1 of 3 | A border patrol agent stands Monday near a border fence that divides the United States and Mexico at Border Field State Park in San Diego, Calif. Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI | License Photo
MEXICO CITY, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Mexican border cities have been forced to shelter up to thousands of asylum seekers because Customs and Border Protection sentries are standing on international bridges to block them from stepping onto United States soil, a new report says.
But instead of waiting at ports of entry for days or weeks at a time, frustrated asylum seekers are opting to cross the border between ports of entry.
"There is currently no processing capacity," is the standard response of CBP sentries controlling access to ports of entry, according to Stephanie Leutert, the report's lead author who directs the Mexico Security Initiative at the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
The "metering" practice, as CBP calls it, began in Southern California in 2016 and rolled out at every pedestrian crossing along the 2,000-mile border in May. In Tijuana, an informal wait list began so asylum seekers could leave the bridge area to wait in shelters. The wait lists soon spread up and down Mexico's border cities, too -- run by Mexican authorities, non-profit organizations or even the asylum seekers themselves, the report found.
Leutert's report offers the first field-based study of how the officers, working in pairs of two or more, demand travelers show valid travel documents authorizing U.S. entry. The report said asylum seekers rarely have these documents, so CBP turns them back and demands they wait in Mexico.
The report is also the first attempt to study responses on the Mexican side of the border to CBP's bridge sentries.
"These shifts in CBP procedures have left lines of asylum seekers waiting in almost every major Mexican border city," the report states in the executive summary. By late November, there were more than 7,000 migrants waiting in Tijuana, thousands of whom had numbers on a months-long wait list, hoping eventually to be called for processing by CBP.
Unlawfully entering the United States means asylum seekers can hand themselves into Border Patrol officers and avoid staying in shelters in dangerous Mexican border cities as they wait for their number to be called.
Asylum seekers blocked at bridges, wait-listed in Mexico
When CBP forces asylum seekers to wait at ports of entry, Leutert's report shows they decide to cross the border unlawfully instead of ride out the informal wait list.
Under federal law, an asylum seeker has to be in the United States to request political asylum, irrespective of whether they present themselves to CBP officers or choose to cross unlawfully between bridges, only to be detained by Border Patrol.
Leutert told UPI the impetus for the report predated this fall's Central American migrant caravan. It came from experiences of migrants she heard about in Tijuana/San Diego and Ciudad Juárez/El Paso who were blocked at bridges and who put their names on wait lists held on the Mexican side.
Two months ago, Leutert heard of an asylum-seeking woman from Cameroon who faced a six-week wait in Tijuana after she was blocked on the bridge.
"We thought she might have to wait a week or so, but not as long as six weeks," Leutert said.
Leutert also knew a Guatemalan family of asylum seekers, a father and two daughters -- the youngest of whom suffered a serious lung condition. When the family arrived at El Paso's port of entry, Leutert told UPI they went to the bridge and were rejected.
"They went back and forth between the Paso del Norte and the Zaragoza bridges six times in three days," Leutert said.
"The case was symbolic because the little girl was sick and running out of medicine. It was really cold. She was getting this cough. The father had a fever. Everybody was getting sick. So the ACLU was involved because of the condition of the little girl."
Repeated rejections by CBP in El Paso ultimately forced the father to make the decision to cross in between ports of entry. The father "paid a smuggler to take them by raft to the U.S. side where he dropped them, waiting until he saw Border Patrol come and pick them up", Leutert said.
Graphs for El Paso show CBP sentries provoke unlawful border crossing
The Strauss Center study confirms an earlier finding in a September report by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General that says CBP sentries incentivize unlawful border crossing. The OIG stated its inspectors saw "evidence that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally."
Graphs Leutert prepared for the report using CBP data for El Paso show unlawful border crossing surged at the moment the Trump administration began to implement bridge sentries. At El Paso, the number of "family units" choosing to cross unlawfully spiked in May when sentries were posted on the bridge.
For unaccompanied minors in El Paso, a graph shows the relationship between the presence of CBP's bridge sentries and unlawful border crossing between ports of entry.
"I wanted to know how many people were getting to the ports of entry, getting rejected, losing hope when they couldn't get through and then paying someone to take them across to the other side and waiting there to be picked up by Border Patrol," Leutert said.
"That's when I began to take the data about family units and unaccompanied minors to create the graphs. The unlawful crossing effects of metering map out pretty intensely for El Paso," Leutert said.
CBP only estimates asylum processing capacity
In May, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Fox News about the bridge sentries turning asylum seekers back to Mexico.
"We are metering," Nielsen said. "Which means that if we don't have the resources to let them in on a particular day, they are going to have to come back. So they are going to have to wait their turn and we will process them as we can. But that's the way that the law works."
Civil society organizations disagree with Nielsen about the legality "metering" or "turnbacks." In October, the Southern Poverty Law Center joined the American Immigration Council, the Center for Constitutional Rights and law firm Latham and Watkins to file a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Southern California, challenging CBP's practice of stationing sentries on the bridges. The court has yet to rule.
"Processing capacities are all estimates," Leutert said. "We have no idea how many asylum seekers a port of entry can process."
"The most straightforward reason why we don't know about asylum processing capacity is that CBP refuses to release that information on a border-wide scale."
"In San Diego, CBP took press on a tour of the ports of entry saying they had capacity to process 300 per day. But that's not something CBP is replicating across the border. We are just taking the estimates CBP provides. There is no methodology. No explanation. CBP does say it is difficult for them to have a number because of the space factors, demographics of asylum seekers, whether they need medical attention or translation services, if there is something else happening at the port of entry that takes the attention of CBP personnel," Leutert said.
In April, the month before CBP initiated metering in El Paso, the report found U.S. authorities processed 2,315 family units and unaccompanied children for asylum processing at the port of entry -- or 77 people per day.
"At this time CBP was saying they had no processing capacity," Leutert said.
Then "metering" began in El Paso and asylum processing numbers dropped precipitously, the Strauss Center report found. In June, CBP processed only 26 asylum seekers per day at El Paso's ports of entry.