El Chaparral

Crossing into Tijuana is simple enough if you’re American. You fill out the customs form and show your passport. Any bags go through the x-ray machine but there’s no frisking or going through metal detectors. Airports are much more difficult; then again, I guess no one wants to smuggle anything INTO Mexico.

The long passage to the US cuts back and forth, and at times winds downward (or upward depending which way you are going) with sharply curved switchbacks. The first day crossing back to the States side I climbed a few steps into a dark corridor reeking of urine and hurried down the narrow passage, looking over my shoulder only to descend a short flight of steps to find myself back in the sunny plaza where I had begun. Returning once again, a smiling man called out to me: “Muchacha! It’s a shortcut!” and he gestured to a short flight of stairs behind the long gangway I was prepared to traverse.

But entering, you pass through the turnstyle onto a wide square, El Chaparral. In Spanish the term refers to a dense impenetrable thicket of shrubs or dwarf trees, which makes it a fitting name for the border crossing. The plaza is full of newly arrived migrants with suitcases and backpacks; children in their pajamas sit wrapped in blankets in the arms of their mothers or an abuelita. A number of single men loiter, leaning against fences or resting with their backs up against the 10-foot-tall letters that spell out Tijuana. The cheerful, whimisical colored letters loom ironically above small groups huddled around luggage or clutching small children.

To them, it may as well be an impenetrable thicket, the barrier that keeps them from their final destination after traversing miles crossing several borders to this, their final border. Some of them may be crossing today; if it’s early in the morning they’ve come to get their number, those who have just arrived. Others may be passing time, hanging about just in case their number is called.

The Lista is an unusual result of Trump era immigration policies. Until 2018, asylum seekers need only approach a custom and border patrol agent (CBP) and state that they were seeking asylum. Generally, you were taken into custody, placed in a holding cell, and within a few days given a “credible fear” interview to determine whether or not you qualified for further proceedings. If so, more likely than not you would be released with a hearing date and sometimes an ankle bracelet and allowed to stay with friends or relatives.

In February 2019, Trump initiated the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), more popularly known as “Stay in Mexico” policy. No longer were you released on your own cognition (statistics from a Syracuse University think tank show that 99 percent of people released on their own cognition show up for their asylum hearings). Now you are sent back across the echoing overpass and down the winding cattle ramps back into Tijuana with orders to return the date of your hearing.

Another change made by Trump was that no longer could you present yourself to a Border agent and request asylum if you crossed between entry points. By law you must be in America to ask for asylum; you cannot ask from your home country or any other country. It does not matter whether you are there legally or illegally as long as you present yourself to the appropriate authorities.

When Trump instigated the Zero Tolerance Policies, those who came in illegally were stopped, arrested and their children were taken away since they technically broke the law by entering the country illegally. While entry-related offenses are civil violations, Trump tripled the number of prosecutions in one year, and in many cases parents were deported without their children. The courts later ruled against separating families.

El Chaparral is bustling in the early morning. Tamale vendors line the square, taxi drivers chase after daytripping American tourists, and migrant families huddle together or begin lining up to put their names on La Lista for a chance to cross over legally and ask for asylum.