Originally published by The NY Yorker
Becoming an émigré requires faith and trust—faith that life will get better, and trust in others who offer help: shelter, guidance, and assistance with byzantine procedures. Faith can turn out to be unjustified, and trust is often misplaced, for there is, it seems, a scam to fit every need. Becoming an émigré also requires an extremely high tolerance for uncertainty. An émigré can only see one step ahead, if that, but musters the courage to take that step anyway. So it is that, even as the Trump Administration goes about the business of closing America’s borders, both symbolically and in practice, people who are forced to flee their homes persist in believing that they can find safety here.
In central Tijuana, one of the city’s many shelters is a hangar built of corrugated metal, a bare cube with a concrete floor on which about forty tents—blue, green, and orange ones, some designed for two people and some for three—are set up in dense rows that leave hardly any floor surface exposed. At the front of the hangar, a dozen and a half white plastic chairs are lined up in front of a television set, so that kids can watch cartoons. Most of the people in this particular shelter are Mexican families who plan to ask for asylum at the border. Elsewhere in the city, there are shelters whose occupants are primarily refugees from other Latin American countries. Tijuana is one of several dozen so-called ports of entry, where people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border can declare their intention to seek asylum. It’s hard to tell whether the number of asylum seekers is growing: statistics show that more people have come through ports of entry this year than last, but this may be because the immigration crackdown has caused fewer people to cross the border without a visa between ports of entry in order to apply once they are in the country. In any case, there is a sense of sincere and stubborn hope in this shelter and in this town: people keep coming, and will probably continue to try to keep coming, even as the United States grows ever more hostile to asylum seekers.
An asylum claim begins with the assertion that a person, or a family, is afraid to go home. There is little doubt that the asylum seekers here have indeed been driven by fear. Claudio, a farm worker, and Mariana, a housewife, travelled with their fourteen-year-old son, Jairo, by bus nearly two thousand miles from the state of Veracruz. (The asylum seekers I interviewed asked to be identified only by their first names, citing fears of retaliation by U.S. immigration officials.) They told me, through a translator, that their troubles began ten years ago, when a local gang kidnapped Mariana’s brother, a used-car dealer. The family paid a ransom, and after five days the brother was freed. He had been badly beaten; his ribs were broken. This year, threats against Mariana’s brother and other relatives intensified, and the family had seen more and more kidnappings in the community. Even being willing to pay a ransom to kidnappers no longer seemed to work, they told me: people just disappeared. Two months ago, Mariana’s brother took his son across the U.S. border, and asked for asylum. At the end of June, Claudio and Mariana decided to follow them. “We don’t want to continue living in a state of fear,” Mariana told me, as she started to cry. When I met them, on Wednesday, July 11th, they had been in town for two weeks and were living in one of the tents in the shelter. Their number in the asylum seekers’ line at the border crossing was three hundred and seventy. No. 363 had crossed on the day we spoke, so it seemed that Claudio and Mariana might have their chance to present themselves at the border later that week.
A woman named Carmen took the bus to Tijuana from the state of Michoacán. She came with her three children, who are fourteen, ten, and seven. Her husband died five years ago, of a heart attack, and since then she has tried to balance working on farms and watching over her children. This spring, she concluded that this was impossible—she feared for her children’s safety too much to be able to work instead of walking them to and from school. There are many kidnappings and drug-related murders in Michoacán, she told me. Her own cousin’s son killed two of his uncles in a drug-related fight. The journey to Tijuana took two days and two nights. Carmen’s number was three hundred and sixty-nine.