TIJUANA, Mexico—If you go early in the morning to the plaza in front of El Chaparral, the border crossing where a person can walk from Mexico into the state of California, you’ll hear shouts like “2,578: El Salvador!” and “2,579: Guatemala!”—a number, followed by a place of origin. Every day, groups of families gather around, waiting anxiously underneath the trees at the back of the square. The numbers come from La Lista, The List: When a person’s number is called, it’s their turn to ask for asylum in the United States.
These days, the most common place names shouted are Michoacán or Guerrero, Mexican states where intense cartel violence has sent thousands fleeing northward—occasionally, they’ll call Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, countries where pervasive poverty, gangs, drugs and femicide have done the same. But every so often, the name of a different, more far-off country is called. In the span of just two weeks late last year, a list-keeper called out a number, in Spanish, followed by “Rusia!” They also called out numbers for people from Armenia, Ghana and Cameroon. Asylum-seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo crossed, as well as people from Eritrea. One day, the list-keeper called out “Turquía!” and a Turkish family rushed forward to claim their spot. The family was escorted by Mexican immigration officials over the pedestrian walkway into the United States, where they told Customs and Border Protection agents that they had, like everyone else, left their home country fleeing for their lives.
These people were the lucky ones. They had managed to persist in Tijuana, waiting until the day they finally heard their numbers called. Others haven’t been so fortunate. With The List’s queue regularly stretching longer than six months, many migrants fall victim to predatory robbery, kidnapping or murder before they can find refuge; others find the wait in one of the most dangerous cities in the world simply unendurable.
When Americans think of the people crossing the southern border, they might imagine Mexicans or Central Americans—or, even more generally, Latin Americans. But migration, both legal and illegal, from Mexico into the United States is incredibly international. In the course of 2018, Border Patrol agents apprehended nearly 9,000 Indians, 1,000 Chinese nationals, 250 Romanians, 153 Pakistanis, 159 Vietnamese people and dozens of citizens of over 100 other countries. Fifteen Albanians and seven Italians were stopped trying to cross the southern border, as were four people from Ireland, a single person from Japan, and three people each from Syria and Taiwan. Border Patrol even apprehended two North Koreans on the border in 2018 who were separately attempting to cross into various parts of Texas.
Now, one of the most direct effects of Trump’s border policy is that thousands of foreigners from all over the world have found themselves unexpectedly stuck on the southern border. Since 2017, President Donald Trump has turned the country’s immigration system on its head to deter Central American asylum-seekers. But policies meant to address Guatemalan or Honduran migrants have also affected Jewish people fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe; Syrians escaping civil war in their home country; and LGBTQ people fleeing Vladimir Putin’s homophobic regime in Russia. The effects of U.S. border policy are not confined to northern Mexico. They reverberate around the world.