This past Sunday, more than 200 asylum seekers fleeing from violence in Central American countries walked peacefully to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, located about 18 miles from downtown San Diego. They included pregnant women, unaccompanied children, families with babies, trans women, and a young woman with partial paralysis in a wheelchair.
When a small group approached to seek asylum, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers informed them the port of entry was at capacity and they would not be processing any asylum seekers at that time.
But some question the legitimacy of the claim. On the scene since Sunday, Nicole Ramos is the director of the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado, which represents members of the caravan. Ramos told PRI, “There is space for 316 people at the port of entry. It’s unclear why the American government, which is the most powerful governments [sic] in the world, did not have sufficient time to prepare for the arrival of refugees.”
Until last night, the vast majority of asylum seekers had been camping outside of the port of entry on the Mexican side of the border. As of this afternoon, the remaining people from the caravan have been processed. But after traveling some 3,000 miles and several months, the final part of their journey remains just as challenging and uncertain.
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We already know the Trump administration is hostile toward asylum seekers. Trump has called on Congress to end “loopholes” regarding laws that dictate children and families who arrive together move through the system together. “It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL,” Trump tweeted in April.
In that same tweet, Trump wrote that he told Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not to allow “large caravans” to enter the United States. And U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech at the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review last October suggested the country’s policies allow too many asylum seekers to exploit loopholes in a “broken” process. As for the asylum seekers of this caravan, Sessions said, “We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border.”
Until last night, CBP had processed only a handful of asylum seekers each day since Sunday, as the rest waited and slept on the concrete outside the port of entry in the rain. Volunteers on both the Mexican and U.S. sides of the border worked around the clock to help manage necessities and medical needs for the large group. At least a third of these asylum seekers are babies and young children, including six who are unaccompanied.
Earlier this week was the “Dia del Niño,” the Day of Children in Mexico, and volunteer organizations brought a clown to entertain and distributed cake and toys to the kids.
While handing out treats to young children, Hammurab Castillo, a Mexican volunteer who was helping with the Day of Children celebrations, began crying. “My heart hurts to see these kids. I have a one-year-old at home,” he said.
Mark Lane, a San Diego-based legal advocate for the asylum seekers, recounted the horrific stories from asylum seekers. “One lady’s older boys were being pressured to work for gangs, and when the boys refused, the gang threatened to execute their 6-year-old brother,” Lane told Rewire.News. “The older brothers had only a certain number of days to report to duty for the gang, so the family escaped.”
Others have similar stories. One woman told Lane that she joined the caravan because her husband was kidnapped and her brother-in-law killed. A young man from Honduras explained to Lane that he was being assaulted and threatened by a gang. He escaped illegally through Texas twice and was deported each time. When the gang threatened to rape the 19-year-old mother of his baby, the young family joined the caravan in Chiapas, Mexico.
More than a dozen LGBTQ asylum seekers, arguably some of the most vulnerable of the migrants, chatted near the children’s activities on Monday. Because of the constant danger they have faced, they kept together and had strict rules, such as not conducting interviews in the camp area.
Steffany, whose last name is being withheld for her safety, is a 23-year-old transgender woman who traveled with the caravan. She was in a Mexican shelter in Chiapas for four months before joining. “They killed a friend of mine with a machete in front of me,” Steffany told Rewire.News through a translator. “They like to use knives or machetes on us.”
Steffany recalled a month on a dangerous journey across Mexico before they arrived at the border. “We all had to watch out for each other. People discriminate against us. Some people want to kill trans people.”
Waiting multiple days added to the anxiety of many asylum seekers. They didn’t want to leave as they feared they wouldn’t be able to submit their claim.
In response to the slow processing, Ramos said, “These asylum seekers are trying to do things ‘the right way’ and the U.S. government has slammed the door shut on their face, on top of the threat of indefinite detention and family separation once they are processed.”
Because the asylum seekers had been outdoors for days and exposed to the elements, volunteers helped set up makeshift shelters with tents and tarps. Even so, many exhibited signs of the cold or flu.
Lane told Rewire.News, “besides the caravan, there are around two hundred other immigrants from Mexico, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Central America who have been given a number and are also waiting outside [the port of entry] to be processed by CBP.”
Among them, a four-month-old baby suffered third-degree burns from hot soup that spilled on her feet, according to Lane. Doctors arrived at the scene on Tuesday to treat her and others with minor injuries and illnesses. For five days, volunteers distributed food, toiletries, dry clothes, tarps, and diapers, but the long wait time contributed to the deteriorating conditions of the camp.
Though the migrants were able to ask for asylum, their plight is far from over. If they can’t establish a case that their fear is credible, they will be deported to where they escaped from. “It could take a few days to a few years for the immigration process,” Lane said. Before a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, asylum seekers were allowed a bond hearing every six months. Now they are expected to be under mandatory detention without a chance for bond hearing.
When asked about the uncertainty of her situation, Steffany was hopeful but knew that going through a potentially long immigration process was her only choice. “Even if I can’t get in, I can’t go back to Honduras. I would be killed,” she said.
Other asylum seekers echoed Steffany’s concern and have resolved to wait until they all have been processed by CBP. Language barriers and lack of access to an attorney can make it difficult for them to present a solid case. Because of this, Ramos urges other attorneys and advocates to bring their skills “to the pueblo” instead of hoping the pueblo surmounts these barriers and arrives on its own.
“My work with refugees in Tijuana is constant and there are those who traveled with the caravan who are still waiting for their families to send copies of evidence from Central America, such as police reports and death certificates,” Ramos said. “CBP will continue to turn people away. The difference is the press and 200 people won’t be nearby to witness it. That is why Al Otro Lado needs people willing to come down and assist with refugee accompaniment and other critical preparation of their legal cases before they enter detention.”
“We are in a refugee crisis,” she added. “The failure to act to protect refugees fleeing through Mexico is a moral failure.”
As of last night, Steffany and the rest of the LGBTQ subsection of the caravan had been processed, but at the time of this report, it wasn’t clear whether they had been granted asylum or were at a detention center, waiting.