Irony is not the right word, but it’s what crosses my mind as Bianca, a seven-year old Honduran child dressed head-to-toe in varying shades of pink, throws herself joyfully into my arms. She and her family had been in the legal clinic two days before when I was assigned to playtime, and I watched Bianca organize games and bustle from one corner to the next chattering to everyone.
This morning at El Chaparral, their number had just been called. They line up to board the white van with the Mexican army seal that will take them to the other side, and we wave, calling Buena suerte! I glance at Jill, another volunteer, and see the pained look in her eyes, and I think she is thinking the same thing. Bianca doesn’t know what’s ahead of her; she only knows their number is finally up, the long wait over.
Bianca’s family arrived five months ago, some time after the Trump administration implemented the MPP or “Stay in Mexico” policy. At the same time the MPP began, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) began “metering” at the border, meaning they would only handle 10-40 cases of asylum seekers a day. Up until then when the caravans were arriving, border patrol agents processed hundreds per day. Since the arbitrary metering system was imposed last December, the migrants organized a waiting list. When I was there the number being issued was in the 3800s, the number written on a tiny scrap of paper wedged carefully with their identification papers. New arrivals line up at 7 am to receive their number, and add their name and the names of their family members to La Lista, a large notebook with thousands of names hand written by a volunteer. When that volunteer’s number comes up, the notebook is passed on to another “volunteer.”
Both La Lista and the metering system are illegal, say human rights workers, and Al Otro Lado is currently challenging both in court.
At some point the American CBP officer informs a Mexican official from Grupos Beta, the so-called humanitarian arm of the National Institute of Migration of Mexico (the Mexican version of CBP), how many they will accept on a given day. The number is passed along to the keepers of La Lista, and the numbers are called.
The last number from the day before has been posted on a fence, and as numbers are called, groups of people are corralled to a long sidewalk along a fence and away from the plaza to board a white van that will take them across the border. Sometimes the area is crowded as people gather to say good bye to families and friends.
Volunteers from Al Otro Lado circulate among both groups. They hand out warm socks to those about to cross and instruct them to wear their warmest layer of clothes close to their skin since they’ll be required to remove all but one layer. The holding cell where they wait, often for days, is referred to as la hielera or the “icebox” because temperatures are kept at 45 degrees. Volunteers also distribute permanent markers and urge them to write a reachable phone number on their children’s arms, as well as on their own since all their belongings will be taken away, and they may be separated from their children.
There’s something surreal about this as I struggle with my limited Spanish and use a lot of gestures. The words don’t seem to have the same urgency as the concept. I can’t imagine digesting the idea of writing a phone number on my child’s arm because of the very real possibility that I might lose him. But people accept both socks and markers and nod politely. Some of them show me how they’re dressed, and others hold up coats to shield each other as they rearrange their clothing. I have to detach myself from this tragedy, the scenes that will play out away from my view, but not out of my mind. And I remember the stories I heard at the clinic about the journey to get this far, and I realize that detachment for these migrants is synonymous with survival.
The lawyers use this time to do a “quick and dirty Know-Your-Rights session,” as Alison describes it, to small groups who may not know what to expect. We also circulate among the newly arrived, distributing maps directing them to the offices of Al Otro Lado where they can receive free legal advice, health care, and a meal.
Bianca probably doesn’t know about la hielera, “the icebox” that awaits her, and I think of her bubbly self curled up on a concrete floor without any blankets. According to a February 2018 report from the Human Rights Watch, these rooms are small and overcrowded and the frigid temperatures have wreaked havoc on those with poor health. They may spend days or weeks, sleeping on concrete floors. Bianca’s jubilance is also ironic because there’s a good chance she and her family will be back in Tijuana to await their asylum hearing, with nowhere to go.
Sometime between 8-8:30 am, La Lista is shut down. Those whose numbers weren’t called will return tomorrow. La Lista organizers and Grupos Beta officers remove the barriers that have kept the lines separated and fold up the tables. Some of the vendors around El Chaparral begin shutting down too. By 9 am, the busiest part of the day in El Chaparral is over.