Tijuana’s Tragedy: Central American Asylum Seekers

The caravan of more than 5,000 Central American asylum seekers who risked life and limb traveling weeks from Honduras to the Mexico-U.S. border at Tijuana probably thought that they didn’t have much left to lose.

Recent torrential rains in Tijuana proved them wrong.

Within hours, the deluge filled the uncovered Benito Juarez sports facility where the group had taken shelter two weeks prior. That downpour turned their tent city into a flooded cesspool that claimed much of what little they still possessed.

On November 30, I navigated the Benito Juarez site with a team of three Physicians for Human Rights colleagues and one of our Los Angeles-based medical partners. Just 36 hours previously had stood an encampment of tired-but-hopeful men, women, and children seeking to exercise their right under international law to apply for asylum in the United States. Now I saw a sad, sodden landscape of discarded wet blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, and children’s toys.

Around us, people packed up their salvageable belongings and moved toward Mexican government-supplied buses that would take them from the flooded facility to an abandoned outdoor concert venue that the authorities are repurposing as a longer-term shelter for asylum seekers. Above them was the constant drone of California’s San Diego Sector Border Patrol helicopters that hovered over the site, a simultaneous act of surveillance and intimidation that conveyed the unmistakable message that the asylum seekers are not welcome in the United States. Late last month, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly authorized the more than 5,000 U.S. military personnel deployed to the border in advance of the asylum seekers’ arrival in Tijuana to repel them from crossing the border with measures including “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary).”

This kind of official U.S. government hostility is no news to the asylum seekers in Tijuana. The multi-racial, multinational grouping from Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and southern Mexico totaled an estimated 3,000 people even before the arrival of the recent caravan. But it was the caravan which put the spotlight on Tijuana when it was exploited as pre-midterm elections political fodder for U.S. President Donald Trump, who demonized it as an “invasion” and banned anyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border between official border crossings from entering the asylum process – a move which violates the United States’ obligations under both domestic and international laws.

The San Diego Sector Border Patrol reinforced that hostility on November 25, when it used tear gas to disperse a group of hundreds of asylum seekers who broke off from a peaceful demonstration at the border in Tijuana and attempted to rush the border fences. Border Patrol authorities have defended the use of tear gas on the basis that “there were also assaults against [border patrol] personnel, with multiple U.S. Border Patrol agents hit by rocks,” but the collateral damage of that incident included the gassing of several women and children in the group, exposing them to the risk of severe physical and psychological health impacts.

But tear gas is one of the U.S. government’s cruder tools to deter asylum seekers from pursuing their legal right to apply for asylum. Its silver bullet of asylum-seeker deterrence is a policy called “metering,” which strictly limits the flow of those thousands of asylum seekers awaiting application interviews to a trickle of only 15 to 30 per day. In a city in which thousands of asylum seekers with little or no means of subsistence are relegated to weeks or months of uncertain waiting at the border for an opportunity to apply for asylum, “metering” is the equivalent of a bureaucratic war of attrition. It pits the limitless resources of the U.S. government against those of desperate, impoverished asylum seekers and effectively weaponizes hunger, fear, and frustration to drive away asylum seekers more effectively and discretely than tear gas or truncheons.

Asylum seekers have devised a system that attempts to grapple with the U.S. government’s chokehold of metering. In the corner of a small plaza outside the entrance to the west pedestrian access route from Tijuana to San Ysidro on the U.S. side of the border, asylum seekers patiently line up at a table to register their names and details into a handwritten book of all prospective asylum applicants to the United States. Asylum seekers are placed in a queue with an assigned number.

On November 29, I spoke to some of the people in that queue. They included a man from Cameroon fleeing political violence in his country. “If I go back home, I’m dead,” he told me of the threats to his life in his home country. Two weeks ago, he registered in the book and was given a number in the mid-400s. Moments later, a Honduran asylum seeker who had only just arrived in Tijuana walked away from the desk holding number 1687 in his hand. He joins the ranks of those already facing indefinite waits for an asylum application interview – a process that condemns them to penury and humiliation and fuels desperation that can prompt them to return home to potentially deadly peril or seek alternate routes over the border in search of sanctuary in the United States.

Those alternate routes may be dangerous, but might offer asylum seekers better odds of getting to the United States than formal asylum claim channels. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) this week published a report indicating that immigration judges rejected a record-high number of asylum cases this year – 65 percent of the more than 42,000 total asylum applications decided in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2018. That total marks the highest number of such rejections since the TRAC started compiling the data in 2001.

It shouldn’t be this way.

People escaping persecution and torture who come to the United States have the right to apply for asylum and protection under the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), an international treaty which the United States signed and ratified. The CAT stipulates that asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the United States legally and avoid deportation to countries where they may be harmed. The U.S. government has a legal obligation under the United Nations Refugee Convention to conduct individualized screenings of migrants arriving at U.S. ports of entry who are fleeing persecution in their countries of origin.

Refugee status was established in order to provide international protection for those with no other option – those whose governments are unable or unwilling to protect them at home. In countries where widespread violence and intimidation of citizens go unchecked, and where governments refuse to investigate or punish perpetrators, victims may have no choice but to flee. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection should provide sufficient measures for managing the arrival of migrants instead of fortifying the border with military troops and deploying tear gas against desperate women and children. The U.S. government should be using its resources to establish a humane immigration system and border enforcement policies that preserve health and human rights, rather than scapegoating those fleeing violence in their home countries. The thousands of asylum seekers waiting patiently in line in Tijuana deserve nothing less.

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