TIJUANA, Mexico — The United States will process only up to 100 asylum seekers each day. So the thousands of hopeful applicants here needed a way to organize who’d apply, and in what sequence. An informal group of migrants, with the help of Mexican migration authorities, emerged to keep order: a list of names scrawled in a notebook. Today, that group has 10 members and a clear set of rules. After I arrived here this month to cover the migrant caravan, I met Joel Antonio Coyado Martinez, 27, an asylum seeker from Nicaragua, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the list. This is his story, in his words.
I got to Tijuana on Nov. 9. The first time I heard about “the list” was in the Salvation Army shelter — a Honduran man told me it was the only way to legally enter the United States and ask for asylum. He said that I had to go down to the pedestrian entrance to the United States, called El Chaparral, and give my name to a Venezuelan holding a notebook. He would give me a number that would indicate my place on the waiting list to cross into the United States and ask for asylum. From then on, I would then have to go back each morning to check what number they would call.
At first I thought there was no way this process was valid — that this was the way to ask for asylum in the U.S. But then I saw that official U.S. immigration agents were coordinating with Grupos Beta [the humanitarian section of Mexican immigration services] each day, letting in only a certain number of people from the list, I saw that this really was the process. On Nov. 10, I went to get my number.
I kept hearing from other people that there were problems with the process — mostly people bribing their way to the front of the line. That’s not right. There were people waiting months. There were kids waiting. Pregnant women. Elderly people. Everyone should get their chance.
The group of asylum seekers decided that the list should have new leadership. The previous people handling it were eight Venezuelans. On Nov. 13, there was a public consultation with the migrants that came that morning to El Chaparral, the pedestrian border crossing into the United States where the process takes place, and new leadership for handling the list was voted in: As a group they picked me and nine other people, I think because I was the most vocal. We are all from different countries: two Hondurans, three Salvadoran, two Nicaraguans, one Venezuelan, one Peruvian and one Mexican. It was important to have the countries with the most asylum seekers represented. Grupos Beta gave us the go-ahead, and here we are. When I fled Nicaragua, I didn’t think I would be handling the list that is the door to the United States. But I’m smart, capable and responsible and think things should be done right and according to protocol.
The way it works is that there are 10 people assigned to every number. So right now, the last number that we gave out to someone waiting to apply was 1,657, meaning that person was the 16,570th person to sign up since the list’s inception, which, according to the previous managers, was in January 2018. The total number grew massively since the arrival of the caravan. Right now, the number of people waiting to apply for asylum is 5,030 — 2,560 are members of the caravan.
I get here to the border crossing at 6:30 a.m. every day, where people come to put their name on the list, and then we hand them a paper with their number. The 10 of us that manage the process have a meeting to collect ourselves, talk about what number we’re on and how the day might go. And then we all start doing our jobs — for example, I’m in charge of orienting people, organizing them and giving them information about how the list works or how long they’ll have to wait. I’m sort of the manager of operations. Someone else is in charge of the master book — we take down the names each day on sheets that Grupos Beta prints out, but then we copy it into one master book. Once that notebook is filled up, we start a new one, and Grupos Beta keeps it.
Two other people are in charge of making sure everything is orderly. They provide security for us when the crowds get big, and security for the book. Remember that the book is really important. It has the names of everyone who has entered and the people who need to get in.
If someone is not on the list, the U.S. won’t let them pass. Each morning, Grupos Beta coordinates with CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection], and then tells us how many people will get in that day. This happens around 8 or 9 each morning. Everyone gathers around at the plaza in front of the pedestrian crossing and I read out the numbers and names of people who will enter the U.S. to apply for asylum that day. The U.S. will take anywhere between 40 to 100 people in a day, one group in the morning, and another in the afternoon. If someone misses their turn, they have 24 hours to come and explain what happened — they are sick, they need another day to work something out, whatever. But if they don’t come after 24 hours, they lose their spot on the list.
Those people seeking asylum that day will be put in a van with Mexican immigration officials and driven through the vehicle crossing into the U.S.
Then at 12 p.m. we turn the list over to Grupos Beta for safekeeping until the next morning. Once we do that, we’re all done, and I go home — I share an apartment with five other migrants in southwestern Tijuana — and come back the next day. Start again. Until it’s my turn to be called.
On Nov. 17, about eight CBP officials came and talked to us, along with Mexican immigration officials and members of the transition team for AMLO [Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president-elect of Mexico]. They asked us what we needed, about how the process had been going. They gave us a tent and a table with chairs. Sometimes they give us bread and other snacks for while we work. The incoming government seems to be welcoming us.
We told CBP that we wanted them to start taking 15 numbers, or 150 people, a day. This would help us speed up the process. They acknowledged our request but haven’t changed anything yet. The wait time now with the caravan is anywhere from two months, could be up to three months. We are taking it in stride. This has all been so crazy — I just showed up from Nicaragua, and now I’m at the helm of this during what the world is seeing as a crisis.
I fled Nicaragua on Sept. 24. I had joined protests against President Daniel Ortega after students leading them asked for support. Demonstrations first started against an unfair change to the social security system, but they were met with lethal force by police and they soon grew into a movement calling for Ortega to get out. Police and masked pro-government paramilitaries killed and tortured protesters. Now many of us are being charged with terrorism.
I participated in the barricades in my city, and paramilitaries and members of the neighborhood watch group aligned with Ortega came looking for me. I left quickly: I said goodbye to my mom and my sons, and threw a change of clothes in a backpack. I made my way north, walking and getting rides, asking people along the way what my next stop should be. Once I got to Mexico City, on the TV at the house where I was staying, I heard about the caravan. They were staying at the Jesus Martinez stadium. I went to join them, because I felt alone. There, I met an American lawyer, who reviewed the facts of my story, and bought me a bus ticket to Tijuana.
My number is 1,190 — so there are just over 350 people in front of me. I should be leaving Tijuana in about five or six days at the current rate. Two days before my number gets called, we will have to meet to talk about who will take my spot. I won’t pick — the people will. I trust this process. I think it’s sustainable because it’s in coordination with the authorities.
We follow the news in the United States. We know about the divisions over immigration. We just want for the world to understand. On behalf of all migrants, I’m asking President Trump for a chance. For a chance to show him that we’re not who he thinks we are. We aren’t criminals. We’re professionals; we’re hard workers. We are just people who don’t want to be left behind.