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A young man (right ) rested his head on the barrier while waiting for their number to be called so they could be taken to the United States for their interviews on Friday, Sept.13, 2019 at the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana.
A young man (right ) rested his head on the barrier while waiting for their number to be called so they could be taken to the United States for their interviews on Friday, Sept.13, 2019 at the El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana. (John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It took William, a 39-year-old asylum seeker, four months to get from Cameroon to Tijuana.

The journey took him through Nigeria, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala before he finally reached the U.S.-Mexico border.

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He arrived in June — one month before the official cutoff date of a new policy that disqualifies any asylum seeker who passed through another country on the way to the southern border from asylum if that person did not apply in another country first.

But even though William arrived to the border before that July 16 date, he hasn't actually entered the United States. That's because he spent all summer waiting for his number to be called out in a notoriously slow-moving waitlist.

"I have been following the rules," he said. "I don't want to enter illegally. That's why I've been here three months."

There are more than 11,000 migrants in that asylum waitlist. Many of them, like William, have been waiting to enter the United States well before the Trump administration introduced the policy that makes many of them now ineligible for asylum.

That policy was first introduced in July 16. But a federal judge in San Francisco blocked it from taking effect because of a lawsuit over its legality. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided that the policy could continue to be enforced while the lower court case continues.

That decision means that non-Mexican migrants who enter the U.S. after July 16 are ineligible for asylum if they did not apply for asylum in another country first.

Tijuana's asylum waitlist is not an official government document. It's an informal document started by migrants that grew in size after the Central American migrant caravan arrived to the city last year.

Every morning immigration officials on both sides of the border use that list to find out who will be admitted into the United States. U.S. officials tell their Mexican counterparts how many migrants they are able to take and Mexican immigration officials tell migrants to read a certain number of names from the list.

The U.S. does not accept a set number of people from the list every day. Sometimes they don't accept any at all.

Because that list is unofficial, having their name on that list before July 16 may not establish asylum eligibility under the new policy.

"A lot of people tried to enter the United States before July 16 but were prevented from doing so," said immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs.

Volunteers called the names of roughly a dozen asylum seekers who have been waiting for their number to be called at the El Chaparral port of entry so they could be taken to the U.S. for their interviews on Friday, September 13, 2019 in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.
Volunteers called the names of roughly a dozen asylum seekers who have been waiting for their number to be called at the El Chaparral port of entry so they could be taken to the U.S. for their interviews on Friday, September 13, 2019 in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Friday morning in Tijuana, some migrants were not aware of the new rule.

"They want me to ask for asylum here too?" asked a Haitian migrant named Michael. "That's horrible."

Around 8:30 a.m., a woman called out less than a dozen names from the list.

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"Sorry, they are only taking a few people," she said. "That is it for today."

After the announcement, Michael and dozens of other frustrated migrants shouted, "abuse," over the lack of names being called.

That confusion and frustration carried over from Thursday, when local officials said they had not been given guidance on how to implement the new policy.

However, on Friday, officials from the Department of Homeland Security added some details on how the new policy will work.

Officials said migrants who enter the U.S. after July 16 will still be screened by U.S. Customs and Immigration Services if they express fear of returning to their country of origin. Migrants who are deemed ineligible by immigration officers may appeal their decision to an immigration judge.

Additionally, officials said that asylum seekers who have been returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program are still eligible for asylum as long as they first entered the United States before July 16.

Although they may no longer be eligible for asylum, migrants who passed through other countries before reaching the southern border will still be eligible for other forms of protection like "Withholding of Removal" or protection under the Convention Against Torture.

However, both of those forms of relief are more difficult to obtain and offer fewer protections than asylum.

Members of the union that represent USCIS employees, including asylum officers, said members were deeply conflicted by the restrictions the new rule requires them to apply to asylum seekers who arrive at the southern border.

AFGE National CIS Council 119 spokesman Michael Knowles said many union members said they are under tremendous stress and are losing sleep over the new policy. Some are seeking professional counseling and others are leaving the jobs altogether because they feel that they are unable to carry out the new rules with a clear conscience.

"The Administration is directing us to do something that is completely contrary to the laws and policies under which we have operated for many years," he said. "A foundational principle of asylum officer training is that we must be vigilant in ensuring that we do not return bona fide refugees to countries or territories where their lives or freedom might be in jeopardy. That's called refoulement, which is strictly prohibited by U.S. and international law."

Migrants from Haiti and Cameroon said they did not feel safe asking for asylum in Mexico. Both William and Michael said they had been robbed multiple times while traveling through the country.

Mexican nationals waiting to enter the United States agreed that their home is not in a position to provide safety to asylum seekers.

"If this were a safe place I wouldn't be trying to leave," said Pablo Mendoza, 36.

Mendoza lives in a small town in the state of Michaocan. He said members of a local cartel extorted him because he owned a business. When he refused to pay, they beat him up and threatened to kill him.

After the beating, Mendoza said he refused to go to a hospital for fear that a doctor would report the incident and tell the police, which in turn would tell the cartel and put him in more danger.

"I don't know how dangerous Honduras or El Salvador are, but I know that this isn't the best place to live," he said.

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