Crossing the Line: On-the-Ground Report on the Humanitarian Crisis in Tijuana

Last Updated

January 28, 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shut its doors at the San Ysidro port of entry in mid-Novemeber of 2018, claiming that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) lacked the capacity to process fear claims in light of the arrival of the Central American migrant caravan. The “Exodus” members – more than 5,000 Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans — were greeted with hostility and ad hoc restrictions that prevented their ability to seek asylum. This has created a two-month long bottleneck at the U.S.-Mexico border, a humanitarian crisis and a watershed moment in U.S. immigration history that continues to capture national and international attention. The nonprofit agency Al Otro Lado, which provides cross-border legal services and has an office in Tijuana, immediately sprang into action to help asylum seekers. CLINIC was there to help Al Otro Lado establish a legal orientation process and volunteer infrastructure.


Background on the Situation in Tijuana

The Exodus migrants and asylum seekers traveled 2,500 miles from Central America to Tijuana because they are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries. Central Americans, however, are not the only people in Tijuana who are hoping to get to the United States.

With thousands of migrants stuck in Tijuana and the U.S. government claiming limited resources to process them, a legally dubious list has emerged whereby new arrivals must put their name in a notebook and get in line in order to gain entry into the United States. The list, managed by asylum seekers themselves, gets longer each day and is unofficially supervised by the Mexican government and U.S. immigration officials.

The process of getting on the list is confusing, and many new arrivals have difficulty navigating the ever-changing procedural landscape. Getting on the list is the first challenge, but that is only the beginning. On a daily basis at El Chapparal – a plaza/park in front of the San Ysidro port of entry – dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals and families gather around a table operated by a handful of asylum seekers known as the “notebook” or “list” managers. On small scraps of paper, they hand out numbers to new arrivals and handwrite their names in a large notebook, which contains the list. Each number actually denotes a group of 10 people rather than one person. Once on the list, the wait time is nearly two months. Each morning at around 7:30 a.m., CBP shares with Mexican immigration officials what their capacity will be for that particular day. CBP has been processing anywhere from 0 to 100 people each day; since Jan. 1, the average has been 40 people per day. The Mexican officials (Grupos Beta) then relay that information to the list managers, who announce the group numbers being called up that day. People with the corresponding numbers are then transported on Mexican immigration vehicles to a nearby port of entry to be processed by CBP. Usually, there are two groups: one group in the morning and another in the afternoon.

There are no official rules at El Chapparal, and every day legal observers and asylum seekers face a new reality. Some days numbers are skipped. Other days people, who were not present when their number was called up, are permitted to come back the next day and enter with the next batch. However, this is not always the case. Some days no numbers are called and no explanations are given. Some days there are riots because people believe they are being deprived of their place in line.

Even worse, many people in Tijuana hoping to seek asylum in the United States still do not know about the list, especially asylum seekers who do not speak Spanish. There are also allegations of corruption concerning the list, with claims of numbers being sold and of people cutting the line. Nevertheless, it’s a process that should not exist—any system of this importance should be overseen by government officials and should be subject to audit. Due to the complaints about list management and the lack of any official structure, there is high turnover among list managers, especially since many of them resign their position when their number for CBP processing is called. Since there is no formal process for becoming a list manager, it is difficult to know who is in charge.

Some populations among the migrants are especially vulnerable, including LGBTQ asylum seekers and unaccompanied children whose lives are in danger in Tijuana as they are forced to wait to apply for asylum. LGBTQ individuals have needed to create smaller groups to protect themselves from violent attack by locals in Tijuana, as well as from discrimination and harassment by other Exodus members and the Mexican police. Children traveling alone often live on the streets rather than remain in over-crowded shelters, where they are particularly vulnerable to deportation, gang recruitment, criminal attacks, human trafficking and forced sex work. Moreover, the minors are hesitant to identify themselves because Mexican child protection officers are required to take unaccompanied children into custody, where they are placed into foster care or deported. Under these circumstances, many unaccompanied children struggle with depression and some have harmed themselves out of desperation.  

In late December, two minors from Honduras were killed in Tijuana. They were found stabbed and strangled on the streets after their assailants tried to rob them. The tragic death of these teens, believed to be 16 and 17 years old, highlights the unique dangers facing children waiting in violent border regions where cartels and smugglers operate. Unaccompanied children are often afraid to access the list to seek entry into the United States because they are particularly vulnerable to deportation by Mexican authorities. If they try to access the ports of entry, they are turned away and told to get on the list. Legal volunteers have witnessed minors confronted by CBP in riot gear, surrounded by Mexican federal police, and accused of loitering, even though they were pleading for protection from the United States. The result is Mexican immigration officials coming to the port and taking them into their custody.

As of Jan. 25, the last group number issued and listed in the notebook was 2,046, which means that 20,460 people have entered their name on the list (since each group number includes approximately ten people). The last group number called as of Jan. 25, was 1,806, meaning 18,060 individuals have been called up since this list was created more than one year ago. However, it does not mean that they have all been processed by CBP, since sometimes numbers are skipped or people don’t show up when their number is announced. It is not possible to accurately gauge the number of people who have gained entry into the United States by tracking the numbers on the list, which is one of many reasons that a list kept by asylum seekers themselves, rather than an official institution, is so problematic.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced a “Remain in Mexico” policy, whereby asylum seekers will be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases are considered even after initial processing and a credible fear interview has taken place (a process that could take well over a year). Up until Thursday, Jan. 24, we had not heard of any accounts of asylum-seekers being returned to Mexico after processing by CBP officials. The policy, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, was set to go into effect Friday, Jan. 25.


CLINIC’s Asylum Workshops in Tijuana: CFI Prep and Know-Your-Rights Seminars

CLINIC has played a critical role in organizing the legal volunteer effort in Tijuana since November. After the well-publicized incident on Thanksgiving, when CBP and U.S. military police tear-gassed Central Americans protesting at the border, a steady flow of volunteers has traveled to Tijuana from across the United States to gather information, provide assistance, and help out in any way they can. Some come to donate food, winter clothing or toys for children; others come to provide child care services. They include attorneys, immigration practitioners, medical personnel and lay people who stay for a few days or several weeks. As the legal and humanitarian crisis in Tijuana continues to unfold, CLINIC’s Strategic Capacity Officer Luis Guerra has led the coordination strategy and volunteer recruitment on the ground. In addition, Guerra has provided organizational and legal support to ongoing efforts in community education and responding to emergency humanitarian and larger advocacy issues regarding vulnerable populations.

During the last two months, CLINIC, the staff at Al Otro Lado’s Tijuana offices, and other legal organizations have trained more than 800 volunteers and developed a mass-scale legal clinic for asylum seekers that focuses on preparing applicants for their credible fear interviews (CFIs). After CBP calls the asylum seeker’s number at the port of entry and the person expresses a fear of returning to their home country, CBP refers him or her for an interview with a USCIS asylum officer. That interview takes place either in person at the border or telephonically. The CFI screening is meant to determine whether there is a significant possibility the applicant could establish eligibility for asylum or related relief.

CLINIC also coordinates and leads a daily comprehensive asylum workshop in Tijuana. During the workshop, volunteers explain the process asylum seekers will have to go through to be processed into the United States. It also gives an overview of the U.S. immigration system, including the CFI process, and the possibility of facing detention in the United States. Where possible, immigration attorneys also provide one-on-one consultations with asylum seekers. In addition, volunteers at the asylum workshop assist with documentation. Here, volunteers scan and digitize people’s documents in order to protect them from potential loss, theft or damage. Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit agency, has aided the collaborative effort in Tijuana by providing tech support, including case management and document safety tools.

Every morning CLINIC conducts an orientation for new volunteers and a meeting for those who have already been volunteering. An average of 30 volunteers – and up to 85 at its peak – have helped each day. During these meetings, the organizers map out the various tasks and divide volunteers into groups with defined roles. Some teams go to El Chapparal to provide last-minute advice to those crossing that day and to inform others about the asylum workshops, which take place between 1-5 p.m. Other teams of legal observers advocate for individuals trying to be placed on the list or who have been denied access to it by Mexican government officials.

In the past 60 days, CLINIC has helped organize asylum workshops and individual consultations that have served more than 3,000 individuals. The asylum seekers are primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico, but there have been numerous individuals and families from other parts of the world, including Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Cameroon, Ukraine, Russia and even Kyrgyzstan. The most common languages spoken are Spanish, English, Haitian Creole, French and Russian. Volunteers even conducted consults in two different types of sign language. CLINIC’s workshops are intended to educate asylum seekers on the legal process and their various options. After a credible fear consult with a volunteer attorney, asylum seekers must make a choice between three options: 1) wait for the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States; 2) return home; or 3) seek employment in Mexico through a humanitarian visa.

The most challenging part of the work has been the ever-changing rules and procedures at the port of entry and the lack of transparency in the coordination between the U.S. and Mexican governments. Moreover, misinformation from Mexican government officials communicated to asylum seekers and volunteers trying to help them is a growing obstacle. Local police in Tijuana, for example, have at times set up perimeters a few blocks away from Al Otro Lado’s offices, where we run our operations, and prevented people from accessing CLINIC’s services. Also information provided by Mexican officials regarding staying in Mexico has been misleading and vague.


Continuing Efforts in Tijuana

The situation at the border will likely worsen and require more resources, given the Trump administration’s orders to CBP and statements that most of the people at the border are not bona fide asylum seekers. With more Central Americans heading north and more people fleeing persecution around the globe, CLINIC will continue to be an integral part of this Border Rights Project, along with the formal coalition of Al Otro Lado, the Innovation Law Lab, and other legal organizations likely to join soon. If you would like to contribute to these efforts, please consider donating to the volunteer Amazon Wish List or to CLINIC’s Defending Vulnerable Populations Program. If you would like to volunteer in Tijuana, please contact Al Otro Lado.