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For Thousands Of Asylum Seekers, All They Can Do Is Wait

For thousands of asylum seekers, there are many ways to wait — and wait, and wait — at the threshold of the United States.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 The return to Mexico policy for asylum seekers will continue for the time being a ninth circuit court ruling last week allows the US to keep returning foreign nationals across the border to wait while their asylum claims are being processed. And a new report by Associated Press describes what that weight is like for the 13,000 migrants stuck at various ports of entry along the border that he won a border is the most congested with 4,800 people waiting to be allowed in to make their claim. Joining me is Elliot's [inaudible], a San Diego based AP reporter. And Elliot, welcome to the program. Thank you for the invitation. Now it seems that the eight border towns you and your AP colleagues visited, there are varying degrees of confusion about how this process is supposed to work. What did you find was happening specifically across the border in Tijuana?

Speaker 2: 00:51 In Tijuana, they have a waiting list. It's a tattered notebook that lists, it's a little confusing for each number. They have 10 people. Uh, so right now there are 4,800 people in this notebook. It's managed by, uh, the asylum seekers themselves. They every morning around between seven and nine o'clock, one of them gets up with a bullhorn and it starts reciting the names and numbers and then that notebook is kept overnight by Mexican immigration authorities.

Speaker 1: 01:18 How long is the wait expected to be?

Speaker 2: 01:21 I believe. Well, so there's you guys, you mentioned 4,800 names on the list. Now many of those people will probably give up and may cross illegally or just stay in Tijuana or go back home. But uh, they're calling at San Ysidro between 20 and 80. I was there a few days ago and they called 70 names. Uh, you know, it's months, probably two or three months.

Speaker 1: 01:41 No, the waiting process from your article, it really varies from city to city. Tell us more about how those lists are being managed elsewhere.

Speaker 2: 01:49 Yeah, and so I should clarify this, is that these lists are two to make your initial claim for asylum. There's also, in addition to that, the ninth circuit ruling that you mentioned. So these are, those are people, once they get in, they get turned back to Mexico right away. So these lists that I'm talking about are people who are just make, just trying to get in for the first time to claim asylum. And there really is what we found is that just a very haphazard mishmash of systems that vary by city. There's some, you know, they bear some similarities, but more than they're more different than they are similar.

Speaker 1: 02:19 And are they mostly handled by the migrants themselves?

Speaker 2: 02:23 Well, so in, uh, San Luis, Rio, Colorado, which is right near Yuma, Arizona, it's managed by a Venezuelan asylum seeker. Uh, and he just picked his successor who's a Mexican asylum seeker because his, his name is about to be called and he's going to go into the u s so that one is managed by asylum seekers. The one in Tijuana. The others? No, the others are managed by the shelter's migrant shelters. One is managed by a in Piedras Negras. It's managed by a, the owner of a local steakhouse who's also a, a local government official, uh, in Ciudad Juarez, which is a, an enormous waiting lists, 4,500 names. It's thereby the Chihuahua state government. So it varies by city. The people learn about their, their, their numbers coming up in different ways. In one town. Piedras Negras when they're, when they report to this local steakhouse owner, uh, that they're in town, they were waiting for their number, they find out through a, uh, through whatsapp what, what number they're on in another city. Ciudad Juarez. It was, it started off with the migrant shelter writing with black ink on people's arms, what their number was. That was replaced by a system where they would give it wristbands like you, like you would get an a for visiting a hospital. And then just recently they started taking digital photos and uh, people would, they created a f a closed Facebook page, a group that, uh, people could check in and it's updated twice a day with what the current number is and how many CBP people, CBP as, as is taking that day.

Speaker 1: 03:50 What sorts of stories did you hear from asylum seekers you talked with?

Speaker 2: 03:54 Well, I think, I think generally they were just exasperated, uh, just, just with the way, you know, they didn't know that it was going to be, they didn't know they were going to have to wait so long. Uh, and you know, this, they feel a little bit on safe, but we all ask, why, why did you come here instead of somewhere else along the border? And it usually had something to do with safety concerns and the speed with which you get through. But you know, that is so hard to predict these days. It's, you know, the Trump administration has sharply limited the number of asylum claims that process each day. But it's a mystery as to how many they let in and you know, how, how things, it's kind of a black box. So it's, so they picked based on what their friends tell them.

Speaker 1: 04:29 And you really have to be ready if you're waiting to go at a moment's notice.

Speaker 2: 04:33 Right, right. So in a couple of cities, I know I went to one that I've mentioned, San Luis, Rio, Colorado, uh, they had, they had the hundreds of people. These are predominantly families camping out in the street at the street that leads right up to the border crossing. There were lots of cars going by, lots of exhaust fumes. And the mayor there said enough is enough. And he, he basically kicked all of them out except for, I think it's about 15 families that he allowed to stay there when their number is about to be called you. You never know when your number's going to be called, you know, it's approaching, but you don't know exactly when it, so you have to have your suitcases backpacks ready to go.

Speaker 1: 05:09 There's an understandable frustration among migrants who are told to wait as, as we've been talking about two, three, sometimes five months to get their first interview. Are some entering the US illegally?

Speaker 2: 05:20 Oh yeah. A huge number. So other than the numbers came out last week, uh, for April it was about a hundred thousand border patrol arrests, uh, early in Trump's presidency. It was about 15,000 it low, it bottomed out at about 15,000, so they're up to a hundred thousand. A sizable majority is families. People who come as families and unaccompanied children,

Speaker 1: 05:39 as you said, the Trump administration, uh, and the border patrol as a reflection of that are severely limiting the number of people they let in for these daily interviews. How are customs and Border Protection officials responding when you asked why are they doing this?

Speaker 2: 05:55 They've said all along that this is a of queue management of, of managing the flows. It's not denying asylum. There was a hearing a Friday in federal court in San Diego on a lawsuit that was brought by a group called [inaudible] that says what the, what CBP is doing is illegal. And the response is, no, it's not illegal. We're not, we're not turning back asylum seekers. We're just asking them to wait, managing our line. Kind of just like you would in a restaurant, how

Speaker 1: 06:21 the ninth circuit ruling that allows the Trump administration returned to Mexico policy to go on pretty much indefinitely at this point. How is that impacting the whole situation of this weight?

Speaker 2: 06:32 Right. So, so you know, I mentioned that what we wrote about with 13,000 names on that list, that is in eight cities that we visited, that's just to get in the first time, but the administration is sending back mainly Central American families is what this is targeted at. They're turning them back to Mexico and they have to wait for the initial hearing and that those hearings here are held in downtown San Diego at the immigration court. Then they go back, they're taken back to Tijuana. So they're just shuttled back and forth whenever they have an immigration hearing. So far it's just been introduced in San Diego, in Calexico and El Paso, Texas. But the administration says it wants to rapidly expand it.

Speaker 1: 07:11 I'm in speaking with Elliot spag at San Diego based AP reporter Elliot. Thank you. Thank you.

Speaker 3: 07:17 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.