Forty-four numbers need to be called before Sofia and her family finally have the chance to seek asylum in the United States. Camped out in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez with her husband and two kids, she anxiously waits for her number to be called. The family arrived in August, after they fled threats from a cartel in their hometown in Zacatecas in Central Mexico.
Officials told the family to wait in line behind thousands of asylum seekers – Cubans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Ugandans and more. Instead the family pitched a tent by the bridge and joined a separate list for Mexican asylum seekers, which sprung up in recent weeks.
“[Other migrants] say it’s better to wait here,” says Sofia, whose name has been changed because she fears retaliation for speaking out. “The other way could take years.”
Legally, migrants like Sofia and her family should be able to present themselves at a U.S. port of entry to request asylum. But since at least 2016, U.S. officials from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have only allowed a limited number of asylum seekers – although they won’t say just how many – to present themselves at a port of entry each day in a process known to immigration advocates as metering. (One official speaking to TIME said the number used to be around 70 per day for one port of entry in Juarez, but is now around 30.) At least one class action lawsuit has challenged metering as illegal for all asylum seekers, but for Mexican asylum seekers, metering is particularly dangerous.
“Under U.S. and international law, CBP can’t turn them away at a port of entry, especially a Mexican national because you are returning them to the same country from which they’re fleeing persecution,” says Shaw Drake, policy counsel at the ACLU Border Rights Center.
Mexicans like Sofia have grown frustrated with the delay. There are now an estimated 26,000 people of all nationalities on metering lists in Mexican border cities, including Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Nogales, and Tijuana. Some are staying in shelters that have grown more crowded as some 50,000 people have been turned back to await their court dates under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico. Others live in tents on the streets in cities where temperatures can reach the high 80s and 90s and murders and kidnappings are common. In Ciudad Juárez, these Mexican asylum seekers hope staying close to the bridge means they won’t miss their chance when CBP allows the next people to present themselves.
“They just tell us to wait,” says Monica, a 30-year-old mother from the western Mexican state of Michoacán who fled cartel violence with her husband and three daughters. The family is number 165 on the list. “They don’t give us answers. Nothing progresses.”
Homicides, kidnappings and disappearances have increased in Mexico in the last decade as drug cartels fight over key territory. The government’s military response has had limited success. But dating back to the Obama Administration, Mexican nationals have received asylum at lower rates than the national average. From 2011 to 2016, Mexico had one of the highest asylum denial rates of any nationality, with about 90 percent of cases denied, according to data gathering organization TRAC. In 2018, only about 15 percent of Mexican asylum seekers won their cases, compared to the 35 percent average for all nationalities.
“If they don’t give me asylum, they [the cartels] are going to serve my head on a platter,” says Oscar, 60-year-old asylum seeker who has been hiding in different parts of Mexico since 2014 when he left his home in Zacatecas after being kidnapped. The kidnappers cut off several of his fingers and nearly sliced his head open, but he survived. “If you try to defend yourself, they’ll kill the whole family.”
Within the asylum system, Mexican nationals are a “disfavored group” whose claims are often denied “based on stereotypes, bias and the fear of opening the floodgates,” says Anna Cabot, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies who has worked with Mexican asylum seekers. Asylum claims based on extortion, kidnapping and other cartel related violence are particularly difficult to prove and judges often scrutinize the credibility of Mexican asylum seekers more than other nationalities. There is also a common misconception among immigration judges that Mexicans can find protections in another part of the country, given the size of the national territory.
Many judges do not recognize gang and cartel violence as legitimate asylum claims based on the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention definition of asylum as fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership to a certain social group, explains Imelda Maynard, a lawyer for Catholic Charities of New Mexico who represents many asylum seekers in El Paso.
“When these laws were fashioned, they didn’t consider that governments would not be able to control their populations,” Maynard says, referring to the growth of criminal cartels and gangs in Latin America. “One can argue that some of these criminal organizations are so powerful they are like de facto governments.”
Because of these interpretations of the law and the high denial rates in many Texas border courts, the odds are stacked against Mexican asylum seekers. “The chances of a Mexican being granted asylum in this region is basically unheard of,” Maynard says.
Now, the emergence of a new list is creating confusion in an already overwhelmed system. Since at least 2018, Mexican border cities including Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez, and Matamoros have had one designated list recognized by local shelters and Mexican immigration officials. Although the process is slow and legally contested by activist groups in the U.S., it was somewhat streamlined. Now, it’s unclear whose turn it is to cross and why.
TIME was able to view a list of Mexican asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez kept by one of the asylum seekers herself after she was informally chosen by the group to keep track of the list. A red notebook contained more than 175 names, mainly families. Some were highlighted after they had been able to enter the U.S.
Mexican asylum seekers are now “self-managing” a separate list that is “completely distinct from the local coordinated control of the metering system,” says Enrique Valenzuela, the general coordinator of the Mexican institution State Population Commission in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican institution that works closely with the city’s immigrant population. About 6,000 asylum seekers remain on the official metering list in Ciudad Juárez. Valenzuela estimates only about 2,000 are still in the city because many leave for home, the U.S., or another part of Mexico before their number is called.
About 800 miles southeast from Ciudad Juárez, in the Mexican city of Matamoros that borders Brownsville, Texas, Mexican asylum seekers report numbers up to 280 on a waitlist. These people appear to be part of a separate list from the one posted outside the office of the Mexican Institute for Migration, which only listed numbers above 2,500. The official list included asylum seekers from Central America, Cuba, Cameroon and Mexico, but TIME independently confirmed that at least one of the Mexican asylum seekers interviewed did not appear on that list.
All the Mexican asylum seekers TIME spoke to said they had been given numbers ranging from 50 to 280 by a guard on the Mexican side of the bridge. TIME was unable to identify the guard and a Mexican immigration official declined to provide information about the list. The LA Times has reported that Mexican officials have been in charge of the lists since late 2018.
CBP said in a statement that the agency processes asylum seekers as quickly as possible. When there is not enough space in CBP facilities, asylum seekers are told to wait, the statement said.
Mexican asylum seekers don’t know how long that wait will be. But they have put their faith in the system, however confusing it may be.
“We have to wait in line like they told us,” says Pablo, a 46-year-old agricultural worker from Michoacán waiting in the encampment in Ciudad Juárez with his wife and five kids. They fled after he was kidnapped and brutally beaten.
“They’ve promised us that we’ll be able to pass and that they’ll listen to us,” says 30-year-old Roberto from Chiapas, now waiting in a tent camp in Matamoros with his wife and two kids. He fled violence related to a conflict between the leftist militant group known as the Zapatistas and the Mexican government.
Despite the challenges, most Mexicans remain determined. “We just want to cross so that our kids can study,” says Anabel, a 42-year old mother from Guerrero who arrived to Matamoros about a week ago with her husband and two sons, ages 2 and 7.
For some, the U.S. is their last chance. 60-year-old Oscar has tried to find peace and tranquility in a handful of places in Mexico in the past five years. But the danger has followed him. And so he feels leaving his country is the only option. “I won’t leave Juárez until they let me cross,” he says.
Reporting for this story was funded by the International Center for Journalists