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What Does The New Asylum Rule Mean For Migrants Waiting To Enter The U.S. Legally?

Mallory Falk
The immigration crisis has affected day-to-day travel between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Many traffic lanes are closed, since Customs and Border Protection officers have been reassigned to other parts of the border. Cars can sit backed up for hours.

A crowd has gathered outside Centro de Atencion Integral a Migrantes in Ciudad Juarez. This is where migrants come to check their number on a long list of asylum seekers. 

It’s scorching here – over a hundred degrees. A woman is selling ice cold soda and water from a small cooler. People fan out on benches under big, shady trees, trying to avoid the sun.

Credit Mallory Falk / KERA News
A small whiteboard outside aid center Centro de Atencion Integral a Migrantes in Ciudad Juarez shows the last number called off the waiting list.

These migrants are just some of the thousands of asylum-seekers staying in Mexican border cities right now, waiting for their turn to legally cross the border and make their case in court.

Right now, U.S. immigration officers limit the number of asylum seekers allowed into ports of entry each day.

The Trump administration's new asylum rule has hit this group particularly hard. It says, to qualify for asylum, most migrants must have applied for protection in another country they traveled through before arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most days, a Mexican official calls several numbers off the waiting list here, and a lucky few get to cross the international bridge. Orlando, an asylum-seeker from Cuba, says he’s been here for three months. He only gave his first name because he worries speaking out could hurt his asylum case.

Orlando says he’s been playing by these rules, and it’s unfair that they’re changing now.

"People arrive here, they get in line, everything is very regulated," he says. "And now comes this, that you have to have political asylum in a third country."

But he says that’s not really an option.

"Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras. … What kind of asylum can they offer and how can people be safe there?" he said.

Immigrant advocates say those countries can be dangerous and their governments can’t protect these migrants.

But the Department of Homeland Security says many of their asylum claims are “meritless.” And officials say they are trying to discourage migrants from making the treacherous journey through Central America and Mexico.

But that’s little comfort to the migrants already gathered in Juarez.

Enrique Valenzuela is with the state government in Chihuahua, Mexico, and helps maintain the waiting list for asylum-seekers.

Credit Mallory Falk / KERA NEWS
Enrique Valenzuela, with the state government in Chihuahua, Mexico, helps maintain the waiting list for asylum-seekers.

"The information for them is, of course, unsettling," he said. "They have been waiting for two or three months … and they believe that maybe they shouldn't have been waiting."

Valenzuela says he’s not entirely sure how the new asylum rule will affect the migrants in Mexico. And he says it’s hard not to have any answers for them. He only heard about the rule change on Monday — it went into effect Tuesday.

"They have trusted the local authorities and this list system has gained a lot of credibility among the people who are willing to wait," Valenzuela said.

He says there are currently some 5,000 people on the waiting list, though he said he suspects some have returned home or tried to cross a different part of the border.

The irony, he says, is that this new rule doesn’t apply to migrants who already crossed illegally instead of waiting at a port of entry.

For Orlando, the Cuban asylum seeker waiting in Juarez, he says there’s a lot of uncertainty. But for now, he’s keeping his name on the waiting list and hoping something changes.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued to try and block the new asylum rule, saying the Trump administration overstepped its authority.

"Until it’s gone through Congress or a judge has ruled on it, it’s just a thing Trump has put into place," Orlando says.

He plans to wait in place until that all plays out.

Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for KERA as part of The Texas Newsroom, a regional news hub linking stations across the state. She is part of the national Report for America program, which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.