Natash waited in line Saturday morning to present herself to U.S. immigration officials at the PedWest Port of Entry, believing that America is the “best place where human rights are respected.”
The 26-year-old had traveled by herself for four months from the central African nation of Cameroon. She journeyed by bus for $13,000 through South America, Central America and Mexico, Natash said in English.
After waiting in a Tijuana shelter for 12 days, her day to register for asylum had finally arrived.
Asked what she would tell immigration officials, the slight, weary-looking woman said: “I’m just begging for a place, so I can have my life where they won’t kill me. My life is in danger.”
President Trump has characterized prospective immigrants as invaders, infesters. But who are the people along the Mexican border seeking to legally enter the United States?
Natash was one of 20 refugees lined up at 8 a.m. “waiting their turn,” as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed.
And while media attention has been on the separation of mothers and children, Sessions recently announced stricter asylum restrictions that may keep the door shut to those claiming threats of gang violence — the justification of many waiting in line.
Yet they come to the border each day with hope.
About 8:30 a.m. Saturday, more than 50 people gathered around a member of Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration, who was carrying a notebook with a list of names.
Thirty people had been processed Friday, and it was announced that 20 would be allowed to file for asylum Saturday. Earlier in the week, 40 were accepted.
So asylum-seekers daily go to the border port of entry and check where they are on the list. Others sit along a wall, hoping for luck — if the number of people accepted is increased.
During her solo journey to the border, Natash, who has stayed in a Tijuana shelter for 12 days, said “Colombia was very difficult.” She had to seek shelter in the jungle for 10 days, eating dead birds and small animals.
Asked how she was faring, Natash said, “When I left my home, I was very strong, but now I have pains in my chest.” She wants to join her cousin, who already lives in the United States.
Amnesty International has reported that armed separatists in Cameroon’s Anglophone (English-speaking) regions have stabbed to death and shot military personnel, burned down schools and attacked teachers, while security forces have tortured people, fired on crowds and destroyed villages.
Trump wants to restrict immigration to keep out MS-13 gang members, yet many of the asylum-seekers Times of San Diego met were themselves victims of the criminal group and hope to seek refuge in the United States.
Others shared their stories through an interpreter — Hugo Castro of Border Angels. (Their last names are left out for sake of privacy and security.)
The Salvadorans: ‘If you don’t risk, you don’t win’
Leticia, 22, huddled on the ground with her 3-year-old son Daniel. MS-13 members killed her father three years ago, and she said she now faced renewed danger.
Gang members tried to force her to deliver drugs from place to place in La Paz, she said. When she refused, they told her they would kill her and her son.
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After fleeing El Salvador with her toddler, she hopes to seek safe haven in the United States. But she will have to wait a while longer as she is number 350 and the list was up to 260 on Saturday.
Leticia fears that she will be separated from her son in the United States, but had traveled this far to save his life and her own.
Sitting next to her on the ground were two neighbors who fled El Salvador so quickly they traveled without documentation. Yet they are hopeful for help.
Margarita, 27, said she and her friend Mercedes, 23, were nearly assaulted on their six-day trek by bus to Tijuana.
“We’re looking for a better life for us and our kids,” Margarita said in Spanish. “If you don’t risk, you don’t win.”
The Mexican family: Fleeing death, eluding snakes
A family staying with friends outside Tijuana came to the port of entry to check their place in line Saturday. They discussed the threat that they fled.
Traveling as a unit, the father said he was forced to flee his ranch in Michoacán after armed criminals came through the area “taking everything of value.”
The criminals also were taking young children, said the dad, who didn’t give his name. Their son, 17, was asleep and the men didn’t notice him, the mother said.
The mother said the gang members in Michoacán put a gun to the head of her 19-year-old daughter.
The father said he received death threats to sell his avocado and cattle ranch to pay the criminal group.
Instead, he said, he fled through a snake-infested area, drinking his own urine to stay alive.
The father said he reached other family members and drove south with them, in the beginning being chased by gang members. His son drove their truck though one town to avoid the father being detected.
If he had left the area by himself, the father said, he is convinced that his family would have been killed.
The family has many relatives in San Diego and Los Angeles, and the father said he would love to work on a cattle ranch in the United States while his children get an education.
And their chance will come soon, as there were only 23 people ahead of him on the list to apply for asylum.
And yet, despite his claims of threats to the lives of his family, they face stricter U.S. entry rules.
Last week, Attorney General Sessions said: “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
Sessions said in a Board of Immigration Appeals case: “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”
So the fates of those standing in line are not as predictable as they once were. (Their next steps include a “credible-fear” interview with an American asylum officer.)
Yet their hope hasn’t diminished.
“All of us at a certain point need help,” said Mercedes, who fled with her child from El Salvador because she said she comes from a country that is very dangerous.
Asked her chances of getting across the border, she said, “We’ve been told there are good people and also bad people” in the United States.
But Mercedes and Margarita said they are asking for God’s help.