Forty-four numbers need to be called before Sofia and her family finally have the chance to seek asylum in the United States. Camped out in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez with her husband and two kids, she anxiously waits for her number to be called. The family arrived in August, after they fled threats from a cartel in their hometown in Zacatecas in Central Mexico.
Officials told the family to wait in line behind thousands of asylum seekers – Cubans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Ugandans and more. Instead the family pitched a tent by the bridge and joined a separate list for Mexican asylum seekers, which sprung up in recent weeks.
“[Other migrants] say it’s better to wait here,” says Sofia, whose name has been changed because she fears retaliation for speaking out. “The other way could take years.”
Legally, migrants like Sofia and her family should be able to present themselves at a U.S. port of entry to request asylum. But since at least 2016, U.S. officials from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have only allowed a limited number of asylum seekers – although they won’t say just how many – to present themselves at a port of entry each day in a process known to immigration advocates as metering. (One official speaking to TIME said the number used to be around 70 per day for one port of entry in Juarez, but is now around 30.) At least one class action lawsuit has challenged metering as illegal for all asylum seekers, but for Mexican asylum seekers, metering is particularly dangerous.
“Under U.S. and international law, CBP can’t turn them away at a port of entry, especially a Mexican national because you are returning them to the same country from which they’re fleeing persecution,” says Shaw Drake, policy counsel at the ACLU Border Rights Center.
Mexicans like Sofia have grown frustrated with the delay. There are now an estimated 26,000 people of all nationalities on metering lists in Mexican border cities, including Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Nogales, and Tijuana. Some are staying in shelters that have grown more crowded as some 50,000 people have been turned back to await their court dates under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico. Others live in tents on the streets in cities where temperatures can reach the high 80s and 90s and murders and kidnappings are common. In Ciudad Juárez, these Mexican asylum seekers hope staying close to the bridge means they won’t miss their chance when CBP allows the next people to present themselves.