The List

Bella Bravo

Photography by Jayrol

Shrouded in mystery, The List forces asylum seekers to manage their own oppression. While no one knows how the list started, what’s clear is that it must end. 

On my first night in Tijuana, I walked with an immigration attorney and a certified immigration representative to El Chaparral, the Port of Entry into the US. We took the route followed by anyone seeking asylum. Tijuana police with batons and sidearms guarded the first clearance. Once past the guards, we walked up three switchback ramps while private security and officials with the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migracion (INM) monitored our passage, camouflage service rifles at the ready. We continued through a covered overpass, then down a spiral walkway which deposited us in a small, enclosed courtyard. Giant spools of razor wire framed the only exit, the door to the US border. Despite the prison atmosphere, I couldn’t tell at first if we were in the right place, because US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents look exactly like the Tijuana police. They both wore navy blue uniforms bulging with bulletproof padding. Their badges were unremarkable.

We sat on the ground in the courtyard and watched as CBP checked passports. I noticed a mother who seemed restless waiting in the long line. She and her son had several pieces of luggage. When the line advanced, she would adjust the strap on her duffel bag, take a backpack in each hand, shuffle a few paces, then release everything to the ground. The mother and her son stepped up to the CBP agent. There was clearly a problem. CBP didn’t speak Spanish, and she was trying to present her son and herself for asylum. He pointed up the spiral walkway and told her to get on The List.

One of my companions stepped in and told CBP to get a supervisor who spoke Spanish. He checked with the mother. She said they had traveled from Guatemala. She had not heard of the caravan. The officer returned and tried to turn them away again, but the mother insisted and refused to move from the doorway. As a second officer went for a supervisor, my companion yelled out the section of the US code that they would violate if they failed to accept this family. We talked to the woman and explained about The List, but she didn’t care. She said they would sleep here on the ground.

On November 13, a small group from the Central American exodus in progress landed in Tijuana. By November 16, the number had grown to about 1,500. The National Lawyers Guild sent out an emergency call for legal observers. I sent an email, “I can be there tomorrow at 5pm.”

No one could tell me where The List comes from. It is maintained by the asylum-seeking migrants themselves, with the assistance of Grupos Beta, the humanitarian arm of the Mexican INM. Several migrant caravans have used The List in recent years. Asylum-seekers traveling in the Central American exodus began this iteration of the list as they walked north through Mexico, adding their names at El Chaparral once they arrived. Though US Homeland Security has no control over the list, it results directly from the US policy of “metering” asylum-seekers and refusing to process more than thirty to sixty claims per day. Every asylum-seeker gets a number at the El Chaparral Port of Entry, which determines when they present themselves to CBP for processing. Their dates are months off.

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I practice criminal defense, not immigration. After my arrival, Al Otro Lado, a bi-national, direct legal aid organization that serves the refugees as they arrive in Tijuana trained me to give basic information about The List and to encourage people to attend “Know Your Asylum Rights” presentations that Al Otro Lado staff lead. Al Otro Lado is suing the US for the exact type of behavior the CBP agent above exhibited. The lawsuit alleges, in part, that the US has restricted migrants’ access to asylum by telling them that they need permission from the Mexican government to seek asylum in the US. That is how The List works.

Mexican immigration officials dispersed the caravan into a handful of shelters. Benito Juárez, a fenced-in, grassless sports park about the size of a city block, housed more than a thousand people by the time I arrived on November 17. Migrants had patched together shelter from blankets, nylon tents, shrub branches, and the stadium bleachers. The makeshift structures covered almost every square foot of ground, except the baseball diamond.

As soon as I stepped onto the diamond, I was coated from head to toe in a fine layer of rust-colored dirt. I realized immediately that they would lose everything in the rain as the camp became a lake of mud. The buildings in the sports complex were closed to the migrants. People washed themselves in the open at a line of about fifteen showers on the edge of the baseball field. People showered during the Know Your Rights training we held. There was no privacy, except inside the dozen or so port-o-potties. Children played wherever they could. A little girl in a pink princess costume ran past me, her satin panel drawing a curved line through the dirt behind her. She looked over her shoulder, giggled, and sped up, trying to stay two steps out of her mom’s reach.

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Before, during, and after the presentation, people from the caravans huddled around me and another attorney, hungry for information about the asylum process. An older woman graciously put up with my broken Spanish. She asked simple questions and repeated my answers back to me in plain but corrected form to confirm she understood. She had not heard of The List. I explained that every asylum-seeker had to get a number at the El Chaparral Port of Entry. She should go between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. and find someone with a notebook. The list keeper would give her a number.

¿Qué número?
I took out my phone and opened Google Translate
Your spot in the line. → Tu lugar en la línea.
Maybe about 1,450. → Tal vez sobre 1.450.
We read the screen together and nodded.
¿Vale?
Sí, sí.

I continued with my script. Once you have your number, it will take four to six weeks or more for the list keeper to call your number. The older woman looked down at the ground and shook her head, using the international sign for disillusionment. Her daughter joined her side. Buenas noches.

I guessed they were mother and daughter, because they had the same eyes and heart-shaped faces. I made eye contact with the daughter and pointed to my script where it said, cuatro a seis semanas. The daughter’s eyes grew, but she didn’t respond. She just shivered. The sun had disappeared. I felt impatient, and pressed for confirmation.

¿Estarás bien de semanas? Si o no?
Si, si.

The older woman also seemed interested in hurrying this process. I continued, Every morning, they call numbers between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. You have to be at the port-of-entry when the list keeper calls your number. I repeated that first she should put their names on the list at 6:00.

¿Mañana?

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The next morning, I’m at El Chaparral in the dark. Two families arrive before dawn. They wait at the edge of the plaza by the taxis and tamale vendors. I take a seat under gargantuan J in the TIJUANA sign. Some people are milling around. I wonder if they are asylum seekers. Hundreds pass through El Chaparral everyday. It will be impossible to tell who is who until The List comes.

“Dozens of migrants file between lines made of the yellow tape. The list keeper meets with each person, writes down their name, and hands over a torn piece of paper with a number.”

I recognize the older woman from the evening before as she enters the plaza. She cautiously moves her head to find where she should stand. Her gray bangs and ponytail barely move, set in place as though she were going for a job interview. She claps her purse and light jacket tightly to her, a demeanor I read as guarded but then think she could just be cold, as the morning was chilly. How long have you been in Tijuana? I ask. A few days, she says, wiggling two fingers, which I interpret as a sign for approximation. Together we wait for the list at El Chaparral, and I watch as a pair of INM officials in desert fatigues juggle their rifles and buy breakfast tamales.

At 6:52 a.m., a group of migrants turn up with Grupos Beta. The Betas set up a blue, four-post tent, the kind typically used to house the kitchen at an activist occupation. As they press the tent legs into place, their orange vests poke out from their jackets. They place two poles in the center of the plaza and run spools of caution tape between them and the tent. Here the asylum-seekers will line up to put their names on the list.

At 7:25, the list keeper sits down behind the folding table and opens a notebook bound with duct tape. She is one of the asylum-seekers from the caravan. Betas store the notebook in their office overnight, but the caravan selects one migrant to add names to the list and call the numbers in order. When a list keeper crosses the border, another migrant takes their position.

Dozens of migrants file between lines made of the yellow tape. The list keeper meets with each person, writes down their name, and hands over a torn piece of paper with a number. Each number represents ten people. Children are given the same number as their parents. The numbers 1467, 1468, and 1469, for example, are handwritten on a slip of paper folded and torn at the creases into equal rectangles. The process is handled with care but still seems too lax given the life-and-death significance of these tokens.

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Back at Benito Juárez, I asked about a dozen teenagers, No padre, madre? One by one, they answered, No, solo.
Primo, prima, amigo?
Si, amigo, ello. They pointed to friends who looked to be their twenties.
I confirmed, No custodio, and desperately slipped into English, No guardian. . . Estas aquí solo?

Si, solo.

Unaccompanied minors were not allowed on The List. Like The List itself, it is unclear where this rule originated.

A fellow attorney and I were huddled on the baseball diamond with a young man and his friends. The young man told me through an interpreter that he wanted to seek asylum in the US but he did not want to subject himself to detention. His friends laughed and slapped his back. He shrugged off their hands, and asked a question that the interpreter could not understand. One of the friends who laughed pulled from his wallet a crumpled paper: 1461. He looked at me with humorless eyes. Si, bien. I gave him a thumbs up, and he quickly tucked the number back into place.

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Every asylum-seeker I told about The List refused to believe me at first. They couldn’t imagine that was actually the process. Because it both is and isn’t.

Any foreigner who reaches the US border has the right to apply for asylum. Okay, that’s the law.

But CBP has decided these are exceptional circumstances. By saying, “you have to get on The List first,” CBP has used an exception to the law to create a baseline confusion about rules, rights, procedures, and authorities. With The List, the US has been able to say we’re not taking numbers today, thus transforming the actual denial of access to asylum into the possible access in the future. The List substitutes flexible norms and expectations for laws and rights. “What determines the effectiveness of the police?” ask the authors of Introduction to Civil War. “The cooperation of the public.”

The Central American exodus has continued to struggle as a collective and self-determined proletarian force. On November 29, a small group from the exodus launched a hunger strike at El Chaparral, with several demands for INM, but one directed at CBP: the immediate increase in asylum-seekers processed to 300 people per day in the San Ysidro ports of entry. The list keeper would therefore call thirty numbers from the List as opposed to three.

Since I have left the border, texts from friends still there and news updates have reported tear gas, more buses, rain, thigh-high puddles, mud, and the relocation from Benito Juárez. A heavy rain flooded the diamond, as expected, and by now, the majority of migrants will have been moved to an old concert venue with four walls and a single entry and exit. More shelter, less freedom.

The new camp is about fourteen miles from El Chaparral. While at Benito Juárez, los solicitantes de asilo would walk every morning for maybe twenty minutes through a market and across the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River to listen for their numbers. It’s unclear how the relocation will impact the list.

CBP has said that due to the volume of caravan traffic, asylum seekers must wait weeks before they can be inspected for processing. Meanwhile, Betas and asylum seekers manage a list of unknown origin, seemingly designed to facilitate CBP processing thirty to sixty people per day, if any. Plenty of tear gas canisters find their way to the border, but not enough asylum officers.

Two weeks ago the list keeper handed out number 1461 as four more buses pulled up to Benito Juárez. What do we on the other side do to help them get through?