TIJUANA, Mexico — They call it “La Lista” — The List. And the thousands of migrants who have arrived in northern Mexico in recent weeks with plans to apply for asylum in the United States have quickly learned its importance to their future.

If they had thought they could just show up at any border entry and make their case for American sanctuary, they soon learned otherwise.

Nearly all these migrants, traveling in caravans from Central America, have landed in Tijuana, where the main border entry into Southern California is. But even before their arrival, there was a severe bottleneck in asylum processing at the crossing, with some 3,000 people cramming the city’s migrant shelters and cheap hotels waiting for their turn to apply.

This long-running crush at the border gave rise to The List.

Migrants lining up Wednesday to get their names on The List at the border crossing in Tijuana.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

For the migrants seeking to apply for asylum in the United States at the San Ysidro border crossing, the first step is to get their names on The List, an informal numbering system that puts them in a virtual line for their appointment with the American immigration authorities.

It is a critical part of the American asylum application process, yet, strangely, its operation has nothing to do with the United States government. It is an entirely Mexican construct that begins and ends on the Mexican side of the border.

That said, it’s a direct result of American migration policy. For years, most migrants seeking asylum in the United States needed only to show up at a port of entry to begin the asylum process, and there was usually no delay.

But the Trump administration has used a system known as “metering,” which limits the number of asylum-seekers allowed to present their cases to the United States each day at certain ports of entry. The system was instituted by the Obama administration in 2016 to respond to the thousands of Haitian migrants who had ended up in Tijuana and the nearby city of Mexicali seeking to cross into the United States.

At the incredibly busy crossing in Tijuana, known as El Chaparral, the metering system caused severe backups and disorder.

So The List was born.

A migrant presenting his documents so his name can be registered.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

This is where things get even more unusual.

The List is not operated by the Mexican government, at least not officially. It is maintained by the asylum-seekers themselves — an extraordinary effort to impose order on what for many migrants is a bewildering and opaque bureaucratic system.

A continually rotating cast of migrants has assumed control of the process. As the managers have moved further up the very list they coordinate, eventually having their own day of reckoning with the American immigration authorities, other asylum-seekers have been selected to replace them.

The List is currently under the management of a group of eight migrants from four countries: Mexico, Honduras, Peru and Nicaragua. They were voted in by other migrants, they said, to replace another team that had been accused of taking bribes in return for advancing people on the list.

A group of migrants from Cameroon waited as names were announced. Asylum-seekers from around the world are in Tijuana.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

The List is defined by a series of rituals, which unfold shortly after daybreak every day on the plaza outside the border crossings at El Chaparral.

Migrants seeking to apply for American asylum line up to put their names on a register, a hard-bound ledger maintained by the managers of The List. In return each receives a number, handwritten on a scrap of paper, and is told to return in several weeks and start checking to see if that number is coming up. In the meantime, they remain in Tijuana, fending off boredom.

“As long as I’m not in Honduras, there’s no problem,” said Marlon Cerrato, 30, who put his name on The List one morning this week. He said he had fled political repression in Honduras, his home country. “I feel very relaxed waiting,” he said.

More than 5,000 people are on The List now, which translates into waits of two months or more. Since January, more than 11,600 people have put their names on The List.

Mexican migration officials assert that they have nothing to do with The List, that it’s a system managed by and for the migrants. Yet, officers from Mexico’s National Migration Institute are present as the process unfolds. At the end of the day, the volunteers hand over the ledgers to the officers for safekeeping.

A group of migrants biding their time last week on a bridge near the border in Tijuana.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

American border officials tell their Mexican counterparts how many people will be interviewed on a given day — in recent weeks, the daily capacity has ranged from about 40 to 100 — and the Mexican officials inform the volunteers managing The List.

Around 8 a.m., the volunteers organize the group of migrants who will be applying for asylum that day.

As expectant migrants gather on the plaza, many carrying packed bags or pulling roller suitcases, a volunteer reads out the numbers and names of the people who will be able to make their cases in the United States that day.

Those whose numbers are called are put on a minibus and driven by Mexican migration officials to a crossing into the United States. On a recent morning, the migrants were from countries including Mexico, Haiti, Cameroon, Russia, Honduras and El Salvador.

If someone is not present when his name is called, he is given 24 hours to resurface. Failing that, he is crossed off the List.

With waits recently stretching more than a month, many have given up, deciding instead to apply for asylum in Mexico or try to cross illegally into the United States.

Orignially published in NYT.

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