Children play as their parents wait on the Mexican side of the border, in the hopes of entering the U.S. legally by applying for asylum. The families waiting underwent arduous journeys from multiple continents, many spending their life savings to get here. (Ariana Dreshler/KQED)
The story begins at the San Ysidro Port of Entry where, on the Mexican side, there is a plaza that for much of the day acts as an impromptu playground.
Women sit at the edges of this plaza in the shade of a high metal border fence. Their children play soccer and tag in the middle of the plaza, their faces dirty and their clothes torn.
This is where people wait to legally enter the United States and ask for asylum.
Heat, Thirst, Boredom and Delay
By midafternoon at the plaza, the sun is high and there is no shade.
It's too hot to nap, and the kids are too hungry to play. But they’re bored and restless, and there is no apparent end to their wait. So the children who are old enough to venture by themselves group up, and slowly walk back and forth between a white metal fence and the street. They examine the ground, they pick at the cigarette butts, candy wrappers and leaves.
The toddlers also group up, but stay closer to their mothers. They sit in a circle -- some cross-legged, some on their knees -- and roll small tangerines on the ground.
Other toddlers sit by themselves, staring off toward a beige-colored stucco wall.
The women -- most of them mothers -- sit with their heads buried in their hands, or their laps, or the hood of their jackets. Some nurse infants. Some ration out water to their children from gallon jugs. A lucky few lay on a handful of cardboard boxes and are sleeping.
Meanwhile, those with papers and passports allowing them to enter the U.S. walk past to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, often looking past the children and families.
A man walks over from the pharmacy across the street, bringing a box of water, Gatorade, candy bars, bread and apples. All of a sudden, the entire plaza awakens. Teenagers and toddlers swarm the man, even before he can lay the box on the ground. Within a minute, the entire box is gone. The man turns to get another box of supplies. He is swarmed in the middle of the street. A toddler cries out that they didn’t get a drink, and a teenage boy hands him their Gatorade.
For a group of families who have spent their life savings and traveled from four continents to get to this plaza, this has been their life for almost a month. They are essentially waiting to get on a waitlist so they can apply to enter the United States legally.
And many of them say they have been turned away by U.S. Border Patrol officers multiple times, which, if true, would mean federal officers are refusing to enforce federal law.
Fleeing Personal, Criminal and Political Violence
As part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policies, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the government will no longer consider asylum cases based on domestic violence claims, or to flee gang or crime warfare. Political refugees are still being considered.
Whether intentional or not, the policy has reduced Central Americans and other Latino families to second-class residents of the asylum plaza. The line here is on a gradient of skin colors -- Russians and Eastern Europeans move to the front of the plaza line, closest to the gate. They are followed by men of Asian descent (all of whom refused to comment), and then by several mothers fleeing political upheaval from Congo.
At the edge of the plaza are the Central Americans and Mexicans who are hoping to be given a wait number.
The people at the front have numbers, and are waiting for them to be called. Those lucky few include a Russian family. A man explains that he worked for the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI. The man says that, as an investigator, he began referring local politicians for prosecution because of alleged corruption.
Then one day, he came home to find his apartment burned to the ground.
“I thought, where is my child?” he said. “Where is my wife? I panicked, I could not find them for two days.”
His wife and newborn daughter escaped, and were hiding with a family member. The man said when he found his family, he cashed his entire life savings and fled to China. From there, he bought a ticket to Brazil. For three months, his family traveled by bus to Tijuana to apply for asylum. Now, they have a number, and at night stay at a nearby motel.
“I think we have a good chance,” he said. “I think we will be allowed to stay. We cannot go home. We will be killed.”
A Congolese woman also traveled from Brazil, arriving the same day as the Russian family. She, too, had been given a number. Visibly pregnant, the woman said she fled after a rival political clan killed her husband at their home. The political marauders then took turns raping the woman, she said, leaving her bloody and near death. She believes the baby she is carrying was conceived during that rape.
"I could not return even if it was safe," she said. "All my money has been used to get here."
Further down the line, a Mexican woman from Guadalajara nurses an infant. She, too, left her home after her husband was killed. She said three men in masks broke into their home a few days after her husband refused to let a cartel use the house. She fled, taking her children with her, and came to Tijuana to apply for asylum. She had not been given a number. She said Border Patrol agents turned her away.
"Why does the Russian get in, the Russian children get to enter, but my family does not?” she asked, bouncing her baby on her knee. “If we are killed at home, does it matter why?”
But in his ruling explaining the decision, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote that asylum should not include “private violence,” as that creates a “powerful incentive” to “come here illegally and claim a fear of return.”
“The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” Sessions continued. “I understand that many victims of domestic violence may seek to flee from their home countries to extricate themselves from a dire situation or to give themselves the opportunity for a better life. But the asylum statute is not a general hardship statute.”
He specifically cites multiple cases from Guatemala and El Salvador as examples of asylum cases that should have been rejected. These cases do not fit what Sessions ruled as “the prototypical refugee," who flees “... her home country because the government has persecuted her."
Specifically, Sessions ruled that "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship" should not be eligible for asylum.
The result of that decision, according to immigration advocates and attorneys, is that asylum cases are being "turned around" without the granting of due process.
A KQED reporter witnessed such a turnaround at the asylum plaza during the weekend of June 23. A group of 13 mothers, organized by lawyers from Pittsburgh and San Diego, presented themselves to a Border Patrol agent for an asylum claim. It appeared that the request was organized just a few hours before.
The group did not make it past this first step.
As they walked toward the U.S. Port of Entry, a Border Patrol agent greeted them in a long corridor. He told them the U.S. does not accept asylum claims anymore. After two lawyers identified themselves and demanded the officer begin the asylum process, he turned around and walked into a room in the border corridor. Shortly after, a private security guard came out and demanded everyone leave.
After this exchange, the KQED reporter walked over to the station headquarters and asked to speak with a supervisor. The Border Patrol agent at the desk refused and said, "It’s weird you care about asylum.
“Are you applying for asylum?” he continued. "Because we don’t process those anymore. And I’m not answering any of your questions."
KQED has since asked for comments from Customs and Border Protection multiple times. CBP has refused that request.
Immigration advocates said such "turnarounds" are not new, and have happened in limited cases since the Clinton administration. But according to Bardis Vakili of the San Diego ACLU, these “turnarounds” have taken on a “sharper edge.”
“It’s heartlessness and cruelty compounded by ineptitude,” said Vakili. “This is a suffering population who we need to process in some fair way. These are people who are desperate for protection and to protect their children.”
Janet Napolitano, former Department of Homeland Security chief (and the former governor of a border state), said that even if immigration judges ultimately deny the asylum claims, all people who present themselves at a U.S. port of entry are entitled by federal law to be put on the list for a "credible fear interview."
"What that Border Patrol agent said [about not accepting asylum cases] is absolutely wrong," said Napolitano, who is now president of the University of California. "It’s not the law. I don’t know where he got that."
In the end, the mothers returned to the plaza, setting up against the white metallic border fence to wait for a new chance to ask for asylum.
The evening sun cast a long shadow, and the women positioned themselves to get covered by a thin slice of shade. Several new families had turned up by then.
One woman had white crust on her lips from apparent dehydration. A teenager carried a Ziploc bag full of birth certificates, a Bible and prayer cards. Another woman from the Congo arrived. She carried a big binder full of legal documents.
She took her place in line, sitting on the edge of the plaza between the Russian family and a group of Central Americans.