyone currently waiting in Tijuana – even if their names have been in the notebook for months.)

But it was at least manageable – at least as long as the number of people in the notebook was only 1,000 to 2,000, and shelters had the capacity to house and feed people for six weeks or longer. While the US government officially paid no attention to the people in the notebook until they were admitted to a US port, asylum seekers, shelters, and the Mexican government were sufficient to keep order.

That simply isn’t the case anymore.

A group of Central American migrants wanting to reach the US, wait in line for fruit given by volunteers outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana near the US-Mexico border fence, on November 23, 2018.
Families waiting for asylum in Tijuana rely on charities for food – and with the arrival of the migrant caravan, some complained there wasn’t enough to go around.
 Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

Asylum seekers who have already arrived are complaining of hunger, even as the local government protests that it hasn’t gotten the necessary funds from the Mexican national government to feed them. Mexicans have engaged in confrontational (even violent) anti-migrant protests – sometimes citing President Trump’s rhetoric to claim that the asylum seekers have already been rejected from the US and shouldn’t have bothered to try – and the mayor of Tijuana appears to be taking their side.

And as the world saw on Sunday, many of the asylum seekers have simply run out of patience to wait the months it will take for their names to come up in the notebook.

Along the rest of the border, chances for asylum are a matter of timing and luck

As fragile as the situation is in Tijuana, it is in some ways the best-organized port for asylum seekers along the border. At other ports of entry, where line-keeping systems are usually informal or nonexistent, the waits are shorter but less predictable – and often more dangerous.

Children look from the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence at dusk on July 22, 2018, in Nogales, Arizona.
In Nogales, Arizona, physical barriers block illegal entry, while metering limits legal asylum.
 John Moore/Getty Images

In Nogales, Arizona, there is an informal list system. A civil society actor, says Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative, keeps a list of who arrives and when. But it isn’t enough to keep people from having to stay on the bridge, often in cold and rain, for days or even weeks. The people whose names are closest to the top of the list need to stay at the bridge day and night to make sure their places in line aren’t usurped by newcomers.

When the line doesn’t move for a week, there are people who are actually sleeping out at the port for almost 15 days because of how slow it moves, Williams explained to me in mid-October. It’s getting cold at night in Nogales, she added. Kids have been getting sick. There’s 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds. (By early November, the pace had picked up again – with 20 people allowed in in a single day.)

East of Nogales (and the rarely trafficked border along New Mexico) is El Paso, the second-most-popular destination on the border for asylum seekers. On one day in September, 100 asylum seekers were waiting on one of the bridges between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez; hundreds more were standing on other bridges, or waiting in the city’s lone migrant shelter, in hotel rooms, or on the street.

That was before an enterprising Mexican mayor brought armed police to a bridge to clear it a couple of weeks ago – ostensibly in the name of protecting asylum seekers by sending them to shelters instead. The mayor reassured them that they’d be able to hold their places in line, according to Shaw Drake of the ACLU, and Red Cross representatives hastily collected a list of names.

Many asylum seekers didn’t trust that the list would actually be enforced. Sure enough, the next day, at another bridge into the port at El Paso, the people allowed to enter were the people first in line at that bridge – not the ones who’d given their names to the Red Cross.

East of El Paso, the situation gets harder to track. The plurality of families enter the US between ports of entry, as they did even before metering.

The eastern part of the border is much more tightly controlled by smugglers than the rest of it. That doesn’t mean that the migrants themselves are criminals, or even that they’re not legitimate asylum seekers; paying a smuggler is sometimes the safest way to get out ofMexico. But it means they’re in more danger while waiting on the Mexican side – inside the migrant shelter, it’s safe, said Juan Francisco Espinoza in Nuevo Laredo, but outside, there’s violence.

A US customs and border patrol helicopter overflies a US flag in El Paso, Texas at the US-Mexico border, during a crowd control drill, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on November 9, 2018.
US Customs and Border Protection has started conducting crowd control and port shutdown exercises (like this one in El Paso on November 9) to deal with large crowds – tactics that end up reducing the number of people who are allowed to come to the port and seek asylum.
 Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

If something were to happen to waiting migrants – kidnapping for ransom, deportation by Mexican authorities – the US government would never know about it. And if the fear of something happening to them led them to give up and go back to their home countries, there would be no official record that they had ever tried to seek the US’s protection – and no recourse if the danger they were fleeing caught up with them upon their return.

The capacity issues are real. But is the administration doing everything it can to fix them?

What makes the unpredictability of the pace so frustrating is that it isn’t always clear what, exactly, is constraining CBP’s capacity to process asylum seekers – and whether the government is really doing all it can to fix the issue.

The whole process has to be resourced, McAleenan told reporters in October. CBP needs resources for space and officers; Immigration and Customs Enforcement needs capacity for transit, placement, detention beds, and so forth.

Members of the 'migrant caravan' wait in line to receive breakfast outside a temporary shelter set up for members of the caravan on November 24, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico.
The wait for asylum seekers in Tijuana was two months even before the migrant caravan arrived.
 Mario Tama/Getty Images

The clearest constraints are the holding cells available for asylum seekers, and the officers available to process them. San Ysidro theoretically has space for 300 asylum seekers, but that’s reduced whenever people have to be segregated due to disease or safety concerns (like LGBT asylum seekers). On a good day, CBP can allow 100 people in; these days it’s more like 40-60.

But detention space is not the only problem. An asylum officer needs to conduct a screening interview for any asylum seeker before she can be released or deported; having to screen every asylum seeker as soon as she arrives at the port of entry requires a lot more asylum officers than are currently available. (The government may be working to fix this; before Thanksgiving, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which manages asylum officers, put out a request for officers to volunteer to go to San Ysidro.)

Hiring more people to process asylum seekers doesn’t solve the problem on its own either – because it doesn’t answer the question of where those people will be kept.

In theory, it’s possible to envision an investment at ports of entry that could alleviate these problems. But it’s also not clear that the Trump administration is interested in any solution that will make it easier for people to seek asylum legally in the US.

When metering became widespread this summer, DHS press officials described it as a temporary measure that would naturally end when the influx into ports slowed down. That didn’t happen, and DHS has stopped emphasizing the temporary aspect of metering.

Indeed, it’s possible that they’re reconciled to it. According to McAleenan, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has asked for recommendations if we continue to see this trend of increasing asylum seekers and families – what facilities and what types of care providers should be interacting with them.

Kirstjen M. Nielsen, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, tours the border area with San Diego Section Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott (L) at Borderfield State Park along the United States-Mexico Border fence in San Ysidro, California on Nov
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has reportedly asked what resources would be helpful to process more asylum seekers – but her department isn’t making it a priority for Congress.
 Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration, meanwhile, isn’t focusing on getting Congress to increase spending at ports of entry. Instead, it’s pushing Congress to overhaul asylum law entirely (not to mention revamping the legal immigration system, building the wall, etc.).

It sees preventing people who might not ultimately pass their asylum cases from being allowed to stay in the US as an urgent problem to solve. As the administration sees it, if it reduces the number of people released into the US, fewer people will try to come in, and pressure at ports of entry will abate.

This explains why the Remain in Mexico alternative is so appealing for the Trump administration – it allows the US government to save the money that it costs to process and detain asylum seekers for weeks or months, without having to release them into the US.

But from the perspective of human rights advocates, that’s exactly what makes the current situation so troubling. Accepting asylum seekers is a legal obligation, and the Trump administration can’t simply zero it out by refusing to fund it.

It’s impossible to know when no room is the truth – and when it’s just an excuse

CBP stresses that officers are instructed, at all times, to tell people that they will be allowed to seek asylum in the US – even if they’re being turned away for the moment.

It acknowledges, though, that those directives haven’t always been followed. Litigators, led by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Al Otro Lado (an organization based in San Diego and Tijuana), sued the administration in 2017 on behalf of asylum seekers who had been denied entry, many of whom reported they were told that under President Trump, no asylum seekers would be accepted. In October 2018, they refiled on behalf of several new plaintiffs.

We certainly take very seriously any allegation that an officer has unfairly denied someone the right to seek asylum, McAleenan said in October. We’ve taken disciplinary action in some cases; we’ve retrained officers in others. We’ve found several allegations to be unfounded.

But with the mechanics of metering so opaque, it’s tough not to wonder just how often people are being turned away even when ports have space for them.

Honduran members of the 'migrant caravan' sit in a temporary shelter set up for members of the caravan on November 26, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico.
It’s impossible to know how long families like this Honduran mother and daughter in the migrant caravan will have to wait before being allowed to enter the US.
 Mario Tama/Getty Images

The ACLU’s Drake saw this happen firsthand in October, when a group of Guatemalan families trying to seek asylum in the US by crossing the Paseo del Norte bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso were stalled for days as CBP officers stood in their way, telling them the port was full.

Even after the ACLU got a report that the port had capacity again and should reopen, nothing changed until officers saw Drake and a colleague approach, Drake said. Only then did they turn around – allowing the asylum seekers to follow them, crossing onto US soil and accessing their right to seek asylum under US law. CBP blamed a miscommunication.

Stephanie Leutert of UT Austin, who’s been tracking the situation at ports of entry by looking at local community newspaper reports, noticed plenty of articles from 2017 and early 2018 in which asylum seekers reported being told they simply couldn’t seek asylum – that the new president wasn’t letting anyone in.

But right as metering spread beyond Tijuana in late spring of 2018, Leutert says, those stories disappeared. I don’t think I have one article where they say that they’re not taking people for asylum since the barriers went up at the limit lines, she said. Instead, officers could tell asylum seekers that they were at capacity.

Port officers aren’t hired to spend their days processing asylum seekers. But as the people coming to the US without papers have increasingly been people fleeing some form of violence – and have increasingly been children and families – processing asylum seekers has become a big part of their job, anyway. It’s not one they’re allowed to shirk: The right to asylum is pretty well ensconced in US law. Even signing a Remain in Mexico deal would require CBP officers to spend energy on asylum seekers.

The question is when balancing asylum as one priority among many turns into deprioritizing it – or outright trying to avoid it as a chore port officials may not want to do.

We can’t know how many people are crossing illegally because they can no longer afford to wait

Zero-tolerance prosecution of illegal border crossers was designed to pressure asylum seekers to cross into the US at ports of entry – pressure that only increased after the Trump administration announced an asylum ban for people caught crossing between ports of entry (the ban was in effect for nine days before a judge halted it).

At the same time, metering is pressuring them not to wait at ports of entry.

Those are the only two options.

Logically, it seems plausible that the bottlenecks at ports of entry have encouraged people to cross between them – the exact thing the Trump administration says it wants to stop. Asked directly whether this is a problem, McAleenan said, I hope not.

But internal CBP communications reveal that it’s an accepted phenomenon. An early communique about the caravan in October said that while the caravan would probably arrive at a port of entry, there was a risk the migrants might choose to cross illegally if they suspected metering would be in effect.

Central American migrants look through a border fence as a US Border Partol agents stands guard near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018.
In theory, these Central Americans have a legal right to come to a port of entry and seek asylum. In practice, it might be easier simply to scale the fence.
 Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

For asylum seekers who try to present themselves at a port of entry and are told there’s no room – without any list to add their names to – their options can be extremely limited.

One family Leutert interviewed had to hire a taxi driver to take them to a bridge in Hidalgo multiple days in a row; when the lawyer they were waiting for to escort them didn’t show, the driver got nervous and started insisting that they leave the bridge before it got unsafe. Because their daughter had a medical condition, the family was willing to spring for a hotel room to keep her safe while they made another attempt; the asylum seekers who wait on bridges, Leutert presumes, aren’t so lucky.

Then there are the smugglers who bring their charges to ports of entry every day for a few days, at 3, 4, 5 in the morning to see if there’s any space, After a couple of unsuccessful efforts when the ports are metered, she says, they tell the group, We’re not going to stay with you guys forever; we’ll cross you via the river – between ports of entry, illegally, ‘or you’re on your own.’ And people are crossing via the river.

If they continue to process at these rates, it’s going to deter people, she says. Because people aren’t gonna want to spend four months in Tijuana in a shelter.

Members of the 'migrant caravan' rest in a temporary shelter set up for members of the caravan on November 26, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico.
The Trump administration and the incoming Mexican government are reportedly negotiating to require asylum seekers to remain in Mexico for months while their cases are pending – possibly in temporary shelters like the ones set up in Tijuana now.
 Mario Tama/Getty Images

That might be true even if those people have legitimate asylum claims. In fact, it might be especially true of people who want to come to the US because they don’t feel safe in Mexico – the people who belie the argument made by some Trump administration officials that any genuine asylum seeker would be seeking refuge in Mexico instead. (The Remain in Mexico policy would allow asylum seekers to stay in the US if they had a reasonable fear of staying in Mexico, but it could also be used to argue against granting asylum to people who agreed to stay in Mexico for months.)

The argument coming from the White House is that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are not just unqualified for asylum but engaging in deliberate, systemic fraud. From that perspective, there is little to be lost from throttling the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter, because most of them shouldn’t have been allowed in anyway.

But a policy that treats everyone the same way – slowly – isn’t going to only deter the unworthy asylum seekers and let through only the worthy ones. The truly desperate people are often the ones least capable of waiting on a bridge or in a shelter or hotel for months. They may even be the ones desperate enough to try to scale a fence, or form a large group, in the hopes of setting foot on US soil and claiming their asylum rights – the people the Trump administration blames for Sunday’s unrest.

A Central American migrant wanting to reach the United States in hopes of a better life plays with a little child at a shelter in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, near the US-Mexico border fence, on November 23, 2018.
Parents often prefer to cross at a port of entry with their children for safety. But they can’t wait forever.
 Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

There are people who need protections, legitimate asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere, who are arriving, who our system is not set up to identify, McAleenan said in October. He said it as an endorsement of changing asylum policy in the US to more easily reject and deport people who would ultimately not make it through the process.

But it’s impossible to identify legitimate asylum seekers by forcing them to wait for an unknown period of time, with housing and food not guaranteed, in the midst of rising hostility from neighbors, in the uncertain hope of getting their name called or showing up at the right hour.

The advocates and lawyers at the border have seen firsthand the choices that this forces migrants to make. In Nogales, Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative and her colleagues were particularly worried about one woman with a 9-month-old daughter. As the nights got colder, they think she might have decided to get out of line and cross between the ports of entry.

Williams thought the calculus for the woman might be something like this: If the Border Patrol caught her, at least she and her daughter would be able to sleep indoors.

A Central American migrant wrapped in a US flag looks at the almost dry riverbed of the Tijuana River near the El Chaparral border crossing near US-Mexico border in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018.

Read more:


Originally published by LA Times

The invaders awoke in Tijuana slowly and fitfully Monday morning, amid coughs and soft murmurs and the voices of excitable children. I had arrived around sunrise, having walked uncontested across the border, my U.S. passport dangling needlessly in my hand, then traveling five minutes by cab to the barricaded Avenida de Cinco de Mayo. From there it wasa short walk past rows of at-ease Mexican federal police, riot gear at the ready, to the Benito Juarez sports park, a neighborhood baseball field that has become the temporary home for the mostly Central American migrants. It’s been covered for more than a week now with tents, tarps and blankets.

As the new community of 5,000 migrants began stirring, two early-rising boys – Yheran, 3, and Vairon, 7 – played with action figures, while a few yards away a man teased another young boy with a game of hide-and-seek amid the small sea of tents. Lines slowly formed at portable toilets and outdoor showers placed against the home-run fence beneath a Little Padres Park sign, where some of the travelers stripped down to underwear to bathe in the open, shampoo and runoff adding to the already muddy outfield.

President Trump has declared that the people squeezed into this encampment are part of an assault on the U.S. border. On Sunday he was, for a few minutes, right. About 500 migrants, nearly all from Central America, made a run for the crossing. Given the hundreds of Mexican soldiers and police on the south side, the hundreds of U.S. border agents and police on the north side, and all that fencing in between, the effort was doomed from the start. But it succeeded in grabbing attention, as U.S. agents fired tear gas at a small group of men, women and children, sending them back to the Tijuana side of the dry border riverbed.

Vairon, 7 (left), and Yheran, 3, each traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with their parents.
Vairon, 7 (left), and Yheran, 3, each traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with their parents. (Scott Martelle / Los Angeles Times)

In truth, the so-called caravan offers anecdotal evidence for just about any political agenda tied to the Central American migrants. The presence of single young men seeking work supports cries by hard-liners that these are economic migrants, while heart-rending stories of parents trying to save their young children from gangs, and of women fleeing sexual violence, support arguments by immigrant advocates that the U.S. needs to open its arms wider. In the end, though, it’s all just one big story of people so desperate that they are willing to travel weeks over land to a country that in all likelihood won’t let most of them in. Hope, it seems, is an export.

And it has led to this: Outside a Tijuana sports park within easy view of the U.S. border, the Mexican military on Monday served breakfast to Central Americans hoping to persuade U.S. asylum officers a mile away that they qualify for legal protection, while in Washington the White House was reportedly trying to come up with a plan to force the migrants to wait in places like this overcrowded baseball field for the months and maybe years it will take for those applications to get processed.

That’s not a border crisis, it’s a policy crisis, and this administration is so blinded by anti-immigrant animus that it is incapable of devising a response that will do anything but make camps like this one bigger and worse. It’s also unclear whether the administration’s efforts will survive court challenges. For instance, there is no clear language in immigration codes that would let the government take asylum requests, which by law are made within the U.S., and process them outside the country. As a result, these migrants could get classified as refugees, subjecting them to annual entry caps that do not apply to those seeking asylum.

Meanwhile, lives continue in an uncomfortable limbo. Journalists milled outside the camp on Monday, and the distinctive television cameras drew small crowds as reporters elicited personal stories from migrants. Vendors wandered around hawking cigarrillos Americanosand disposable razors; under a shade tree one man dry-shaved himself in the side mirror of a parked car. Children wrestled in play as volunteers handed out doughnuts and breakfast rolls, and dogs guarding nearby houses erupted whenever someone approached the fences.

As small groups left the area, police intercepted them for short conversations. No, one group of mostly young men said, they were not heading to the border, they were heading to breakfast, and off they went down a side street in search of a meal.

Read more: