One evening in November, Evelia was frying eggs for dinner when the phone rang. The voice on the other end told her to look out the window.
When she peered outside, she saw four men in a black truck. They shot twice into her one-room home in the mountains of the southwester Mexican state of Guerrero. She and her three sons, ages 14, 10 and 8, fled through the back door. They took nothing with them.
“We didn’t eat anything that night,” she said.
For three months, members of a criminal group—she thinks they were associated with the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel—had been calling her to demand she pay them about $500. They also tried to get her oldest son to sell drugs at his school. When Evelia and her son refused, the group threatened to kill them.
She took their warnings seriously. Four years earlier, in 2014, the group had started threatening her husband, a van driver. One day, as he was traveling between their village and a nearby city, members of the group stopped his van and killed him, she said.
“They cut his body into pieces,” Evelia said, making a sawing motion at her wrists and knees. She said they left the pieces of his body and his burned vehicle along the highway. She said she was too afraid of retribution to report the crime.
Although Mexico is a large country—about three times the size of Texas—Evelia thought the cartel members would find her wherever she went. She had heard of other people from her village fleeing extortion, kidnapping and death threats by seeking asylum in the United States. She and her sons traveled to Tijuana, one of the main ports of entry between the two countries, to try to do the same.
Over the past year, international attention has focused on the U.S.-Mexico border as thousands of Central American migrants trekked toward Tijuana, many of them intending to seek asylum. President Donald Trump dispatched the National Guard and the military to the border and referred to the migrants as “criminals.” The administration has also enacted policies to deter asylum seekers, such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which first took effect in January. When fully implemented, the policy will require nearly all asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, rather than the U.S., until immigration judges decide their cases. Several groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the policy.
Obscured by the controversies along the border, however, are the experiences of another significant group of asylum seekers. The number of Mexican asylum cases adjudicated by U.S. immigration courts has increased by more than 2.5 times since fiscal year 2014.
According to Amnesty International, Mexican nationals comprised 80 percent of those seeking asylum in Tijuana before the Central American migrant caravan arrived there in November. A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency collects asylum seekers’ previous addresses, but does not retain this information in any database. But migrant shelter operators in Tijuana said they have seen a pronounced increase in families seeking asylum from Guerrero and Michoacán, which have been hit particularly hard by violence related to the nation’s ongoing drug war.
Mexican asylum seekers are exempt from the U.S. policy requiring applicants to wait in Mexico for a judge to rule on their claim. Though some are granted initial entry to the U.S., that passage is just the beginning of a long state of limbo.
The Desert Sun followed three women from Guerrero—Evelia, Rosa, and Romina—through different parts of the asylum process. Their experiences provide a glimpse into how the process works behind the gates of migrant shelters and detention centers and the closed doors of immigration courts. For example:
- Evelia waited for five weeks in a Tijuana migrant shelter to meet a U.S. asylum officer.
- Rosa and her daughter were detained for three days in San Ysidro. They now live in Orange County and Rosa can’t yet apply for work authorization.
- Romina, a transgender woman, was detained for seven months, with men, in Otay Mesa. She has waited more than a year to apply for a work permit and now faces homelessness.
These women face long waits for judges to decide their fate. As of fiscal year 2019, which began October 1, 2018, the average case in U.S. immigration court remained pending for nearly two years, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
And their odds of winning asylum have historically been low. About 13 percent of Mexicans seeking asylum in 2018 got it, a lower percentage than for asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Those who are denied asylum are either deported or granted another form of relief, such as withholding of removal, which prevents deportation but doesn’t lead to lawful permanent residence or provide relief for other family members.
In the meantime, Evelia, Rosa and Romina wait in precarious and vulnerable situations, far from the homes they fled in southwest Mexico, and a long way from knowing whether a judge will grant them refuge in America.
In Tijuana, people take a number and wait
When Evelia and her three sons arrived in Tijuana in mid-November, they went directly to the El Chaparral port of entry to register. In a plaza adjacent to the border, she added her name and place of origin—Guerrero—to a list in a fraying notebook. Evelia got a number, which would determine when a U.S. immigration official would process her family for asylum proceedings.
Once Evelia received her number, she and her sons headed to Instituto Madre Asunta, a migrant shelter for women and children. The shelter has bedrooms, but people aren’t allowed to stay in them during the day, so they pass the time in the shelter’s courtyard, which has a swing set with no swings, a couple of trees, picnic tables and benches. The migrants cook three communal meals each day in the shelter kitchen. Laundry hangs from all possible points.
While waiting in Tijuana, the asylum seekers spend most of their time behind the shelter’s gates. Kids attend school on site. Doctors and psychologists hold office hours. Lawyers advise women on their asylum cases. Volunteers donate clothing for the families, many of whom came from warmer climates and didn’t bring jackets.
Run by Catholic nuns, the shelter’s capacity is supposedly 45 people, but the number of residents at times swelled to 160 in 2018, according to Mary Galván, a social worker there. She said about three-quarters of the people who sought refuge at the shelter in 2018 were from Mexico, primarily from Guerrero and Michoacán. She said female asylum seekers from Guerrero typically come from humble, farmworker backgrounds.
“Poverty has made them so strong and so vulnerable at the same time,” Galván said.
By mid-December, Evelia and her kids had been waiting at the shelter for five weeks. Christmas was approaching and Evelia expected her number to be called any day. Shivering in the shelter’s courtyard in a black fleece sweatshirt, red pants and flip-flops, she stuffed her hands in her pockets and joked that she was practicing for the holding cells at the port of entry, which migrants call hieleras, or ice boxes, because rumor has it they’re very cold. She said she hopes she’s not there long.
She spoke quietly, in short phrases, as she described why she was fleeing Mexico. But she became chattier as she described Houston, where she hoped to go if she was released into the United States. Evelia said she has a cousin there who offered to house her and her kids.
“They say it’s really pretty there,” she said. She said her cousin told her the city has lots of parks. She said she was excited to shop for tennis shoes and try new cuisines.
Mentioning Chinese food, she said, “I’ve tried it, but they say it’s better over there.”
She said she has dreams for her family’s future in the United States. She only attended school through third grade. She wants her sons to get a better education. She said she wants to buy a house.
“The most important thing is to own your own home,” she said.
Metering: A new waiting process
Asylum seekers like Evelia haven’t always waited weeks in Tijuana to seek asylum in the United States.
Citing capacity issues, U.S. immigration officials began “metering” or limiting the number of people allowed to initiate an asylum claim along various parts of the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016, under the administration of President Barack Obama.
The San Ysidro port of entry, which connects Tijuana and California, has a capacity of about 300 people at any given time, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the port can process about 100 asylum seekers each day, “if there is capacity available at the border crossing to hold them,” according to Ralph DeSio, a CBP spokesperson in San Diego. He added that the number of asylum seekers that agents can process varies, based on staffing levels, case complexity, medical needs, translation requirements, holding and detention space, overall port volume and ongoing enforcement actions.
CBP agents implemented metering in Tijuana in early 2016, as thousands of Haitians arrived in the city to seek asylum. Border officials, overwhelmed, started turning migrants away from the port of entry. The Haitian migrants created their own waiting list, to ensure they were processed in the order of their arrival, according to a December 2018 report from UC San Diego, UT Austin and the Migration Policy Centre.
In August 2016, Mexican immigration authorities formalized the waiting list, creating an appointment system for Haitian asylum seekers. In the summer of 2017, Grupos Beta—a service of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, which provides aid and information to migrants—created a single waiting list for all asylum seekers, regardless of nationality.
Immigrant and human rights advocates have challenged this process, arguing that U.S. law requires CBP to give people the opportunity to seek asylum at U.S. ports of entry without unreasonable delay. In July 2017, a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups and asylum seekers filed a class-action lawsuit challenging CBP’s practice of turning away people who present themselves at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum.
The lawsuit argues CBP’s practices violate a key principle of international doctrine, which protects people from refoulement, or being returned to countries where their lives or liberty are endangered. The lawsuit argues that asylum seekers are unsafe in Mexico, as they are at risk of kidnapping, robbery, extortion, rape and murder. The plaintiffs say non-Mexican migrants are at risk of being detained by Mexican authorities and being deported to their home countries, where they claim to face persecution.
But as the case moves through the court, the waiting list system in Tijuana has become entrenched. Asylum seekers from around the world add their names to the worn notebook when they arrive in the border city. The asylum seekers manage the list themselves. Grupos Beta stores the book at night to ensure it doesn’t get lost. Each day, CBP informs Grupos Beta of how many asylum seekers the U.S. will process. The Mexican officials pass the information to the asylum seeker administering the list. In the plaza, the notebook administrator relays the information to other asylum seekers, reading aloud the names of people who will get to speak with CBP officials that day.
The wait is currently weeks long.
Credible fear and detention for families
After waiting for five weeks at a different Tijuana migrant shelter, Rosa and her four-year-old daughter Sofia lined up on November 19 outside the El Chaparral port of entry. Rosa carried about $50, and just a backpack with two sets of clothing for her and her daughter.
A Grupos Beta official escorted Rosa and Sofia to meet agents with CBP’s Office of Field Operations. They reviewed her identification and travel documents. They asked her a set of preliminary questions, fingerprinted and photographed her, and ran a criminal background check.
Rosa and Sofia were detained in San Ysidro, a California border city, to continue the asylum process. Rosa said she and her daughter spent three nights in a cell with sleeping mats on the floor and ate three meals a day. She said agents would occasionally ask if she needed water or milk for her daughter. Migrant families with children can’t be detained for more than 20 days, according to a 1997 settlement agreement, Flores v. Reno, which set national standards for detention and treatment of immigrant children.
As she waited in her cell, Rosa became depressed.
“Being locked up again made me relive everything that had happened,” Rosa said.
Rosa and her daughter had fled their home twice due to violence in Guerrero. In 2015, she, her five-day-old daughter and her parents were kidnapped at gunpoint as they traveled along a winding, mountain road in a region in northwest Guerrero called Tierra Caliente, due to its hot climate. Rosa and her daughter were released after one night. The group kept one of her brothers for six months.
“It was hell,” Rosa said. “We didn’t know anything about him. We didn’t know if he was alive.”
Following the kidnapping, Rosa and her daughter fled more than 200 miles, from the Tierra Caliente region to Acapulco, one of the most violent cities in Mexico. Rosa tried to start a new life there and even grew accustomed to seeing crime and death in the streets. But in September 2018, two men tried to snatch a child from her daughter’s school. About two weeks later, Rosa said two men entered the bakery where she worked and demanded she sell their drugs. She refused and quit that day.
Rosa had heard about asylum from her cousin Veronica, who lives in Santa Ana, California, but only decided to pursue it after the events at the school and bakery. She booked a flight to Tijuana. She arrived in the border city on October 10. But she didn’t feel any safer there. On the streets near the migrant shelter, Rosa said, she saw dead bodies and heard shootouts, just as she had in Acapulco.
On her third day of detention, Rosa underwent what is known as a credible fear screening. During the interview, an asylum officer asked Rosa a series of questions to determine whether she had a credible fear of persecution or torture in her home country. The official instructed her to provide direct answers with few details, she said. She passed.
The next day, officials released Rosa and Sofia into the streets of San Ysidro. Rosa, who wore a GPS monitor attached to her ankle, didn’t know where to go or what do. She was scared.
“Nobody was waiting for me there,” she said. “I felt very lonely.”
She called her cousin, who suggested she take a taxi to Santa Ana.
Rosa and Sofia now live in Santa Ana with Veronica. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials visited her once at home. She also had to check in at their offices every 15 days. Rosa wore the GPS unit for nearly three months. Officials removed it in early February.
“If someone complies with all home and office visits, it’s three months and no more,” Rosa said of the device. “If someone doesn’t comply with one of the visits, they leave it on longer.”
She said officials now call her once a month to check on her.
Rosa still hasn’t yet filed her complete asylum application. Once she does, she’ll need to wait 150 days—about five months—to apply for work authorization. In the meantime, Rosa and Sofia are eligible for few benefits. They can access emergency health care coverage through Medi-Cal, but don’t qualify for comprehensive benefits. They are not eligible for any government-funded housing assistance. Many asylum seekers in her position end up supporting themselves by working off the books.
On a February morning, Rosa pushed Sofia in a Disney princess-themed scooter to a playground near their apartment complex. Unlike in Mexico, where Rosa always held on tightly to Sofia’s hand when in public, she allowed her daughter to climb up a ladder and scoot down a slide by herself.
“I want a better future for her, obviously,” Rosa said, as she watched her daughter play. But, she said, she was still getting accustomed to California, where it seemed to her as if life centers around cars and money. She said she misses her family and Guerrero’s natural beauty.
She said she hopes to return home, once the violence subsides.
“There’s nowhere like Mexico,” she said longingly.
After detention, the immigration court backlog
Unlike Rosa, who spent three nights in detention, Romina, a transgender asylum seeker from Guerrero, spent seven months in an ICE detention center, where she was held with men. At times, she said, she was so desperate to leave detention that she considered abandoning her claim. Locked up and feeling like she was being treated like a criminal, she lost 40 pounds.
“Returning to my country would be returning to a death sentence,” she said. “In that moment, you don’t know what would be better: detention or death.”
Returning to my country would be returning to a death sentence. In that moment, you don't know what would be better: detention or death.
In 2015, Romina was working on the campaign of Ulises Fabián Quiroz, who was running for president of the municipio of Chilapa de Álvarez, a county-like political subdivision that includes the city of Chilapa and surrounding areas. She was traveling with the candidate in a caravan along a highway when gunmen stopped the procession, ordered the candidate out of his truck and shot him in the head.
She said a criminal organization known as Los Ardillos was responsible for the assassination. The group had been warring with a rival, Los Rojos, for control over Chilapa and its access to a mountainous region where poppies are grown.
Witnessing the assassination was traumatic, she said. Equally chilling were the warnings she received not to report the crime.
“They threatened us and told us not to talk about what happened,” she said. “They knew exactly who we were and could easily locate us.”
In Guerrero, criminal groups post hit lists on Facebook and WhatsApp, using nicknames and crude language to describe their targets. Los Ardillos threatened her father twice, putting him on hit lists published on the platforms, she said, and accused him of working for Los Rojos.
In June 2017, Romina’s father was abducted. After his disappearance, Romina said someone called and warned her, “the same thing that happened to him would happen to my whole family.” Days later, Romina’s sisters found their father dead near Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital, where his captors had tossed him into a gully, his wrists and ankles tied together behind his back.
The threats continued after her father’s death, Romina said. Men she suspects were associated with Los Ardillos stood on the street corner and watched her family’s house, she said. Three days after finding her father’s body, Romina fled Guerrero. She believed the criminal groups would track her down, no matter where in Mexico she was.
“I knew absolutely nothing about asylum,” Romina said. “I only knew that I wanted to enter the country to save my life.”
Romina was detained at the El Chaparral port of entry and transferred to an ICE detention center in Otay Mesa, a community just north of the border.
She met other transgender women in detention, who introduced her to lawyers from organizations that support transgender asylum seekers. She was hopeful they would help her, but they said her case wasn’t strong enough to warrant pro-bono representation. So she decided to defend herself in her asylum case. From within detention, she studied U.S. immigration law and built her case.
"I have to fight tooth and nail, because I want to save my life."
“I have to fight tooth and nail, because I want to save my life,” she said.
On January 30, 2018, a judge agreed to release her on parole, since she couldn’t afford to pay bail. She left Otay Mesa the next day. Attached to her ankle was a GPS monitor, which she wore for five months.
“You feel alive,” she said of the day she was released. “You feel like you no longer have that fear, you feel alive and that you’re going to be all right.”
Romina said representatives from a group that supports transgender asylum seekers, called Las Cristantemas, picked her up outside the detention center. They took her to a house in Orange County that they rented to shelter transgender women. Romina said she lived there four months.
By August, Romina was living in a mobile home park in Santa Ana, with rent assistance coordinated by Las Cristantemas. She had transferred her asylum case from the Otay Mesa immigration court to the Los Angeles court and was anxiously awaiting her first appearance in L.A., scheduled for Dec. 14. While asylum seekers can apply for a work permit 150 days after they’ve filed their complete asylum application, Romina said the clock on her application stopped, at 80 days, when she left Otay Mesa. She had to wait until the December hearing in L.A.—more than 10 months after she left detention—for it to start again. After that, she would still have to wait until March to apply for a work permit.
Romina found a lawyer who agreed to take her case for $2,000. They agreed that Romina would pay the fee in installments, once she obtained a work permit. Immigration is a civil matter, so just like in family or bankruptcy court, the government does not provide attorneys.
Asylum outcomes vary significantly depending on whether people have lawyers. Between 2012 and 2017, about 83 percent of Mexican asylum seekers represented by lawyers were denied, while nearly 97 percent of unrepresented Mexican asylum seekers were denied, according to data from TRAC.
On December 14, 11 months after being released, Romina showed up at a courtroom on the 16th floor of an office building in downtown Los Angeles, at 8:30 a.m. The room was packed with people waiting to see a federal immigration judge so she squeezed onto a wooden bench and distracted herself on her cell phone for more than three hours, until her case was called.
Wearing jeans and white sneakers with gold accents, she stated her legal, masculine name, and asked the judge to call her Romina instead.
To win asylum, people must prove they have suffered persecution, or fear they will suffer future persecution, due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. When the alleged persecutor is unaffiliated with the government, people must show their country’s government is unwilling or unable to protect them.
Romina’s lawyer provided the judge with new documents: an amended I-589 form, the application for asylum, and an updated country conditions report, which provides the judge with background information about the general conditions and state of human rights in an asylum seeker’s country of origin. The reports can consist of newspaper articles and reports produced by the government and non-governmental organizations, among other documents.
Romina’s lawyer shared evidence of the most recent death threat she had received. In the fall, Romina’s name appeared on a hit list on WhatsApp. “We are going to find you,” they wrote in all capital letters, calling her by her given, masculine name and using a homophobic slur. The lawyer also shared information about another transgender woman, a friend of Romina’s, who was shot at her home in Chilapa.
The judge scheduled Romina’s next court date, an individual hearing, for November 2020, nearly two years later. The whole hearing took six minutes.
”That was a lot of waiting just so they could give me a court date,” Romina said outside the office building.
Romina seemed deflated. She knew she couldn’t be deported, but she was frustrated that she couldn’t yet access medical benefits or a work permit. She joked that she could speed up the process if she married a U.S. citizen.
By February, Romina’s situation had become more critical. She still didn’t qualify for a work permit. The mobile home she’d been living in was sold. She had to move out at the beginning of January and hasn’t had a stable place to live since. Without an income, she has relied on the transgender women she met in detention for housing and support.
“In the end, it was worth being locked up, because I met these people who are helping me,” she said.
Romina, ever resilient, has plans for what she’ll do if she wins asylum in the United States. She said she wants to create an organization that would provide secure housing for transgender asylum seekers, “for those moments when you don’t know what you’re going to do, because you don’t have a place to live, you don’t have a job and you don’t have money.”
The goal, she said, would be for “another person to not experience what I’m experiencing.”
Romina will have to wait until a judge rules on her asylum claim to follow through with her dream. She will likely be waiting a long time.