Exile in Tijuana
Migrants from far beyond the Americas—the ‘extracontinentales’—have converged on the border city hoping to be let into the U.S., said journalist Jack Herrera in Politico.com. Now they may have no way to leave.
TIJUANA, MEXICO—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, the list keepers will 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 more far-off country is called. In the span of two weeks late last year, list keepers called out numbers for people from Russia, Armenia, Ghana, and Cameroon. Asylum seekers from Congo crossed, as well as Eritreans.
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 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; for others, the wait in one of the most dangerous cities in the world is 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, and dozens of citizens of more than 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.
Mexicans call these asylum seekers extracontinentales—a word for immigrants who come from outside the Americas. Now, one of the most direct effects of President Trump’s border policy is that thousands of extracontinentales have found themselves unexpectedly stuck on the southern border, waiting for their number to be called from The List.
When I met asylum seekers at El Chaparral and around Tijuana, most of them told me they’d been waiting in the city for months. Even though U.S. law says that anyone who claims to be fleeing for their life 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.
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 are less likely than ever to be allowed in later. Across the border, Mexican cities like Tijuana are struggling to deal with a shifting crisis of their own, with thousands of desperate people 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.
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 cosmopolitan center. Russians, for instance, 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 character 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 Friday prayers 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 pseudonym I’m using to protect his identity), who fled multiple homophobic attacks in Ghana.
Today, 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, however, told me he 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 the 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.”
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 the extracontinentales land 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 forced migrants like Emmanuel, the journey through the Americas begins much further south, in Ecuador, one of the few countries on the planet where, until recently, Ghanaians could travel without a visa. From Ecuador, the path to the U.S. demands a trek 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 walk 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 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. 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.
Emmanuel made 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’s 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. He is certain he’ll be killed if he ever returns.
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 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. If the new restrictions stand, the wait for the extracontinentales could turn out to be permanent. The new rules also mean that asking for asylum in the U.S. now comes with a dramatically increased risk of deportation back to one’s home country.
But people trying to reach the U.S. were already en route when the newest restriction was announced. Emmanuel was making his way through Guatemala. The promise of the United States, of freedom from persecution and violence, persuaded Emmanuel and thousands like him to travel tens of thousands of miles, across oceans and mountains. 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 Emmanuel or so many other asylum seekers. Rather, the city is just a place they’ve wound up atrapado—stuck.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Politico.com. Used with permission. ■