On Monday, March 8, the San Ysidro PedWest border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana was closed. At its southern exit, on the Mexican side, stood more than 100 tents, many of them draped in tarps to cover leaks. Children played football, some drew with chalk, and a little girl sat on my shoulders and told me she was a mermaid and I needed to pretend to be a shark. However bad things are, kids will always want to play. But for the 1,500 asylum-seekers who traveled thousands of miles to look for a safe place for their kids, only to be stopped feet from the border, this was serious business. Many of those camped at the border have spent up to two years awaiting a decision from the Trump administration in Mexico, and they have come to the San Ysidro border crossing to plead with President Joe Biden to help them.
Under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols—better known as “remain in Mexico”—individuals who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border to claim asylum were told to stay in Mexico and present themselves at the border at a specific date for a hearing. In March 2020, all of the hearings were suspended temporarily due to COVID-19, and then indefinitely. Given that less than 10 percent of MPP enrollees have legal representation, the program amounted to an almost total halt to asylum claims at the Southern border under President Donald Trump; by December, there were 42,012 cases registered and only 638 people granted relief in immigration court, according to the American Immigration Council.
And even without MPP, an emergency health order known as Title 42 allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to drop migrants back in Mexico. Once they are dropped in Mexico, there is no clear temporary immigration status for many asylum-seekers trying to get to the U.S., meaning it’s hard for them to find work.
The result of these policies has been a huge influx of asylum-seekers waiting along the border, often in shelters or tent cities. The Department of Homeland Security officially began processing people who were forced to remain in Mexico under the MPP policy on Feb. 19, but the new administration has yet to give most of the people in the encampments a way out. With the gate to the United States literally and metaphorically barred, hundreds more asylum-seekers are arriving at El Chaparral, the square where pedestrians first set foot in Mexico, to ask for help.
In a statement released March 10, CBP wrote that there were about 25,000 cases eligible for entry and that 1,500 people had been processed since the program started in February. At San Ysidro, CBP wrote, the agency was “processing about 25 cases per day.” (For comparison, CBP also said that in February it had “encountered 100,441 persons attempting entry along the Southwest border” and had expelled 72,113.)
CBP and the Department of Homeland Security did not reply before publication to questions about why the processing was going so slowly.
For families stuck in a country where they do not feel safe, the next steps are unclear, even as more people join them. In Matamoros, just south of Brownsville, Texas, U.N. officials helped 611 MPP applicants as they were admitted to the U.S. from the tent city there, which had been a widely publicized symbol of the cruelty of the Trump administration. That movement drew still more migrants to the border, creating an incentive for even more tent cities.
Despite the lack of running water, toilets, or any security for children, asylum-seekers have gathered to petition Joe Biden to let them apply from inside the United States, where they would feel safe. They say that migrant shelters force them to work without the proper visas, charge them for everything from charging their phones to bathing, and exhibit racism towards Black and Middle Eastern refugees.
For right-wing, anti-immigrant groups, the situation has presented itself as the next battleground in their ongoing meme war with Biden. Someone has distributed shirts with the Biden logo to the people waiting at the border, and now the same disinformation groups who spun the 2018 migrant caravan into panic fodder for websites like Infowars are walking around the camps with their cameras trying to turn a human crisis into a political opportunity.
An African volunteer named Mohammed, who helps organize supplies and vet media at the camp with the Haitian Bridge Alliance and is himself seeking asylum due to the instability and violence in his home country, said, “People lost hope under Donald Trump. Now they are coming out because they believe that the government will see and have some mercy on them and really help them in this suffering. More and more people are coming out with the hope of one day having some solution.”
Many were not enrolled in MPP, or not even eligible; Mexican citizens are exempt from the program. “These people are really desperate” Mohammed said. “Since they came last year, some of them have not even been able to get on the waiting list.”
With the prospect of rainstorms in the forecast during my reporting trip, families were preparing their tents and tarps. Many have already been sleeping at the closed crossing for weeks, and more arrive every day. These are some of their stories
Siomara is from Honduras.
“I have three daughters aged 13, 10, and 6. I’ve always had my own business selling food and I paid what we call extortion money. But with the pandemic, I couldn’t pay what I owed for three or four months. They said if I didn’t pay, they would burn down my shop and me and my daughters would be raped and killed. With what little I had, I left with my daughters.”
“It’s hard to get work here, and as an immigrant, there are some jobs but not the sort that are for me, I have to be an example to my kids. One day I was juggling by the traffic lights and some guys tried to pick me up. They said they knew where I lived and would hurt me and my daughters if I didn’t work for them. They made me work in a bar. I escaped, but that is how I broke my hand. I didn’t want to go to the U.S., but I need to leave this country for the same reason I left my own.”
“I am asking Biden, please, to think of us as well who are not in the MPP, and let us start the process we need to start. We have rights as well, and we are here, and we matter. I am asking because I am a single mother and I am afraid, and I am here, for the most part, for my daughters so they can be safe.”
Members of Siomara’s family:
“We came from Honduras to flee the violence. We have come to this camp in the last few days, but it’s scary here. We don’t feel safe. There are people coming and taking photos of the children, of the women. Men offer the women here money to go with them; they try to get them to sleep with them. There’s a woman here filming us as well; we found out she is a big activist for Donald Trump.”
“Some people came to snatch a child. Here, between the group, we are working to make a security committee—to protect the children, because there are people who would take the children here.”
“We aren’t a caravan. We are people from all over the world who have come here for a better future. We are asking Biden and we know it’s complicated, and that he has a lot to sort out. We have patience, we know he has to make compromises, but please think of us here. We are in danger, please give us a solution.”
Under MPP, officers do not have to ask applicants if they are afraid or returning to Mexico. Instead, applicants must assert their fear. If an applicant does assert their fear, they are held in custody and interviewed to prove that they are “more likely than not to face persecution or torture in Mexico.” Estimates on the share of people who pass these interviews range from 1 percent to 13 percent.
Rixie and her son, Joan.
“There are lots of cases like mine—they are not canceled, but they are ‘pending.’ I am Central American and I have MPP with my son, but my partner and daughter here in Mexico do not. I hope they are going to link them to my case. I had a problem with my pregnancy and lost my hearing date. Now I am not sure where I stand exactly. A lawyer came here from Al Otro Lado [a U.S.-based legal aid nonprofit]. They said, ‘Your case isn’t in the canceled or approved column; it’s just pending.’ That’s why we are here now, hoping to hear if our cases have been approved. But we have been waiting a week and heard nothing.”
A family from Honduras.
“We came here to ask for asylum, because in our country there is lots of violence and organized crime. Because of this, there are no opportunities for our children; they can’t study. Our daughters, we have to keep them safe from the organized crime. It’s similar in Mexico; we can’t be safe here because of the cartels coming for our daughters. We’re appealing to President Biden. We aren’t bad people; our goal is to work and get ahead in the world for our children. We don’t want to go back; they will kill us. So we are here. We aren’t with the MPP; we haven’t been able to appeal for asylum because of a decree about the pandemic. Thanks to God all of us are here. We are a family of five with a daughter of 4 months old here in the tent, asking President Biden for an opportunity.”
José and Alba Luz came with their family of 17 on foot from Honduras.
“It took us 8 days. It was very, very dangerous; there were robbers and people trying to hurt us. We didn’t take the train; it’s not safe. Sometimes it was hard, carrying the children, carrying everything. God kept us safe.”
“I have family in the USA, my brother lives in Arlington. So we have a place to go. … We are staying here at the shelter, and I am overseeing the work here at the shelter. I want to ask for asylum and enter correctly with the children. I want my children to be able to study and be safe; in my country it’s not safe. My daughter, she wants to study. We want her to be able to study; she wants to be a painter.”
Their daughter was the first person I met on my trip. She waved the remains of a chicken leg she was eating at me when I walked in. When I asked her where she had come from, she told me, “I’m a mermaid and I live under the sea, with the sharks.” In short order, she had me pretending to be a crab with her brother.
Migrants from Haiti.
“We are all here alone, not with our families. We came from Haiti but not directly here. We walked from Chile, through Peru, Colombia, Panama. It is very hard in Haiti, and it is not safe. We’ve been here since 2018, but we haven’t been able to apply yet for asylum. We don’t come with the caravan; we came on our own. But we want to get through to the USA; that’s why we are here—to ask Biden.”