From where Violeta Monterroso stood, in a migrant encampment near one of Tijuana’s main border crossings, she could almost see San Diego, the shimmering American city just beyond the frontier fence. She could see American cars as they slid down a highway and disappeared toward a ghostly skyline, and she could imagine what lay almost within reach. But that promised land was also infinitely distant. From the Mexican side of the border, mired in inches of mud that reeked of broken portable toilets, the entire U.S. might as well have been a mirage.
When Monterroso and her husband Cándido Calderón arrived in late November with their children, Kenia Jasmin, 12; Isaac, 11; and Yeimi, 9, they added their names to the bottom of a list in a thick book. There were more than 5,000 migrants ahead of them waiting to request asylum in the U.S., and because of recent changes in policy, American authorities were processing only 40 to 100 requests a day. Monterroso and Calderón expected it would take months before their names were called.
Read the rest of TIME’s cover story here.