A family fleeing violence in El Salvador has been stuck at the US-Mexico border for 2 months — and Trump's new asylum rules may make it impossible for them to cross

Madeleine WattenbargerA woman makes pupusas at the migrant shelter.

TIJUANA, Mexico – In the Zona Norte of Tijuana, Leidy Rivas has spent the last month cooking pupusas out of a bright orange storefront. Along with two other women from El Salvador, she prepares the Salvadoran street food – a tortilla stuffed with cheese, chicharron or zucchini and topped with a cabbage slaw to make a little bit of money to support the migrant shelter where she’s staying.

For Leidy, the work also helps her get her mind off the fact that her family is stuck in Tijuana.

Rivas, her sister, her husband Gustavo and her two young children arrived at the shelter just over two months ago. They left their home in El Salvador after Leidy’s father was killed and they began receiving death threats. They planned to seek asylum in the United States but didn’t expect that seeking asylum would be such an ordeal. Upon arrival, they put their names down on a waiting list at the El Chaparral border crossing and received a number that, when called, would give them their chance to cross the border make their asylum claim.

The list is thousands long. Their family’s number likely won’t come up for a few more months. And just last week, Gustavo and Leidy heard news that will further complicate their wait.

On September 11, the Supreme Court struck down the Ninth Circuit Court’s injunction on Trump’s so-called asylum ban, allowing the regulation to temporarily take effect across the country until the courts issue a final ruling.

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Under the ban, asylum seekers who have passed through other countries on their way to the US are only eligible for asylum in the US if they have been denied asylum in a third country. That is, migrants like Leidy and Gustavo, who have passed through Mexico to reach the US, are ineligible for asylum unless they have been denied asylum in Mexico or one of the other countries through which they have passed. The rule currently applies to asylum seekers who have made their claims after July 16, 2019, the day after Trump first announced the rule.

Since last year, would-be asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border have been subject to an informally managed process called metering. Rather than arriving at a port of entry and immediately making an asylum claim, migrants now receive a number that specifies their place on a waiting list. Each day, the US determines how many asylum seekers they will accept. Some days in Tijuana, those in charge of managing the list will call ten or twelve numbers; often, they call only one or two – or none at all. Over 10,000 asylum seekers are currently waiting to request asylum in Tijuana alone. The new asylum ban would render them all ineligible.

PupusasMadeleine WattenbargerThe Rivas family is on a list of thousands waiting to cross the border into the US to claim asylum.

Hope, and then a dose of reality

Recent months’ turmoil over asylum regulations has left migrants like Leidy and Gustavo uncertain about their prospects. The asylum ban was first blocked by the lower courts, but the Supreme Court ruling has temporarily allowed the ban to take effect again.

The lower court’s decision initially gave Leidy hope.

“We’re not really well informed,” she said, “but it’s really unfortunate for us that first, they say they’re going to give us an opportunity, and then that they won’t. It’s always changing.” While the family waits to find out their asylum status, her children ages four and five, are missing school.

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Despite the asylum ban, migrants are still eligible for other forms of international protection. In a Friday panel at Tijuana’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Monika Langarica, the immigrant rights staff attorney at the San Diego chapter of the ACLU, explained that would-be asylum seekers can still solicit a withholding of removal or protection under the UN Convention Against Torture.

Asylum seekers must jump through infinitely smaller hoops to receive one of these, however. While asylum claims generally require applicants to show about a 10% chance of persecution if they return home, withholding removal requires a higher threshold. Protection under the Convention Against Torture applies in cases where there is over a 50% likelihood that applicants will be tortured if they return home.

These forms of protection don’t grant recipients the same rights as asylum, either: they don’t provide a pathway to citizenship, and they don’t allow recipients to sponsor their families’ immigration to the US.

“It’s a roadblock,” Langarica said, “but we’re still continuing with a lot of hope.”

PupuseriaMadeleine WattenbargerLeidy and her husband in front of the pupuseria.

‘We don’t speak the language, and they don’t like black people’

While Central American migrants have been the most visible population crossing through Mexico in recent years, the ban has consequences for tens of thousands of asylum seekers from all over the world. Mexico has long been a country of transit for migrants seeking to reach the US. In the days after the Supreme Court decision, the crowds waiting to request asylum at El Chaparral included migrants from Cameroon, Turkey, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, among others.

Hans and Orlando came to Tijuana from Cameroon, where they left because of the economic crisis and civil war. On their way to the US, they arrived first to Ecuador, then spent three months making their way north. The journey took them through seven countries before arriving in Mexico. Under the ban, they would have had to seek asylum (and had it denied) in one of those eight countries to be eligible for asylum in the US. Their four months in Tijuana have convinced them that they can’t stay in Mexico.

“We don’t speak the language, and they don’t like black people,” Orlando said. He says he’s experienced racism at his job delivering water across the city. The two men had heard about the asylum ban, but because of racial discrimination in Mexico, they see the US as their only option.

TijuanachildrensdrawingsMadeleine WattenbargerChildren’s drawings hang on a fence at the El Chaparral border crossing.

‘They have gotten this far, and they will drain their last resource to be able to get to the US’

Jose Maria Garcia Lara, the director of the Tijuana migrant shelter Movimiento Juventud 2000, says that while he expects to see some asylum seekers decide to remain in Mexico, most are holding out hope that they will make it across the border.

“They have gotten this far, and they will drain their last resource to be able to get to the US,” he told Insider. “Some will stay here, but there’s still not much possibility for them to regularize their status.”

That’s partly because Mexico’s refugee services are stretched so thin. Despite receiving record levels of asylum claims this year, Mexico’s Refugee Commission (COMAR) currently faces its lowest budget in seven years, and the caseload of asylum seekers so far this year already amounts to more than twice last year’s number. The UN Refugee Agency has provided COMAR with additional staffing and support, but it continues to lack personnel to deal with the claims.

Garcia Lara also expects to see more people choosing to cross the border in other, riskier ways. “All they’re doing is making it so people look for other ways to get to the US,” he said.

Gustavo and Leidy haven’t considered staying in Mexico or trying to cross into the US illegally. “There are so many months left. It could be that the laws change,” Gustavo said. “We still have faith.”

They’re worried about the long-term consequences, and they don’t want to put their children at risk. They don’t want to live under the violence that drives Mexicans to seek asylum in the US.

“In 42 years of life, I never thought of leaving my country,” Gustavo says. “A criminal isn’t a reason to leave an entire life – unless they’re threatening you with death. Then, the first thing you’ll do is look for protection.”

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