Gessale walked to a crossing point along the US-Mexico border in February last year, hoping to file a US asylum claim citing political persecution he has suffered in his country of origin, Ethiopia.
But instead, Gessale, 36, who asked to remember his real name to protect his identity, was instructed to take the next number, 4545, and wait for a phone call. He later found out that he was subject to a practice called “counting,” which only allows a limited number of people to seek asylum at US ports each day.
Usually, migrants receive a call within a few weeks. But in March 2020, the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. The United States closed its southern border and stopped processing asylum claims.
This left Gessale and many others whose numbers have steadily risen in limbo, living in Mexican border towns plagued by violence and gang exploitation.
“I’ve been here ever since, through ups and downs,” Gessale told Al Jazeera. “It was mostly horrible.”
The Strauss Center, a University of Texas research group, says there are at least 16,250 asylum seekers (PDF) on nine count waiting lists. It is not known exactly how many continue to wait in Mexico. There is also confusion over what will happen to them online – or if they even have one – if and when the United States decides to reopen its borders.
US President Joe Biden took office in January, promising to overhaul the US immigration system and restore processing asylum applications at the US-Mexico border.
In his first day in office, he overturned a legacy from his predecessor Donald Trump called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a policy that required asylum seekers to wait for their court dates in the United States in the Mexico. Last month, the United States began letting in more 25,000 people with active MPP cases in the United States to pursue their claims there.
But the Biden administration has not said when it will fully resume processing asylum seekers or how it will treat those affected by the counting policy.
Immigration advocates say some wait in Mexico longer than those barred in the United States by the MPP.
Although U.S. authorities at each port of entry decide how many applicants will be screened each day, the management of these lists – depending on the port of entry – is controlled by asylum seekers, Mexican government agencies or non-governmental agencies.
Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher and policy analyst at Human Rights First, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, says these waiting lists are “a complete mess” and are plagued by “serious problems of corruption and of discrimination ”.
Most lists are now closed and the majority of adults who show up at US ports to seek asylum are denied. Those who attempt to cross the border are subject to “Title 42”, a health rule that Trump enacted last year expeditiously deport asylum seekers to Mexico or return to their country of origin.
“For asylum seekers who are waiting in Mexico now, there really is no way for them to seek protection in the United States,” Kizuka told Al Jazeera.
“Right now they’re really stuck in limbo,” Kizuka said.
No legal recourse
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) did not comment when asked about the status of migrants who had been counted, saying only people with cases of active MPPs are currently eligible for entry into the United States.
“The United States continues to strictly enforce existing immigration laws, as well as travel and border restrictions related to COVID-19,” CBP said in a written response to Al Jazeera.
“Anyone who attempts to cross the border illegally is putting themselves and their family at risk, especially during a global pandemic.”
The count was first introduced in 2016 under former President Barack Obama to deal with a wave of thousands of Haitians arriving at the Tijuana, Mexico border post. In 2018, under Trump, the United States authorized the use of meters at all entry points through a memorandum, citing a lack of capacity to process migrants. In mid-2019, wait lists peaked at 26,000.
Although exact statistics are not available, David Bier, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Libertarian Institute, says the nationalities of migrants on waiting lists largely reflect overall migration flows to the United States. . The majority are from the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but many are from Haiti, Cuba, as well as several African countries.
Once the United States begins to reopen its border with Mexico to non-essential travel, Bier adds, asylum procedures could be partially restored. The current travel ban is in effect until April 21.
But those who have been measured, he said, will likely have no way of claiming their place in the queue.
“Measured individuals do not exist in any legal sense in the immigration system in the United States,” Bier told Al Jazeera. “There is no regulation or underlying authority for metering or structure to deal with it.”
Full of dangers
Rights groups say the thousands of migrants living in Mexico have been exposed to dangerous living conditions and their presence has created a booming economy for organized criminals who have attacked them for extortion and ransom.
As of February 2019, according to data collected by Human Rights First, at least 1,544 acts of murder, rape, torture and kidnapping have been committed against asylum seekers in Mexico. The group believes that this is a considerable undercoverage.
Gessale says Mexican police extorted him three times. He was forced to give them 500 pesos ($ 25) each time, more than a week for food. He was also the target of racist slurs and insults.
“His economic situation is really dire and when you add the layers of racism that he encounters as a black migrant, it’s difficult,” said Robyn Barnard, Gessale’s lawyer who works for Human Rights First.
“He’s been on the verge of complete destitution for quite some time,” Barnard told Al Jazeera.
Gessale is now fluent in Spanish, but he does not have a work permit or health insurance in Mexico. To make ends meet, he parked and washed cars, but that job has since dried up. He follows the news closely and says he is encouraged when Biden won the election.
“I’m just looking for protection,” he said, citing the political persecution he suffered in Ethiopia, and now the dangers he faces in Mexico. “I was hoping that this [US] the government was going to make a difference.
“It’s very disheartening.”