TIJUANA, Mexico – All conversations stopped when they saw the notebook.
Men, women and children — asylum-seekers from Central America, Mexico, Africa and beyond — parted to make way for its keeper.
The Mexican woman named Gaby waded through the crowd. She clutched the ledgerlike notebook, its spine reinforced with duct tape.
Nearly 2,000 foreigners seeking asylum in the United States have put their name in the notebook. Its origins are unclear, but it was created after U.S. border officials began to limit the number of asylum-seekers allowed to enter the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Getting in the notebook is paramount. For the desperate foreigners whose future hinges on it, the stakes are high.
The notebook became a way for the immigrants to keep track of who is next in line. The book’s guardian — always an asylum-seeker — scrawls each person’s name and country of origin in blue ink. The names of those who entered the port of entry to make their case for refuge are highlighted in yellow or pink.
On this day, the crowd clamored for information. How many people were ahead of them? How many people were let in the day before? How much longer would they have to wait?
A few people reached for the notebook as if it were a sacred totem. They stretched their necks to catch a glimpse. A man in the back yelled out in Spanish: “Quiet, please! This way everyone can have a chance to hear what she says.”
The notebook is supposed to be impartial. But there are doubts about that. Some immigrants believe that it is biased by prejudices, favoritism and sometimes corruption. Whoever holds it wields power. Their position is temporary. They are eager to cross too.
The notebook has become an added layer of unsanctioned bureaucracy that asylum-seekers encounter when they first arrive. U.S. border officials refuse to comment on it.
A month ago, Rafael Castillo Ochoa, a 44-year-old farmer, fled Michoacán with his wife and three children after drug cartel gunmen killed his brothers. “The notebook is the key to enter the United States,” he said. “It holds our future, a better future for our children.”
Once the crowd became silent, Gaby read out the names of the 30 people who were next on the list to give themselves up to U.S. border officials for a chance at asylum. Most were Central American mothers with small children.
“The list is literally just at the whim of one person who has no accountability. There is no oversight,” said Alex Mensing, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an immigrant advocacy organization. “This is just destined to create more tension and trauma.”
About two years ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection began to limit the number of asylum-seekers allowed to enter per day. As a result, the asylum-seekers have been left to camp out near the U.S.-Mexico border. With the help of Mexican officials, the asylum-seekers adopted the notebook.