On Sunday, in an unprecedented escalation of violence at the United States–Mexico border, a peaceful march of caravaners and asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, devolved into chaos as some of the migrants rushed the border, and U.S. officials fired tear gas and rubber bullets in response.
Though some 4,500 migrants have reached Tijuana in recent weeks, much of the build-up in pressure comes from the U.S. side of the border, where an already-overwhelmed American immigration system, coupled with an anti-immigrant federal government, has slowed the asylum process to a glacial pace. As the U.S. and Mexican governments struggle to respond to the standoff, legal experts and migrants' rights advocates warn that the crisis will persist, possibly for months, as migrants continue to arrive in border towns.
Since early October, multiple "caravans" of Central American migrants, fleeing violence and entrenched poverty in their home countries, have made their way toward the U.S. to seek asylum. International law, as well as U.S. statute, guarantees migrants a legal right to seek asylum within the U.S. Those same laws prevent the asylum seekers from being deported to their home countries if they face imminent threats of persecution upon their return. But this legal framework, meant to protect some of the world's most vulnerable people, has created a dangerous stalemate along the U.S. border.
The U.S.'s strict process for evaluating asylum claims means that the process can take months, or even years. While law requires that asylum seekers be housed during the interim, the Trump administration has strong-armed the incoming Mexican government (the country's newly elected president assumes power this Saturday) into allowing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as the U.S. evaluates their asylum claims. This means that asylum seekers in cities like Tijuana could find themselves stuck in place for months, leading to an increase in the kind of desperation that could explode into crisis, as it did over the weekend.
Under the Trump administration, authorities at official points of entry across the southern border have enacted "metering" policies, which greatly slow the rate at which the ports can admit asylum seekers and process claims. Such slow-downs have led some to blame the administration itself for the crisis in Tijuana and elsewhere. "They knowingly manufactured this humanitarian crisis," says Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. "For weeks they've put every obstacle in the way of asylum seekers legally applying for asylum, and [Sunday's] violence was a culmination of those illegal efforts."
Other observers have placed the blame on advocacy organizations that encouraged Central Americans, largely from Honduras, to attempt to claim asylum on the U.S. border in the first place. Wayne Cornelius, a professor emeritus of political science and expert in international law, says that, while the situation may not have been avoidable, it has been clear from the start that the U.S. would accept few asylum seekers.
"It's a shame that the caravan participants were encouraged and enabled to get to Tijuana, where the pile-up of asylum seekers was bound to provoke a hostile response from the Trump administration and an orgy of media attention (which only enhances Mr. Trump's political incentives to respond harshly)," Cornelius writes in an email.
Cornelius suggests that asylum seekers would have had—and still might have—more success applying for asylum in Mexico instead. For people fleeing the Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador), among the most violent countries in the world, the rate of asylum acceptance in Mexico has been 64 percent in recent years, compared to 19 percent in the U.S.'s system. The incoming Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also promised to offer jobs and work visas to caravan migrants. Cornelius says the prospect of migrants taking jobs elsewhere in Mexico is a "far better" option than waiting in Tijuana, where the asylum seekers will wait in poorly supplied shelters and try to remain safe in the high-crime rate city.
Despite the slow pace of the U.S. asylum process, Cornelius says that immigration lawyers who have surveyed caravan members believe that as many as 70 percent have a valid asylum claim. But even with valid claims, the build-up in pressure could encourage would-be asylum seekers to try other options. "The longer the caravaners stay in Tijuana, the more likely they are to succumb to the temptation to cross illegally into the U.S.," Cornelius writes. "If they follow that route, the U.S. will have succeeded in turning bona fide asylum-seekers into illegal immigrants."