The lines for asylum seekers waiting to enter the U.S. at California ports of entry are the longest of any along the southwest border, according to a forthcoming report.
The new report, a partnership between the University of Texas at Austin Robert Strauss Center, the University of California San Diego Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and the Migration Policy Center, found disparate and often unclear methods for getting added to a wait list depending on where an asylum seeker is hoping to cross the border.
“U.S. authorities have tried to push asylum seekers to ports of entry,” said Savitri Arvey, a graduate student and researcher at Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. “When asylum seekers show up to ports of entry to request asylum, the process is not that simple.”
Customs and Border Protection officials say that the number of people they can take each day to begin the asylum process depends on how much space they have available in their holding cells.
Lawyers and advocates, on the other hand, have questioned the legality as well as the ethics of telling those who are ostensibly fleeing for their lives to wait in a country where they might still be in danger.
U.S. officials’ practice of “metering” or limiting the number of people seeking protection let in each day started in California before extending along the entire border. Such policies have led to wait lists, operated in some cities by Mexican officials and in others by non-government organizations. In Tijuana, migrants themselves manage the list in a notebook provided by Mexican officials to determine who will cross next to ask the U.S. for help.
The metering policy that has led to long lines is believed to cause more asylum seekers to try to cross into the U.S. illegally, according to a government watchdog report.
CBP countered that in order to balance resources among its responsibilities — including detecting drug smugglers and facilitating international trade — the agency has to limit how many asylum seekers come in its doors at a time.
“The number of inadmissible individuals CBP is able to process varies based upon case complexity; available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; holding/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions,” an agency official said. “No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum.”
To Arvey, the solution lies in where the federal government puts its resources. She said the administration should invest in more personnel who can process asylum seekers rather than deploying troops to the border.
While close to 300 asylum seekers have signed up to hold their place in line to cross from Matamoros into Brownsville, Texas, more than 2,000 people were in line in Tijuana shortly before the recent migrant caravan arrived. The number waiting to ask for help in San Diego grew to more than 5,100 since the group came in November. Another approximately 350 people are waiting in Mexicali to be processed in Calexico.
Though the San Ysidro port of entry — with an estimated capacity of 300 according to CBP — has by far the most room to process asylum seekers of any of the ports of entry analyzed in the report, and generally takes in more people per day than the other ports, it also has the longest wait times.
Arvey and her fellow researchers found that, depending on the day, CBP officials at San Ysidro’s PedWest, where the asylum line forms, take in between 20 and 80 people per day. In El Paso, officers take between 40 and 60. Elsewhere along the border, the number accepted daily is in the single digits except in Nogales and Calexico, where CBP can take up to 20.
With the addition of caravan members, researchers estimated that it would take about three months for those currently at the back of the line in Tijuana to make it to the front. Shortly before the caravan arrived, the wait was about six weeks.
Asylum seekers in Matamoros generally wait between two and eight weeks, and those in Mexicali can expect to wait up to a month, the report said. Elsewhere along the border, people wait about two weeks.
What worried Arvey most about the situation in Tijuana was the size of the wait list compared to the number of shelter beds available. With more than a dozen migrant shelters, the city has about 700 beds, not including the temporary shelters erected for the caravan. Those shelters also house newly arrived deportees.
“You really see the strain on the shelters,” Arvey said, noting that many families end up begging to try to scrape together enough money for a cheap hotel room near the border.
In cities with shorter waits, there’s often a reason, like higher risk of being targeted by gangs as a migrant, Arvey said. Asylum seekers won’t have an easy time making their request for help, no matter which option they choose, she said.
The first signs of metering appeared in June 2016 when officers were in place at PedWest to prevent those without travel documents from stepping from Tijuana into the part of the port that was on U.S. soil.
That summer, Mexican immigration officials in Tijuana implemented an appointment system to control how many from a large group of Haitians went for processing each day. The line of Haitians eventually disappeared, but metering created a backlog in Tijuana again in late 2017.
By spring of 2018, migrants in Tijuana organized their names into a notebook to determine who was next in line. In the summer, reports surfaced of officials standing at the halfway point on bridges elsewhere along the border to similarly control how many asylum seekers came in each day.
In some places, Mexican immigration officials maintain the wait list. In Piedras Negras, the mayor’s office ran the list for several months. NGOs have managed the lists in other cities, and in Ciudad Juárez, a migrant shelter keeps track of whose turn it is to go to the U.S.
Meanwhile, Tijuana's system evolved from a single asylum seeker carrying the notebook around the plaza outside the port of entry to a group of migrants sitting under a blue canopy with caution tape showing newcomers where to queue.
On Wednesday, among Mexican and Central American families waiting to hear if their numbers would be called, a boy from Turkey hurried to tell his mother and siblings that it was finally their turn.
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