Living at the mercy of “La Lista”

March 1, 2019

Elizabeth Maskasky writes from Tijuana about the hell that the U.S. government has created with its numbering system to slow down the process of hearing asylum cases.

EARLY EVERY morning, migrants from all over the world gather at El Chaparral, a plaza on the Mexican side of the Tijuana-San Diego border. A plethora of languages can be heard — many of them Indigenous, in addition to Spanish, French, English, Arabic and Russian.

On one side of the plaza, migrants line up to put their names on La Lista (The List) — the numbering system for the increasingly notorious and illegal “metering” imposed by the U.S. on asylum seekers before they are allowed to cross the border.

On the other side of the plaza, migrants whose numbers are close to being called gather with their luggage and their families to hear the numbers of the day. On any given day in Tijuana, an average of only 50 migrants out of the thousands who are waiting are allowed to cross the border.

The situation feels surreal. Migrants who have traveled across several countries arrive in Tijuana with little knowledge of the U.S. asylum process — let alone La Lista — and the fact that they will be subject to an additional wait time of up to several months before they will be allowed to enter the U.S.

The handwritten list for asylum requests at the U.S-Mexico border in Tijuana
The handwritten list for asylum requests at the U.S-Mexico border in Tijuana

Volunteers with the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado — one of the only migrant legal aid organizations in Tijuana — move down the line of migrants, passing out maps that show where to find Enclave Caracol: the building where the organization administers daily legal consultation services and provides food and medical aid, with the help of a few dozen rotating volunteers.

The volunteer attorneys try to provide last-minute advice: “You will need to pass through a credible fear interview as part of the asylum process”; “Try to put on thick clothing before you go into the hieleras.”

Hieleras (“iceboxes”) are the freezing-cold containment cells that are the first stop in the U.S. for migrants once their numbers are called, where they are kept for several days to several weeks.

Many migrants — including infants and pregnant people — have become dangerously ill inside the hielaras. Last year, the transgender Honduran refugee Roxsana Hernandez died shortly after being released from the hielaras where she was denied medical care.

MUCH OF the orientation for volunteers, as well as the consultation services provided to migrants, consists of informing people about horrific, worst-case scenarios in the gentlest way possible.

On my first day volunteering, Luis Guerra, the Strategic Capacity Officer for CLINIC (Catholic Legal Immigration Network) and the person responsible for running Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, told volunteers that we would find ourselves running alternately on anger and sadness.

But Al Otro Lado has also developed a strong support system of daily morning meetings and debriefs that help volunteers cope with secondary trauma.

Part of our orientation also included a history of La Lista, beginning with its origins in 2016 when an influx of Haitian migrants fleeting post-earthquake conditions began to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. These migrants had traveled to Mexico by way of Brazil, where they provided labor for the Olympics and World Cup until their services were no longer deemed necessary.

Starting last summer, La Lista began to be expanded to cover all migrants. Now, La Lista is at ports of entry all along the border.

In Tijuana, La Lista is literally a list of names written in a composition notebook.

It’s safe to say that this is not a sophisticated system. There is no process whereby a migrant with a particularly dire situation — such as a person with a severe disability or someone in immediate danger of violence in Tijuana — can move to the front of the list. If someone misses their number being called, they go to the end of the list.

Unaccompanied children cannot get on La Lista at all right now, and thus have no way to enter the U.S. legally.

La Lista is run jointly by the U.S. government and Grupo Beta, the “humanitarian” arm of the Mexican government immigration agency — whose officers can be seen standing around El Chaparral providing zero humanitarian assistance, and who, at some points of entry, are accused of demanding bribes to put people’s names on the list.

A small group of migrants are charged with calling the numbers every day. Al Otro Lado, which does not work with Grupo Beta and is suing the U.S. government over the list, believes the list-callers may be a group of particularly vulnerable migrants who are under the thumb of the Mexican government.

Incredibly, it should be pointed out that Mexicans seeking asylum in the U.S. are also required to enter their names on La Lista.

Think about this for a moment: Since La Lista is run by the Mexican government, this means that Mexicans are informing their own government about their plans to seek asylum — and part of any asylum claim must include evidence that your own government is unwilling or unable to protect you.

Immigration attorney and Al Otro Lado volunteer Kelsey Morales says: “The use of La Lista puts Mexicans seeking asylum in a very dangerous situation, with no safe avenue for requesting asylum, a right to which they are entitled.”

Furthermore, it is the Mexican government that drives the migrants from El Chaparral plaza to the U.S. side of the border when their number is called. Ominously, some volunteers claim to have seen Mexican government trucks with migrants in them make detours on their way to the U.S.

AL OTRO Lado volunteers will readily tell you that ultimately, there is no “asylum process” for many of the migrants in the caravan. Rather, what awaits them in the U.S. is little more than a state-sanctioned program of imprisonment and torture.

The organization has collected data indicating that the migrants have been located in immigrant detention facilities from Mississippi to Washington state, with at least some ending up in correctional facilities and even county jails.

Luis Guerra argues that the intention of this policy of the U.S. government is to pressure people to “self-deport” when they can’t stand being locked up for months or even years at a time, especially since family separations are still occurring.

By far the most common question I was asked during the charlas (“consultations”) was from mothers asking whether their children would be separated from them. The women asking this had generally fled gang and military violence (rooted in U.S. imperialism) in the first place to protect their children.

The honest answer they receive is that it’s very possible.

Migrants who are not imprisoned in detention centers are either released in the U.S. with ankle bracelets, or they are forcibly returned to Mexico until their court date under the Trump administration’s cruel “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Guerra says that being released into the U.S. is the best-case scenario because there are very few opportunities to obtain legal aid from either detention or in Mexico:

“We talk to countless folks who continue to ask me, “how am I supposed to find an attorney in Mexico when there are none? It’s a really good question, because we don’t know what the answer to that is. Al Otro Lado doesn’t have the resources to represent people for their whole cases who are in this situation.

The services that Al Otro Lado provides in Enclave Caracol consists of an overview of U.S. asylum law and processes, followed by brief consultations with attorneys about their individual cases.

Luis calls these “emergency room” legal immigration services that cannot approach the legal support that migrants and refugees need and deserve:

They are not meant to help people win their immigration cases. They are not meant to tell people what to do. They are intended to help people get a sense of their basic rights and a better sense of whether they have a fighting chance if they continue to move forward, or whether they have no fighting chance...

With some individuals we literally get a couple of minutes to explain the intricacies of asylum law right before they go into the U.S. So we’re hoping to prepare people for the reality of what’s happening in the U.S. and hopefully give them enough information that they can make one of the most difficult decisions of their life. Some decide to stay in Mexico, some decide to go back home, and some will look for other options.

ON ONE particularly cold and rainy morning, a rumor that La Lista had been “lost” spread through El Chaparral plaza. Migrants who had already been waiting for weeks appeared visibly concerned.

Within a short period of time, La Lista appeared to have been magically found by those administering it, and the numbers for the day were called. But this scare further reinforced the precariousness of the migrants’ situation, and the utter indifference with which the U.S. and Mexican governments treat their time, their resources and their lives.

And yet the courage, resourcefulness and resilience of the people enduring this tyranny and violence is profound.

In El Chaparral plaza and in the play corner at Enclave Caracol, children draw pictures, laugh and make new friends. On that cold and rainy morning when the list was “lost,” a migrant insisted that a volunteer literally take the jacket off his back to warm up — and would not take “no” for an answer.

If the state-run program of brutality and torture that is our asylum system represents the worst of humanity under capitalism, then the strength and kindness of the people risking everything for a better life — as well as the volunteers trying to help them — shows that humanity has something better to offer.

Almost all of the volunteers I spoke with had radical views of immigrant rights and open borders. On the last day I was volunteering, a communication channel was created for volunteers who have returned to the U.S. to spread information about protests and other political actions.

In the absence of a mass immigrant rights movement in the U.S. right now, creating cross-border relationships with immigrant rights and humanitarian aid groups is a vital avenue for activists in the U.S. seeking to support migrants, and to expand our knowledge and resources for the fights to come.

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