Life on the U.S. asylum waitlist: a long and dangerous wait

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Gloria Salinas, 33, her husband Luis Martínez, 53, and their children Kelly, 16, Jonathan, 12, Paul, 7, and Madison, 1, fled gang violence in El Salvador. Paul, who was born when Salinas was an undocumented worker in the United States, is a U.S. citizen.


Samrwt Tesfey walked from Asmara, Eritrea to Khartoum, Sudan with her daughter Malhri before flying to Dubai and eventually traveling to Mexico. In April 2019, she arrived in Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas. Vladimir Patrushev, his wife Mila, and their son Matthew came to Reynosa from Kyiv, Ukraine and, like the Tesfey family, traveled across continents hoping to request asylum. They are among hundreds of migrants from all over the world who arrive in this border city hoping it will be a gateway to new lives in the United States.

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Samrwt Tesfey, 23, and her daughter Malhri, 2, from Eritrea, woke up each morning covered in sweat in the bottom bunk of a dormitory room that had no air conditioning.

To manage the thousands of asylum seekers in Reynosa, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Mexican immigration officials, working in conjunction with Pastor Héctor Silva, director of the “Path of Life” (“Senda de Vida”) migrant shelter, had launched an asylum waitlist a month prior, a local solution to respond to changes in the asylum-seeking process. Migrants have the right to request asylum at a port of entry to the U.S., however, during the past year CBP has begun near constant metering of asylum seekers, limiting the number of migrants allowed to cross the border.

Each morning when the Tesfey, Patrushev and other families exited their dorm rooms at the Path of Life Shelter they entered a sea of red, blue, yellow and green tents inhabited by families from Venezuela, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other places. The shelter has a maximum capacity of 260 but held 470 people. Given the overcrowding, migrants in Reynosa face the choice of paying for a hotel or living in the streets of an increasingly violent city. They lined up in front of shared bathrooms to hold their children under cold water in the shower, hoping to prevent heat stroke in a place where midday temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees. After breakfast, children played in the shade with scattered toys. Girls, talking among themselves asked, “I wonder how you say Hello Kitty in Spanish?” Boys folded slips of orange and yellow paper into origami cranes.

There is no official data on the use of metering, but migrants in Reynosa reported that days or weeks would pass without CBP allowing anyone on the list to request asylum. Just shy of two months of writing their names on the waitlist, the Tesfey and Patrushev families heard their numbers called on the same day. The gates of the shelter swung open and a Mexican immigration official drove a van in to pick up those headed to the promised land. The migrants left behind at the shelter stood still, their eyes watching the van as if they were watching God, until the gates closed.

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Cynthia Elizabeth López Pacheco, 22, her boyfriend Jairo Javier Reyes Estevez, 32, and their children Javier, 4, Hilda Cristal, 2, and Snider, eight months old, are from Honduras. Fed up with threats of sexual violence from gangs in her neighborhood in Honduras, Cynthia migrated alone when her son Snider was two months old, riding the train known as “The Beast” through Mexico. Jairo migrated two months later with the remaining children.


Photographer John Stanmeyer spent eight days in Reynosa, Mexico chronicling the experiences of international asylum seekers waiting for their numbers to be called.