President Trump has repeatedly denounced the caravan and urged the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the border, not to let the migrants in, many of whom are seeking protections. But once they present themselves to CBP, the United States is required to consider asylum claims under international law, though there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted protection. Entering the United States through a port of entry, like many of these migrants are attempting to do, is not illegal. Many of them plan on turning themselves over to immigration officials and requesting protection. Under normal circumstances, processing of undocumented arrivals can take several days.
This isn’t a typical situation. CBP said San Ysidro did not have space earlier this week to process individuals, so while they’ve since begun processing individuals, it’s unclear how quickly they’ll be able to get through the dozens of migrants waiting to apply for asylum. In its statement, the agency said, “The number of inadmissible individuals we are able to process in a day varies based on the complexity of the cases, resources available, medical needs, translation requirements, holding/detention space, overall port volume, and enforcement actions.”
Facilities temporarily shutting down is not unprecedented: Centers have filled up in the past and, as a result, required the administration to put a pause on asylum applications. In December, the San Ysidro facility was in a similar position. “Facilities do fill up on occasion,” said former CBP Commissioner David Aguilar, who served under President George W. Bush. “In fact, I would say frequently and it all depends on the type of flow that the area is experiencing.”
In fiscal year 2018, more than 1,000 unaccompanied children and more than 1,300 families were apprehended in the San Diego sector, according to CBP figures. The region, like many others, has seen an uptick in unaccompanied children trying to cross the southern border. Overall, however, the number of apprehensions since October has been lower than it was during same time the previous year. What threatens to overwhelm the San Ysidro facility, according to Aguilar, is the sheer number of those who are seeking asylum.
With an overwhelmed immigration court system, asylum seekers may have to wait years before their hearing. According to a 2017 DHS report, more than 223,433 asylum cases were awaiting adjudication by USCIS by the end of 2016. And when the hearing does happen, what qualifies as a credible claim could change. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, is reviewing an asylum case that could have big implications for women fleeing domestic violence abroad.
The process starts when an individual encounters a CBP officer and, in this case, claims asylum. CBP will then take the person into custody and take down basic information and biometrics, conduct a screening interview, and alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That alone can take hours.