TIJUANA, Mexico—Early on the morning of July 4, Carmen Palma strapped her 10-month-old daughter to her chest, hugged goodbye to women with whom she shared a dormitory, and wheeled her suitcase out of the migrant shelter where she has resided in this border city for longer than she cares to recall.
Palma is a 28-year-old mother of three who fled her native El Salvador in March after a life-threatening brush with members of a street gang. She is one of more than a thousand migrants in Tijuana who are waiting their turn to file for asylum in the United States.
The packing of her bags, the well-wishing goodbyes, and the early-morning trek across the city have become an almost daily ritual for her.
Palma has lost count of how many times she has made the journey to the PedWest border crossing at San Ysidro, California, only to be turned away. But on the morning of the Independence Day holiday in the U.S., she was feeling confident that her number literally would come up.
The next number on the list was 324, and Palma had number 330. “We’re getting close,” she said.
Most people must wait one or two weeks for an appointment to request asylum, says José María García, director of the Juventud 2000 shelter in Tijuana. It is all but impossible to learn the outcome quickly, since the migrants are as a matter of policy detained for a period of days or weeks.
San Ysidro has had a constant waiting list for asylum seekers since late April. They stay in city shelters for days or weeks at a time. Policy shifts on the American side that emphasize holding more migrants in custody longer have slowed down the process for interviewing new border arrivals.
As the Trump administration pursues a new “zero tolerance” policy at the border, designed to deter illegal border crossings in part by criminally prosecuting anyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, his administration has also restricted pathways by which migrants have been able to request and receive legal asylum.
One afternoon in January, Palma and her 11-year-old daughter were shopping after school when four members of a local gang kidnapped them in broad daylight and took them to a vacant house in the neighborhood. The men planned to rape her, but Palma says that after her daughter began to cry out they lost their nerve and ordered her to leave. “They told me if I went out in public again they were going to kill me,” she said.
Palma is from La Campanera, an overcrowded and poor neighborhood in the city of Soyapango that has long been known as a stronghold of the Barrio 18 street gang, archrival to MS-13 and one of the largest and most violent gangs in El Salvador.
El Faro, an award-winning online digital newspaper in El Salvador, wrote of the neighborhood’s notoriety, “In the collective imagination, to say La Campanera is to say violence.” Suchit Chávez, an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper La Prensa Gráfica in El Salvador, says that the neighborhood’s notorious reputation for gang violence has improved since the low-point of 2009, the year French filmmaker Christian Poveda was murdered while making a documentary about the lives of Barrio 18 members in La Campanera.
“But that isn’t to say that Barrio 18 has lost its influence,” Chavez said.
Why was Palma targeted? She told me the gang does whatever the hell it wants. It monitors the entry and exit points and keeps tabs on the movements of residents and police alike. She said there was a deadly shooting recently near her children’s school and that the violence in her community is pervasive and traumatizing. Of course, there may be things she did not want to tell a reporter. Other migrant women have told me rape is used as an act of retribution if a husband refuses to pay extortion or sell drugs for the gang.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen recently claimed Central American gang leaders are showing up at the border, falsely claiming to be the parents of children. ProPublica found of the fewer than 200 cases of false family claims so far this year (less than 1 percent of the total number of families apprehended at the border), there were no indication that any of them involved MS-13.
The same report found that of the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors that have come to the U.S. since 2012, Border Patrol says only 56 were suspected of MS-13 ties.
In El Salvador, although city police stepped up their presence in her neighborhood, Palma says she and her family still received death threats from gang members. She and her husband fled with the children to Mexico, and eventually reached Tijuana with the hope of getting asylum in the U.S.
Palma told me her husband entered the U.S. and requested asylum a week before she tried, and that he took the two older children with him. That is why she was traveling only with the infant. Her husband and the children was released from custody quickly, she said. The lawyer Pinheiro told me that is great luck since there is only one family detention facility in the U.S. that admits fathers and it is in Pennsylvania.
The logistics of keeping Palma’s husband and older children in custody might have been complicated and authorities might have paroled him as a result. In any event, she says he is in Virginia and in contact with her by phone.
The Trump administration recently made it much more difficult for someone fleeing gang violence to receive asylum in the United States, or even to remain in the country while their claim is being investigated. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared in a ruling in June that “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
“Sessions pronounced that domestic violence or gang violence are essentially private criminal activities and therefore victims are not eligible for asylum,” said Erika Pinheiro, a partner in a small onprofit called Al Otro Lado, or To the Other Side, the only American attorneys based in Tijuana who work pro bono with asylum-seekers.
Despite the obvious challenges, Palma said she was optimistic for asylum. Palma had watched the news unfold on a clunky TV set the shelter staff roll out for the daytime hours. She was aware that thousands of children had been separated from parents at the U.S. border. Like several migrants I spoke to, she said separating families will not deter migrants from coming to the U.S.
She is afraid that if she is deported to El Salvador could amount to a death sentence for her and her family.
“I worry a lot about being separated from my children,” she said. “But it’s a risk we have to take. If they do separate us, at least I know we’ll be reunited at some point. In my country the risks are far worse.”
Palma seemed heartened by two factors. First, under public pressure, Trump had announced an end to family separation. Second, a week earlier her husband had taken the couple’s two oldest children to the border and requested asylum, and he was already out of custody. The couple had intended to cross together, but before their number was called, Amber came down with a fever and Palma stayed behind to care for her.
So at 7:30 a.m. on the Fourth of July, Palma and the baby Amber set out for the border in the company of an affable 24-year-old migrant from Honduras named Kenneth, who went along for protection and carried her bags.
Barely five feet tall and with a voice nearly as soft as a whisper, Palma wore a new pair of sneakers, hand-me-down blue jeans and a black sweatshirt printed with “One of a kind.”
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“I’m ready,” she said.
Tijuana was barely awake as Palma and Kenneth trekked through a barren industrial landscape at the city’s northern end and across a bridge that spanned a fetid stretch of the Tijuana River.
At the international crossing known as El Chaparral, a throng of migrant families was gathered on an esplanade in the shade of a tall birch tree. A volunteer at the center of the crowd was calling out numbers from the all-important registry of asylum seekers.
Palma waited expressionlessly until she heard her number called. “Por fin,” she said quietly, by which she meant “At last.” She took a place in line behind two men from Cameroon and in front of a Mexican family from the drug-war-weary state of Guerrero. As a Mexican migration official moved down the line with a drug-sniffing dog on a leash, Palma had the presence of mind to remove a baby medicine dropper from her bag and prod Amber to take a dose of liquid Ibuprofen for her fever. She finished in time to hand over her ID to the official along with a flimsy piece of paper with Amber’s birth certificate.
“I’m nervous,” she admitted. “Nervous to see if they let me in or not. Nervous to see what happens next.”
At 8:30 the Mexican officials led the migrants up a ramp, and Palma and the others disappeared out of sight.
Pinheiro says that Palma could be paroled out of immigration custody in a matter of days or sent to one of three family detention facilities in the U.S. for up to 20 days while U.S. authorities investigate the credibility of her claim for asylum.
Palma faces a major fight to avoid being deported to El Salvador.
The toughest obstacle for Palma in the short term may be the “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer. Pinheiro says the government is dismissing credible fear claims at a higher rate under Trump. “The fact is we have seen more denials lately,” Pinheiro said. “I think it could be hard for her to prevail on that claim without an attorney. Even with an attorney it would be hard.”
Back at the esplanade, cell phones were out and snippets of conversation in Spanish could be overheard of migrants breaking the news that the wait would continue for at least another day.
The volunteer in charge of the registry was a migrant from Venezuela named Gabriel who himself was waiting to request asylum.
Gabriel was telling a clutch of disappointed migrants that the next day’s count would begin at 8 a.m.
Two Mexican women in their late 20s stood off to one side with their young children. One fled from the state of Guerrero after a drug cartel raised the extortion rate it was charging her husband’s small neighborhood bakery in Acapulco. The other’s husband was kidnapped by gunmen the previous Sunday during a high school graduation ceremony in her native Michoacan.
Drug-related violence and corruption are at an all-time high in Mexico. The Los Angeles Times reports that Mexico recorded more homicides than at any point in its modern history last year, and it is on track to break that record this year.
The women said they were scared to return home, scared to walk the streets of Tijuana where they knew no one, scared to request asylum in the U.S. for what could happen to them and their children. This last, however, was the least of their fears.
Drug cartels in Mexico can target the families of men who defy them. The women say even the most punitive detention policy in the U.S. is better than deadly retribution from a street gang or drug cartel.
“If they separate me from my daughters they’re going to be okay, the risk to them is worse back home,” said 26-year-old Yehimy Favela Ambriz, the mother from Michoacan.
The women have number 429. They say they’ll be back tomorrow.