'Metering' At The Border
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
This past week, a photo of a migrant father and his daughter lying dead in the reeds at the edge of the Rio Grande River elicited shocked reactions around the world. The photo of the two - Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his almost 2-year-old daughter Valeria - became a symbol of the humanitarian crisis at the border and, for some, highlighted some of the restrictive immigration policies that have led to that crisis. One of those policies is a customs practice known as metering. And for more on that, NPR's James Fredrick joins us now. He's been reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
MCCAMMON: So, James, can you explain what metering is?
FREDRICK: So metering is the term that Customs and Border Protection uses for a process by which it limits the number of people who can request asylum at a port of entry at a U.S.-Mexico border crossing each day. As far as U.S. asylum law says, anyone who steps foot in the U.S. has the ability to request asylum. So what CBP is doing is they're stationing a guard at border crossings. Asylum-seekers that show up there, they tell them they have to turn around and go put their name on a waitlist, basically, back in Mexico and wait for their turn to request asylum. And these lists are getting very long. People are waiting weeks or sometimes months for their opportunity to request asylum. The latest figure we have is that 19,000 asylum-seekers are waiting on the Mexican side of the border for their chance to request asylum in the U.S.
MCCAMMON: And how long has Customs and Border Protection been using this practice of metering? Is there any evidence that this administration is using it more aggressively than previous administrations?
FREDRICK: The Trump administration is the first one that has used it consistently. They have been using this as policy since April 2018. That's when they officially implemented it as policy. So the Obama administration did use it at one point. Back in 2016, thousands of Haitians arrived, most of them are in Tijuana. And they wanted to request asylum in the U.S. They were overloaded at that port of entry, so there was metering implemented then. But after a bit of time, they dealt with that backlog and then got rid of it. So the Trump administration is the first one to use it extensively. And the frustration right now is that it's been in practice for more than a year. And there's a feeling that the administration has not done enough to try to get rid of these backlogs to put more people there so they can process asylum-seekers more quickly and get rid of the backlog of thousands waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border.
MCCAMMON: OK, so because of this metering policy, people are having to wait in Mexico to even file their asylum claims, sometimes for quite a long time. But, James, as you've reported, even once they've been able to do that, they often have to wait - what? - years - right? - for a judge to fully hear that claim. Can you kind of walk us through the asylum process?
FREDRICK: Exactly. So if you are waiting at one of these ports of entries on this waitlist to request asylum, eventually your turn is called, you go in and you start your asylum process. But what's happening to a lot of people now is the Trump administration has also put in place a policy called remain in Mexico or officially known as the migrant protection protocols. And that is sending thousands of asylum-seekers back into Mexico to wait, as you say, for at least months but likely years until they actually get to see a judge about their asylum case. Most of them do not have legal immigration status in Mexico, so that affects their ability to get jobs, to have any kind of permanent life in Mexico while they wait for this asylum claim. So it puts people in a really serious limbo.
MCCAMMON: There's been some debate about what might have led to the deaths of the Ramirez family, this father and his daughter. Do we actually know that they had previously tried to cross at an official border crossing?
FREDRICK: So I haven't been to Matamoros, the Mexican border city where the family was, but local reporting as well as some researchers who have been there say that the family had put their name on the waitlist there and had been waiting. The assumption right now is that they felt too desperate to wait in Mexico and decided to try to cross the river. And we actually know now that for every one person that waits at a port of entry on these wait lists is subject to metering, 13 are going across the border illegally and handing themselves in.
MCCAMMON: As you talk to people facing these difficult decisions, how much do they know about how difficult this journey will be, about these waiting lists? How prepared are they for what they're going to confront there?
FREDRICK: Overall, I would say people are fairly well-informed. The main thing that people are still worried about is - you know, families that are with children are still very worried about being separated from their children. So, you know, they tried to make sure they have documentation to prove that they are the parents. I think people know that it's very difficult right now. But almost every person I talked to, and I ask them that question, you know, is it worth it with all of the challenges and roadblocks they feel doing this, and all of them say this is better than going home. I cannot go home. People have some sort of hope, even if it's a sliver of a chance, that they might be able to get into the United States and feel safe and secure again.
MCCAMMON: That's NPR's James Fredrick. He's based in Mexico City.
Thanks so much.
FREDRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.