AP finds 13,000 asylum seekers on border wait lists

In this April 15, 2019, photo, Mexican Red Cross-Cruz Roja Mexicana technician Marco Antonio Mendoza, left, helps a mother from Nicaragua and her 3-year-old son who had just arrived to the check point in Nogales, Mexico. The child cries non-stop; he is dehydrated, according to the the technician. (AP Photo/Patricio Espinoza)

U.S. authorities have been telling asylum seekers across the border that they are at capacity and to return when space opens up, a hands-off approach that has created haphazard and often-dubious arrangements in Mexico

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — For thousands of desperate asylum seekers, there are many ways to wait — and wait, and wait — at the threshold of the United States.

Parents and children sleep in tents next to bridges leading into Texas for weeks on end, desperately hoping their names and numbers are called so they can be let in.

Some immigrants complain of shakedowns and kidnappings by gangs and corrupt officials. Others pay bribes to get to the front of the line; the rest, determined to enter the country legally, wait patiently, even if it takes months.

This is what has happened since the Trump administration placed asylum in a chokehold.

The Associated Press visited eight cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and found 13,000 immigrants on waiting lists to get into the country — exposed to haphazard and often-dubious arrangements that vary sharply.

The lines began to swell in the last year when the administration limited the number of asylum cases it accepts each day at the main border crossings, leaving it to Mexican agencies, volunteers, nonprofit organizations and immigrants themselves to manage the lines.

In some cities, days pass without anyone being processed, the AP found. In San Diego, up to 80 are handled each day, but the line in Tijuana, across the border, is the longest anywhere — about 4,800 people.

Each day at each crossing, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials alert Mexican counterparts how many people they will take — a system the government calls metering. Then the keeper of the list lets immigrants know who can go into the U.S. for asylum interviews.

A federal lawsuit says the administration is violating U.S. and international law by refusing to take asylum seekers when they show up at a crossing. U.S. authorities argue that processing capacity dictates how many people it can handle.

"It's not turning people away, it's asking them to wait," then-Customs and Border Protection Commissioner and current acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in October.

But some feel they cannot. They try to enter illegally, sometimes with tragic consequences.

A Honduran family, arriving at Piedras Negras, Mexico, decided the line was too long. Crossing the Rio Grande, they were swept away; a father and three children, including a baby, are believed to have died.

Here is a snapshot of the wait list systems along the border:

CIUDAD JUAREZ: Black ink, wristbands, and thousands in line

The sprawling industrial city began its waiting list in October when many Cuban asylum seekers began sleeping on the narrow sidewalk of a busy international bridge. Mexican authorities decided they had to go.

Asylum seekers were then registered and had numbers written on their arms in black ink to show their number in line. That was abandoned in favor of plastic wristbands, which were scrapped because so many people were selling or counterfeiting them. Now it's a digital-based system.

There are currently about 4,000 names on the list.

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REYNOSA: 'River owners' run the show

The challenges faced by asylum seekers waiting in Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, are compounded by rampant violence. Gunfights between cartels and police occur daily, and the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel there. Few Americans are willing to visit the shelter that controls the list or the other churches and hotels where asylum seekers wait.

Jennifer Harbury, a longtime human rights advocate in Texas, spoke recently to a large group of asylum seekers at the Senda de Vida shelter and met with people who had been kidnapped by cartels.

"The owners of the river, you know who they are," Harbury said. Several nodded.

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PIEDRAS NEGRAS, MEXICO: The WhatsApp List

When asylum seekers arrive at a migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, they are given a phone number to text on the messaging service WhatsApp. They're supposed to send the names and photos of everyone in their group. Then they're told to wait.

Managing the list is a local restaurateur named Hector Menchaca, who also serves as the local government's liaison to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

About 360 people are on the list, with another 200 people waiting to join it because the government has closed it to new entrants for the time being, Menchaca said.

The list includes people from Central America, Mexico, Brazil, and countries an ocean away like Cameroon. They aren't told how close to the top they are, only that they might wait for two or three months.

But many people say they can't wait — among them the four who are believed to have drowned in the Rio Grande last week.

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NOGALES: A family affair

A woman whose family manages shelters in Nogales keeps the list of new arrivals in Nogales.

Before she was involved, Brenda Nieblas says hundreds of migrants would wait at the border crossing and many would try to rush in when U.S. authorities called people for processing.

When they first arrive, some of the migrants are sent to a Red Cross first aid station. They are then connected with Nieblas, who puts them on the list, assigns them to a shelter in Nogales and notifies them when their time comes.

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TIJUANA and MEXICALI: A notebook, and waiting for the phone call

Tijuana is most experienced with a numbering system, having established one in 2016 when Haitians had to wait in Mexico for a chance at refuge in the United States. Its waiting list stands at about 4,800.

Grupos Beta, a unit of Mexico's immigration agency that provides food, transportation and aid to migrants, keeps guard at night over tattered notebooks and hands them over to volunteers during the day to register new arrivals. On a recent Saturday, there were nearly 100 people in line to get a spot in the notebook — almost exclusively Cameroonians who arrived the previous day.

In nearby Mexicali, Grupos Beta employees in bright orange shirts call out those whose numbers are up. Mexicali — a city of about 1 million across from Calexico, California — has about 800 names on its list.

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SAN LUIS: 'There really is no schedule'

Darwin Mora manages two giant white boards with hundreds of numbers in black marker, each one representing a family or single adult. When CBP tells Mexican authorities how many people it wants, it falls to Mora to have them ready. Each family that crosses or cancels is marked with an X.

Mora says U.S. officials can call any day from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. During those hours, he never strays far from the boards under a green canopy, which are divided in neat columns and rows. In the lower left corner of each box is a number to represent the number of people in the family.

"There really is no schedule," he said.

There are about 900 people on the list, assuming three people per family. Recent arrivals are expected to wait at least five months.

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MATAMOROS: A long wait and 'no space' for families

At the foot of the bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, more than 20 sheets of paper have been taped to a large board with the typewritten names of more than 800 people. The migrants waiting in Matamoros check the board daily to see whose names have been crossed off with a black marker.

Some of the names have a line next to them with the word "rio," Spanish for river — denoting that they were believed to have crossed the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. without authorization.

There are frequent allegations that Mexican government officials or security agents demand bribes to let people join the list or move up the list.

The people who wait in the tents by the bridge have formed their own enclosed community. One man climbed into the Rio Grande to bathe. The country he was waiting to enter was a short swim away, but he stayed close to the bank on the Mexican side.

And then he went back toward his tent. To wait.

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Associated Press writer Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report.

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