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June 29, 2020

The Waitlist: Refugees at the US border

10 MINS
Five asylum seekers from Haiti, Honduras and Cameroon tell their stories of being turned away at the US-Mexico border.

This was originally published in March 2019 as a selection of questions and answers at a live Q&A event with “The Waitlist” filmmakers Natasha Pizzey-Siegert and James Fredrick. It was updated in March 2024 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Since at least 2016, and through both the Trump and Biden administrations, the US has turned away asylum seekers at borders and limited how many are allowed in each day. Thousands of refugees wait at the border for weeks or months before the US allows them in to request asylum. At this waitlist location in Tijuana, Mexico, asylum seekers enroll on a waitlist run by refugees and wait to be processed by American immigration agents. This story is told by five refugees from Cameroon, Haiti and Honduras. They asked not to appear on camera for fear of persecution..

Q: What stories or people struck you the most of those who you met that were seeking asylum in the United States?

Natasha Pizzey-Siegert: It was really striking to us how international the situation is in Tijuana. The majority of people are from Central America, but we were really struck by the journeys people from all around the world undertook to reach the United States. Many people spent months or even years just trying to figure out how to get to the border.

James Fredrick: There’s one man from Haiti, who you hear speak in the story describing his wife dying on the journey. He was initially hesitant about speaking with us because he told us he felt ashamed. He was in this situation where he felt like he had no dignity and that there was this entire process of dehumanization facing him. He was made to feel ashamed that he did not have a right to request asylum, which, of course, he does. Him not wanting his family to see him in that situation was just very relatable.

Q: Can you tell us more about how the list operates?

James: At every major port of entry between the US and Mexico, there is some sort of waitlist like this in operation. This is just how one works. The waitlist shown in the film is organized by the asylum seekers themselves. They have this informal system but there are no procedures for how it should work. In other border cities, these waitlists exist in very different forms. One is managed by a state government agency via a private Facebook group. There is another at a port of entry in Matamoros that is run by a single Mexican immigration agent! There are some cases in which reporting suggests it is run by organized crime. The most important thing to know is that these waitlists are a result of US Customs and Border Patrol’s policy of metering at ports of entry and both the Mexican government and the US government saying it is not their responsibility to maintain.

Q: Do you think the new US immigration policies aimed at deterring migrants from coming to the US will be successful?

James: The non-tariff agreements between the US and Mexico will increase Mexico’s enforcement capacity. Mexico is putting 15,000 Mexican troops on the US-Mexico border, supposedly to stop people from leaving Mexican territories. This is, at best, strange and, at worst, scandalous.

Natasha: The idea behind so many of these radical policies is that it is hard for migrants and advocacy and humanitarian groups to respond. They are designed to act as a deterrent. They usually don’t, however, because of the need for people to flee to safety and that optimism and desperate hope that you’ll be the one to make it through overpowers all of these deterrence policies.

Q: Why do you think people decide to take the route to the United States through Tijuana?

James: There is no clear guide for people making this journey. Information about where to go and the migration process is like a gigantic game of telephone. If you heard that someone’s cousin’s brother went through Tijuana, that might be it. Although violence is high in Tijuana right now, it is still much safer than many other cities on the US-Mexico border.

Q: What differences do you see between Tijuana when you were there filming for “The Waitlist,” and when you were there at the arrival of the caravan?

Natasha: The arrival of the migrant caravan in Tijuana was very chaotic. You suddenly had thousands of people overwhelming this border city and its shelters. There was, however, some small sense of order in that. You had thousands of people all trying to figure this out together, and you could easily find most of them. Normally in Tijuana, it is much more dispersed. It’s not just Central Americans dominating the area, it is people from all over the world who often can’t communicate with each other.

James: I think it is also a question of visibility. Migrants and asylum seekers are very visible in a caravan, which makes it very easy to cover as news.

We talk a lot about broken people when we’re in Tijuana. There are people in the streets, tent cities, overwhelmed shelters, people begging. It feels so overwhelming and just crushing.

Natasha Pizzey-Siegert, “The Waitlist” filmmaker

Q: Are cities like Tijuana still able to support Mexican deportees?

James: These cities have supported Mexican deportees and provided shelters and services to help people get back on their feet for years. Now that there are so many children and families coming through, they have shifted many spaces, originally intended for deportees, to better support families and children. So the demand is overwhelming and can’t cater fully to people going to the US or being returned.

Natasha: We talk a lot about broken people when we’re in Tijuana. There are people in the streets, tent cities, overwhelmed shelters, people begging. It feels so overwhelming and just crushing.

Q: Are there any pressing needs on the ground that are not being widely discussed?

Natasha: Something that is very present but rarely gets discussed are the mental health needs of this population. There is an unimaginable amount of trauma that these people have been through, from being pushed from their homes and going on this long journey. They are trying to make very complicated life-or-death decisions for themselves and their family while dealing with horrific trauma and often PTSD. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders are sending psychologists to provide mental health first aid, but the need is absolutely massive.

Q: Do you hear of an increasing amount of people choosing to settle in Mexico instead?

James: Mexico does not have a history of being a country that has received migrants; it has more often been one to export migrants. Initially, the estimate was that Mexico was going to have 60,000 people requesting asylum in the country this year. This estimate is now closer to 80,000. Currently Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, has a budget of roughly $1.2 million to process the anticipated 60,000 asylum applications! I’ve met many people who are willing to stay in Mexico, but I don’t see a way, realistically, for this many people to start a new life in Mexico without a significant increase in infrastructure for receiving refugees.

Q: These stories that we’re seeing from the border are so heartbreaking. What’s a story or experience that gives you hope?

Natasha: Honestly, it can feel very grim. But we are really encouraged by the amount of advocacy and attention being focused on the border and the problems facing refugees in the region. There’s no simple solution, a lot of things need to be addressed for this situation to improve, but all these kinds of conversations are a vital part of that process.

James: We’re now seeing people in Congress and Democratic presidential candidates engaging with this and discussing some of these issues as a priority.

Natasha: For now, we’re happy to know that at least some of the people we were able to stay in touch with from the film are now in the US and are trying to build a life there while they go through their long case for asylum.

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