Originally published by Politico
If you go early in the morning to the plaza in front of El Chaparral, the border crossing where a person can walk from Mexico into the state of California, you’ll hear shouts like “2,578: El Salvador!” and “2,579: Guatemala!”—a number, followed by a place of origin. Every day, groups of families gather around, waiting anxiously underneath the trees at the back of the square. The numbers come from La Lista, The List: When a person’s number is called, it’s their turn to ask for asylum in the United States.
These days, the most common place names shouted are Michoacán or Guerrero, Mexican states where intense cartel violence has sent thousands fleeing northward—occasionally, they’ll call Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, countries where pervasive poverty, gangs, drugs and femicide have done the same. But every so often, the name of a different, more far-off country is called. In the span of just two weeks late last year, a list-keeper called out a number, in Spanish, followed by “Rusia!” They also called out numbers for people from Armenia, Ghana and Cameroon. Asylum-seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo crossed, as well as people from Eritrea. One day, the list-keeper called out “Turquía!” and a Turkish family rushed forward to claim their spot. The family was escorted by Mexican immigration officials over the pedestrian walkway into the United States, where they told Customs and Border Protection agents that they had, like everyone else, left their home country fleeing for their lives.
These people were the lucky ones. They had managed to persist in Tijuana, waiting until the day they finally heard their numbers called. Others haven’t been so fortunate. With The List’s queue regularly stretching longer than six months, many migrants fall victim to predatory robbery, kidnapping or murder before they can find refuge; others find the wait in one of the most dangerous cities in the world simply unendurable.
When Americans think of the people crossing the southern border, they might imagine Mexicans or Central Americans—or, even more generally, Latin Americans. But migration, both legal and illegal, from Mexico into the United States is incredibly international. In the course of 2018, Border Patrol agents apprehended nearly 9,000 Indians, 1,000 Chinese nationals, 250 Romanians, 153 Pakistanis, 159 Vietnamese people and dozens of citizens of over 100 other countries. Fifteen Albanians and seven Italians were stopped trying to cross the southern border, as were four people from Ireland, a single person from Japan, and three people each from Syria and Taiwan. Border Patrol even apprehended two North Koreans on the border in 2018 who were separately attempting to cross into various parts of Texas.
Now,one of the most direct effects of Trump’s border policy is that thousands of foreigners from all over the world have found themselves unexpectedly stuck on the southern border. Since 2017, President Donald Trump has turned the country’s immigration system on its head to deter Central American asylum-seekers. But policies meant to address Guatemalan or Honduran migrants have also affected Jewish people fleeing persecution in Hungary; Syrians escaping civil war in their home country; and LGBTQ people fleeing Vladimir Putin’s homophobic regime in Russia. The effects of U.S. border policy are not confined to northern Mexico. They reverberate around the world.
When I met asylum-seekers at El Chapparal and around Tijuana, most of them told me that they’d been waiting in the city for months. Even though U.S. law says that anyone who claims to be fleeing for their lives should be immediately admitted to a port of entry for vetting, under the Trump administration, Border Patrol has started a controversial policy of “metering.” Now, agents accept only a set number of asylum-seekers each day and send the rest back. In Tijuana, they accept around 20 to 60 people per day, while thousands are left waiting and more are constantly arriving. That’s how The List was born: Migrants themselves began keeping a ledger as an attempt to create a fair waiting system—a virtual line—to get past the manufactured bottleneck.
But that wait may now be for nothing. In July, the Trump administration announced it would no longer accept asylum applications from people who transited through a third country on their way to the U.S. Anyone who traveled through Mexico or another country that wasn’t their place of origin without first applying for asylum there could be returned automatically. (The asylum restriction, immediately challenged in court, has been temporarily upheld by the Supreme Court pending a final decision).
At a time when the total number of refugees around the globe has reached the highest level since World War II, the United States has refashioned the immigration system in a way that forces those fearing for their lives in their home countries to put their lives at further risk on the way to safety. Many potentially legitimate asylum-seekers who once might have found at least temporary refuge in the United States while their applications were being reviewed are now made to undertake a harrowing and dangerous journey across the world, only to be forced to wait in Mexico’s borderlands—and less likely than ever to be allowed in later. Across the border, Mexican cities like Tijuanaare struggling to deal with a shifting crisis of their own, with thousands of desperate people, many stuck in a foreign country they never intended to stay in, struggling to survive in a region afflicted by its own intense violence and poverty.
That’s Daniel’s situation. (Out of an abundance of caution, I’m using pseudonyms in place of current asylum-seekers’ names.) An English teacher from Ghana, Daniel has been waiting in Tijuana since June to cross at El Chaparral. This past October, Daniel told me his number on The List was 4,068. At that time, the numbers being called were in the high 2,000s. By New Year’s Day, the numbers being called on the list were still below 3,800, and Daniel was still waiting to cross.
I met Daniel in the small church shelter where he sleeps in a ramshackle neighborhood built on the steep side of Cerro Colorado, the enormous hill that rises out of the center of Tijuana. As we sat on a bed in the pastor’s room, the 42-year-old spoke openly, though he initially remained vague about the reasons he left Ghana.
“I came here because I had a problem with some people. If I hadn’t left that place, it wouldn’t be good,” he said.
Daniel told me his story is “very sad,” and he didn’t want to burden me with the details, but he had to leave the country very quickly. He spoke in a voice that was soft but gravelly and rough: He said he has throat cancer, and I could hear it was painful for him to speak. But he still had the gentle tone and mannerism of a teacher. When he noticed me misspell his real name in my notebook, he quietly reached over and pointed out where an “e” should have been an “a.”
Mexicans call asylum-seekers like Daniel extracontinentales—a word for immigrants who come from outside the Americas. Daniel has been one of the many extracontinentales biding his time in Tijuana, waiting for his turn to cross into the U.S, and he thinks he’s still got months before they call his number on The List.
Life for extracontinentales in northern Mexico can be tough. While thousands of people from outside the Americas arrive on the border each year, most shelters are equipped to house Latinos. Staff at migrant homes around the city told me they had trouble providing the right food for foreigners, especially those with religious dietary restrictions. There can also be a cultural disconnect. Though Daniel is friendly and approachable, he still has a look of distance to him, a gulf created by language and custom. Each night, he sleeps in a small bunk bed in a room with about two dozen other people, all from Mexico or Central America. No one in the shelter speaks any English besides the church pastor, so Daniel’s evenings are mostly quiet. He smiles when others make eye contact with him, but most people quickly look away. While in the shelter, I heard a Central American man use a demeaning word for black people in Spanish to describe Daniel.
As wait times to cross the border grow longer, many foreigners live in precarious and unstable conditions in Mexico. In many ways, the situation has become a humanitarian crisis.
Many foreigners I met in Tijuana—people from Ghana, Yemen, Jamaica, Cameroon, India—talked about experiencing loneliness, isolation, and racism. They told me Mexicans are generally welcoming, tolerant and respectful, but the country is still a hard place to be for non-Latinos—especially those who do not speak fluent Spanish or English.
Some get by using a phone to translate into Spanish, but most foreigners have trouble integrating, especially when it comes to finding work. Many wind up working long hours in the factories on the outskirts of the city, or in other jobs involving physical labor. At many car washes around the city, it’s become a common sight to see groups of Africans—Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Congolese—cleaning cars, the very same kind of cheap but steady labor that many Mexican migrants resorted to in Southern California in the 1990s and 2000s.
For people like Daniel, the wait might become permanent. In July, the Trump administration announced it would no longer accept asylum claims from anyone who transited through a third country on their way to the United States unless they applied at each country they passed through first, effectively making all extracontinentales like Daniel ineligible. Though U.S. officials say asylum-seekers can simply seek refugee status in Mexico, journalists and human rights groups have documented many cases of asylum-seekers facing kidnapping, rape, robbery and murder in that country.
“Mexico is a good country,” Daniel says. But he still wants to make it to the United States, where he hopes he might finally be able to find stability, safety and a community.
Though the experience of being a foreigner in northern Mexico can be isolating, Tijuana is a decidedly international city. Long a transit point, it’s become a milieu of cosmopolitan culture. Russians have been arriving in the city since the late 1940s (many fled the former USSR), and there’s even a popular taco stand called “Tacos El Ruso” with a cartoon on the wall that proclaims, “Que Rico Takoskys.”
This multinational characteristic is particularly vivid in the city’s only mosque, a small, plain building in the city’s west, not far from the Pacific Ocean. During a Friday prayer in October, I watched as the imam began his sermon in Spanish before transitioning to English—though many of the men gathered didn’t speak either language.
“We’ve got people from Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan—I mean, everywhere. You name it, we’ve got it,” Imam Omar Islam, a Mexican-born convert, told me. He says many of the people he meets in the mosque have come fleeing conflict in their home countries, trying to make it to the U.S.
The men mostly arrive in groups with their compatriots (Egyptians with Egyptians, Indians with Indians), but during prayer the group comes together as one, and at the end of the imam’s sermon, they rise to greet one another. There was a young man who escaped civil war in Yemen who shook hands with a group of West Africans, including Emmanuel, a man who fled multiple homophobic attacks in Ghana.
Today—especially as the Trump administration cracks down on the asylum process—many migrants who first intended to go to the U.S. have decided to stay in Mexico. Some seek humanitarian visas, while others try their luck as undocumented immigrants.
Emmanuel told me has no desire to stay in Tijuana. With clear west African features, he stands out, and he says he’s been beaten and robbed multiple times by thieves who target the vulnerable migrant population.
“I can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous,” he said.
In 2018, Tijuana was, by some measures, the murder capital of the world. And, according to reports by U.S.-based advocacy organization Human Rights First, “refugees and migrants face acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, trafficking, and other grave harms in Mexico.” Besides the inherent vulnerability of being itinerant, asylum-seeking extracontinentales also can routinely face racism and anti-LGBTQ violence in Mexico.
Emmanuel plans on crossing the border and asking for asylum in the United States, but his number on The List is weeks, if not months, away. After his last robbery, he says he can’t afford rent. He’s desperate, and unsure what to do. For many of these extracontinentales stalled in the north of Mexico, the U.S. border is simply the final obstacle at the end of an immense odyssey.
There’s a fairly straightforward reason why so many people from around the world end up in northern Mexico, even though their ultimate destination is the United States: visa restrictions. For many people, it’s impossible to fly straight to the U.S. without a visa, so many asylum-seekers fly into Latin American countries with the plan to travel northward.
For people with stronger passports, like Russian, Indian and Chinese nationals, it’s possible to fly directly into Mexico. Many of these extracontinentales have landed first in Mexico City or Cancún, where they masquerade as tourists before making their way to the border. (The rate of arrival is higher than you might think: On a single Monday when I was in Tijuana, six Russians and two Chinese nationals were detained at the airport on charges of traveling with forged or improper documents; they were promptly returned.)
But many people from African and Middle Eastern countries have trouble securing travel even to Mexico. So, for many forced migrants—like Daniel and Emmanuel—the journey through the Americas begins much further south.
Daniel says he never had any intention of coming to the U.S. originally. He just needed to leave Ghana. In a rush, he flew to one of the few countries on the planet where Ghanaians could travel without a visa: Ecuador. (Daniel arrived in April, three months before Ecuador added Ghana to a very short list of countries whose citizens can no longer arrive without a visa.) He landed in Quito, the country’s high-altitude capital in the Andes, without any plan.
“When I got to Ecuador, communication was a real problem. I speak English, but I have never traveled to the American continent. So when I got there, the language—Spanish—I didn't understand anything,” Daniel said. “I asked someone, ‘Which country in this area speaks English?’ And they said, “Around here? Nowhere—unless you go to the United States.’”
Daniel says he didn’t know anything about the U.S. “All I knew is that there is a country called United States, and that it’s very good country,” he said. But, after a week in Quito, he made his choice and caught a bus toward Colombia, the first leg in a long journey to Tijuana.
On the buses he took, Daniel spoke to other migrants—many from Venezuela but also others from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—all heading northward. In recent years, thousands of people from around the world have made the same long and arduous journey as Daniel, from a South American country to the U.S.-Mexico border. (Ecuador, which has some of the freest visa requirements of any nation, is perhaps the most popular starting point.) From there, they travel down out of the mountains into Colombia, and then to the border with Panama. At this point, the journey becomes incredibly perilous. Many do not survive.
There is no road between the jungles of northern Colombia through the swamps into central Panama. Traveling on foot, northbound migrants must trek first over cloud forest and then across 50 miles of marshland, through a stretch of sparsely populated wilderness called the Darién Gap. The trip is, by all accounts, brutal. Reporting from northern Mexico in the past year, I’ve spoken with asylum-seekers from Ghana, Cameroon, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who all said they had made this trek. The stories they tell are harrowing: People die from snakebite or from drowning. Many eat nothing but uncooked rice for the week it takes to transit the Gap.
Emmanuel grew silent when we started talking about the journey through the swamps in Panama. He asked to pause the interview and later explained he was overcome with guilt because he didn’t stop to help people he saw dying. He barely had enough strength to carry himself forward.
“I can’t let my mind go back there,” he told me, shaking his head repeatedly.
Along the migration routes, human traffickers, kidnappers and robbers prey on travelers. People get robbed in every country, but every person I spoke with, without exception, said they were robbed at gunpoint by bandits in the jungle in Panama.
Daniel says that if he had known exactly how horrible the journey would be, he might not have made it. But many of the people traveling northward do know how arduous their travel will be and continue anyway. They simply have too much to lose if they turn back.
For Emmanuel, the situation back in Ghana became so severe that he chose to make the journey northward from Ecuador not just once, but twice. After he first fled homophobic violence in Ghana in 2016, Emmanuel made it to the U.S. border and crossed at the official port of entry. As he argued his asylum case in court, he remained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. He says he learned his English while there. After almost two years, Emmanuel was hopeless and depressed. He decided he couldn’t stay locked up anymore and chose to give up on his asylum case. ICE deported him back to Accra.
Once returned to Accra, Emmanuel was attacked again by the men who originally persecuted him. Emmanuel says he’s not gay, but he welcomed LGBTQ patrons into the mechanic shop he ran. Nevertheless, people in his community accused him of being gay and tried to kill him, he says. He showed me huge scars on his belly from stab wounds and a video someone filmed soon after he was returned to Ghana showing him bloody and unconscious in a crowded hospital. Fearing death, Emmanuel escaped again and flew back to Ecuador this past spring.
He says the journey is the hardest thing he’s ever done. But still, he chose to make the trek a second time. He says he had no choice. In Mexico, he showed me that he still gets threatening phone calls and WhatsApp messages from unknown contacts. He is certain he’ll be killed if he ever returns.
The people making the northward journey to the United States have left behind some of the world’s most severe strife and brutality. In Tijuana during the past year, I’ve met English-speaking Cameroonians who told me how they fled violence at the hands of their country’s Francophone majority (an ongoing campaign of repression that some humanitarian organizationsbelieve amounts to ethnic cleansing). They shared stories of torture and rape used as weapons of war. I met Russians who arrived on the southern border in recent years after escaping the persecution of LGBTQ people under Putin’s regime. People have fled war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Central African Republic. Thousands of Hungarians and Romanians have made their way to the southern border after fleeing increasingly violentanti-Semitism and growing authoritarianism. And in the past four years, the U.S. has seen a fast-growing number of Indian religious minorities cross the border, after leaving behind burgeoning Hindu nationalism in their home country.
At the same time, the Trump administration has claimed that the promise of refugee status has become a “pull factor” that has drawn to the U.S. people from around the world with dubious asylum claims. What the U.S. needs, the administration argues, is a deterrence-first policy. But it’s hard to imagine a deterrent more onerous than the journey from Ecuador to the southern border—a punishing gantlet that some like Emmanuel have been forced to make more than once.
Thanks to the Trump administration’s new “third country” asylum restriction, declaring asylum in the U.S. now comes with a dramatically increased risk of deportation back to one’s home country, a terrifying prospect for so many.
However, new immigration policies have delayed effect, one felt acutely here on the border: Many people trying to reach the U.S. were already en route when the newest restriction was announced in July. Emmanuel was making his way through Guatemala; Daniel had been in Tijuana less than two weeks and had already taken a number from The List. Now, both men are stuck in Tijuana with limited choices.
Even if they decide to remain in Mexico, their fates are far from certain. Besides the dangers of robbery and violence, Human Rights First has documented cases of Mexican officials deporting asylum-seekers without due process. And, under pressure from the Trump administration, Mexico has begun dramatically expanding its own deportation machine. Just during a few days I was recently in Tijuana, Mexican officials deported over 300 Indian nationals back to Delhi on a flight from Mexico City.
In October, I visited a Mexican immigration office in southern Tijuana that’s been converted into a makeshift detention center.
“Which countries are detainees inside from?” I asked a janitor on her smoke break.
“Every country,” she told me. “Peru, Haiti ...”
“United Nations inside there,” someone else joked.
When I asked the woman what the conditions were like inside, she just shook her head and raised her eyebrows. As she looked over her shoulder nervously, she motioned silently in a clear gesture: “not so good.”
The threat of detention might persuade some foreigners to give up, to leave Mexico. But for many people, like Daniel or Emmanuel, going home is not an option.
The promise of the United States, of freedom from persecution or violence, persuaded the two Ghanaians and thousands like them to travel tens of thousands of miles, across oceans and mountains. But steps away from the southern border, they learned that the door had been slammed shut. Tijuana was never meant to be the final destination for Daniel or Emmanuel or so many other asylum-seekers. Rather, the city is just a place they’ve wound up atrapado—stuck.
Jorge Armando Nieto contributed to this report.