TIJUANA, Mexico – A woman arrived just after sunrise at the Mexican entrance to the busiest border crossing into the U.S. and was quickly surrounded by nearly 100 migrants. She opened a tattered, hardcover notebook bound with silver duct tape and began shouting out numbers from a handwritten list.
Migrants came forward when their numbers were called, the signal that they could proceed to San Diego on the American side and ask for asylum in the United States. Most of them had been waiting more than a month in Tijuana for that moment to come.
"We are nervous but happy because — so many days waiting," said an overjoyed 22-year-old Maria Yuliza Soreque, whose turn came on Tuesday after she and her mother and 2-year-old daughter had bided their time in this city for five weeks. Soreque abandoned the family store in the Mexican state of Michoacan to escape violence and hoped to settle with a friend in Florida, where she has a restaurant job waiting.
It's a waiting game that plays out each day in Tijuana, giving a glimpse of what the thousands of Central American migrants in the giant caravan now moving through Mexico could face if they reach the U.S. border, probably weeks from now at the earliest.
While it is not clear exactly where or how the migrants intend to come across, they are certain to encounter an immigration system already strained by a surge of families arriving at the U.S. border in recent months.
At border crossings in Texas, asylum seekers camp at the midpoints of bridges connecting the two countries, waiting for days for U.S. border inspectors to say their turn has come. At Tijuana, the wait is more than a month, giving rise to an informal take-a-number system apparently run by volunteers who are themselves asylum seekers. The system spares migrants from having to wait in line or sleep out in the open.
New arrivals in Tijuana give their names to the keeper of the notebook and are issued numbers. Then they wait in the city's migrant shelters or other places in town, returning every morning to hear the day's numbers read off when it looks as if their turn is near.
Those seeking asylum in the U.S. undergo an initial interview on the American side in which they try to show they have a "credible fear" of harm in their home countries. Seventy-seven percent of migrants passed their credible-fear screenings between September 2017 and last June, the latest figures available.
After that, asylum seekers may be held in immigration jails until their cases are decided by an immigration judge, which can take as little as a month or two. Many other immigrants are released into the U.S., often with ankle-monitoring bracelets, while they await a ruling that can take years — a practice the Trump administration has condemned as "catch and release."
The odds of ultimate success for the caravan members appear slim.
Mexicans fared worst among the 10 countries that sent the largest numbers of asylum seekers from 2012 to 2017, with a denial rate of 88 percent, according to an analysis of public records by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse. El Salvadorans were close behind with a 79 percent denial rate, followed by Hondurans at 78 percent and Guatemalans at 75 percent.
On top of that, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled in June that fleeing gang or domestic violence is generally not considered grounds for asylum.
On Tuesday, Paula Cabrera, 22, had been in Tijuana for three weeks while she waited for the opportunity to apply for asylum along with her grandmother and 3-month-old daughter. She came every morning to check her status.
Cabrera, who abandoned the family ranch in Michoacan because of threats from a gang and hoped to settle with an uncle in Palo Alto, California, said the shelter where she was staying was overcrowded and she was anxious to move on.
The keeper of the notebook announced there was room for 19 people to claim asylum that morning. An hour later, after speaking with Mexican immigration officials in a white pickup truck nearby, she told the crowd that 40 more could go that afternoon.
Sila Noemi Felix, 45, took a bus from Guatemala with her 13-year-old son, a U.S. citizen who threatened to make the journey on his own if she didn't join him. A Tijuana couple let her stay in their home in exchange for paying a share of the utility bills.
After she had spent more than four weeks in Tijuana, her number was called. She hopes to join family in Rogers, Kansas, and eventually raise enough money to bring her two older sons, also U.S. citizens, from Guatemala.
"I want a better future for them," she said.