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Migrants Say They Pay For Inclusion On ‘La Lista’ To Make Border Crossing

Migrants near Brownsville, Texas say that if they don’t bribe Mexican officials they’re stuck at the bottom of a list of people seeking refuge in the U.S. via international bridges.

Migrants being taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border fence and turning themselves in on Dec. 16, 2018.Photo Illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

At some international bridges on the southern border, the United States has ceded management of the first steps of this country’s asylum process to officials in Mexico. Immigration advocates and migrants say that the officials solicit large bribes from migrants attempting to lawfully cross into the U.S. and request refugee status. When poor migrants can’t pay, the Mexican officials banish them from the bridges and onto the streets. Those streets are in the Mexican city of Matamoros, which is in Tamaulipas state, an area so dangerous that the U.S. State Department warns people not to travel there. Migrants in Matamoros are at risk of extreme violence including being kidnapped.  

At the center of the crossing ordeal on the international bridges is what migrants call “La Lista,” a handwritten list of names of people seeking refuge in the U.S. On other border bridges in the Southwest, including the one linking Tijuana to California, migrants themselves reportedly maintain “La Lista.” Whenever Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are ready to admit people into a port of entry, they notify Mexican immigration officials on the other side of the bridge. The Mexican officials select names from La Lista and lead those people to CBP agents standing at the middle of the bridge.  On some bridges the list system appears primitive but fair. But migrants on the Brownsville, Texas, bridges say that the choice of individuals deemed eligible to cross favors people who have paid bribes. Those who haven’t paid get stuck at the bottom of La Lista. Or they are kicked off the bridge entirely.  

La Lista is a byproduct of a U.S. policy called “metering.”  Longstanding U.S. immigration law gives people from other countries the right to apply for asylum once they have stepped onto U.S. land. But in the spring of 2018, the Trump administration began routinely placing CBP agents at the midpoint of international bridges along the border in order to block the free passage of migrants to the U.S.

The U.S. says the basis of the metering policy is insufficient space in CBP and ICE holding and processing facilities to handle every person who wants to seek asylum.  CBP says it can allow only a few migrants per day, week, or month, to reach ports of entry. Metering—allowing just a few people at a time across the border while making others endure long waits in Mexico—deals with the problem, the U.S. says.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General visited some bridges in the summer of 2018 and observed that CBP and ICE holding facilities did often seem at capacity. But Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator for the nonprofit migrant shelter system Annunciation House, in El Paso, Texas, has argued otherwise. She submitted a declaration to a lawsuit against President Trump, homeland security, ICE, CBP, and other federal agencies and individuals for separating migrant families. It was brought by 17 states and the District of Columbia, and filed in June in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Levy’s declaration recounts a conversation she had last year with a CBP official at an El Paso bridge. The official said the holding area was full, but Levy declared that she “personally knew from my work at Annunciation House that this was simply not true.”  Levy also said an agent told her last year at a bridge that migrants seeking asylum were being blocked on bridges because “We have orders not to let anybody in. … It’s an order from [former Attorney General Jeff] Sessions.”

What’s certain is that metering traps asylum seekers in Mexican border cities, often camped near international bridges, leaving them vulnerable to violence and extortion. At the Brownsville & Matamoros (B&M) bridge, migrants are not allowed to cross unless they pay off a pair of Mexican men dressed in civilian clothing, according to migrants and to U.S. humanitarian and right workers. If migrants do not pay, they are chased into the streets or reported to Mexican immigration officials and sometimes deported to their home country. Michael Seifert, the border policy analyst for the ACLU of Texas, says some migrants are locked on the Mexico side of a nearby bridge, the Gateway, into a building whose name in Spanish means “The Dungeon.” Seifert says that he and other advocates have spoken to U.S. authorities about La Lista-related bribes and mistreatment happening just yards south of the border and that they have done nothing in response. The Appeal contacted CBP media relations to ask if the agency knows about the alleged bribery but did not receive a response, most likely because the office is not functioning because of the government shutdown.

Allegations Of Bribes To Mexican Officials To Cross International Bridges

Just after sunset on two successive evenings in early January, about two dozen migrants milled around an empty, unheated military barracks building in Mexico that fronts the B&M bridge. Temperatures descended to the 40s, and several people said they were sleeping on the floors. Many of the Cuban migrants were single people in their 20s and 30s who sported stylish clothing and hairstyles; some said they had been harassed by authorities at home for refusing to participate in activities of the Communist government.

A smaller and more humble-looking group included men, women, and children from Central America and Mexico. They said they were fleeing homicide and sexual violence in their countries. Among this group was a family with several children, including a toddler, who were huddled in a small tent outside the government building. There was also a woman who was eight months pregnant. Another woman had a 9-year-old daughter who she said was raped in Honduras, and they fled because she feared she would be killed if she reported her daughter’s assault to police.  

The family in the tent told The Appeal that the next morning they planned to walk to a convenience store a block away, where they would spend the day in order to avoid Mexican immigration officials at the bridge who were demanding the bribes: $300 per person, including children. Officials had told the family that if they did not pay, they would have to leave the bridge. If they left, the family said, they might get dropped from La Lista. The family explained that the officials always left at the end of the business day and came back the next morning at 9 a.m. To avoid the bribery demand, they were passing time at the convenience store, returning to the bridge only at night when they knew that the officials weren’t there.

The pregnant woman said that she, too, had been told by an immigration official that if she did not pay the bribe she would have to leave the bridge.

The woman with the daughter wept while she explained that she and her daughter had arrived at the bridge hours earlier and were immediately told by some well-dressed migrants to pay them $300 apiece to cross the bridge. The mother was penniless. She said well-dressed migrants on the bridge, mostly Cubans, were managing La Lista and appeared to be splitting bribes with the immigration officials.

Allegations that Mexican officials at the bridges take bribes from “metered” migrants are widespread. In 2017 a California-based, immigrant rights group, Al Otro Lado, sued the Department of Homeland Security and CBP, challenging metering’s legality. The lawsuit is pending in federal court in the Southern District of California. In one section, it discusses a the experiences of a migrant with the pseudonym Maria Doe.  

According to the lawsuit, Doe was fleeing with her children from cartel threats when they reached Nuevo Laredo, a small city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas that is connected by a bridge to Laredo, Texas. At middle of the bridge, CBP officials turned the family away and told them to wait in Mexico. Minutes later, two Mexican officials offered to help Doe cross if she paid them a bribe. Doe didn’t have the cash so she traveled to another Mexico border town, Reynosa, near McAllen, Texas. U.S. officials at the middle of the bridge again refused to let the family cross.

In a filing it made in November, the government argued that it has no obligation to put migrants like Maria Doe into asylum proceedings if they have not yet crossed to U.S. territory. But, of course, they cannot cross into U.S. territory if they are being blocked from doing so—by the U.S. government. The lawsuit is on hold because of the government shutdown.

Seifert of the ACLU of Texas says he has been hearing about the bribes for seven months, from migrants as well as from civil rights attorneys and humanitarian aid activists who feed, clothe, and advise asylum seekers marooned by metering on the Mexico side of the bridges.  

Recently, Seifert said he walked to the midpoint of the B&M bridge and tried to speak with a CBP supervisor about Mexican officials’ demands for the bribes, and Cuban migrants’ cooperation with the scheme. “You know what’s going on with these guys,” Seifert said he told the CBP agent. “What?” he recalls the agent asking. “These Cubans paid money to be here,” Seifert said. “They paid $300 to Mexican immigration.” “That’s not true,” he recalled the agent saying.

“We don’t go into Mexico. We don’t control what goes on there.”

A few days after The Appeal’s visit to the B&M, the family in the tent had left; their whereabouts were unknown. The pregnant woman was also gone. The woman with the 9-year-old daughter had moved to the Gateway bridge, where people kicked off of the B&M bridge were joining other migrants in an impromptu encampment exposed to the cold and rain.

At the Gateway, the mother and daughter got on another list, whose management is also plagued by bribery, according to the ACLU’s Seifert and to two African migrants who spoke to The Appeal. Both said they had been stuck in Matamoros for almost two months while their places on the list were constantly “sold” to Cubans. But U.S.-based humanitarian aid workers took an interest in the 9-year-old. They brought a giant piñata across the bridge one night to celebrate her 10th birthday, and they asked CBP officials to prioritize her passage. After two weeks at the bridge encampment, the child and her mother’s names were called. They have since joined family near Houston.

This past weekend Mexican authorities demolished the Gateway encampment and ordered residents not to sleep there anymore. Many of the evicted migrants ended up on the streets, including two young men who said they had been kidnapped from the same area in December, and had their teeth knocked loose while the kidnappers photographed them and demanded ransom. (A humanitarian aid worker verified their story.) The victims managed to escape after four days of captivity, and they were back on the same dangerous streets.

On the day that the encampment was shut down, this reporter walked across the Gateway to the port of entry in Brownsville and asked to speak with a supervisor. A CBP agent who provided only his last name, Canada, responded. When asked if he was aware that migrants just yards away were complaining that Mexican immigration agents demand $300 bribes from migrants to access the U.S. asylum process, and that they are throwing migrants who can’t pay into the street, Canada replied, “We don’t go into Mexico. We don’t control what goes on there.”

Meanwhile, across town at the B&M bridge, well-dressed migrants remained and were still managing La Lista, while Mexican immigration officials stood by.