People Seeking Asylum Confined Outside in Appalling Conditions: Findings and Recommendations

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Since mid-September 2023, thousands of migrants and people seeking asylum have been forced to wait in what local providers refer to as open-air detention sites (OADS) after entering the United States from Tijuana to the San Diego region. OADS are desolate areas on US soil at or near the US-Mexico border where individuals and families are held outside, exposed to the elements, sitting or lying in the dirt or on cardboard. Some OADS are between border walls, where people cannot get out, or are in the remote desert town of Jacumba. Through the slats of the border walls or in desert terrain, nonprofit organizations and volunteers provide water, meals, snacks, first aid, diapers, clothing, and blankets.

Migrants and people seeking asylum are held in OADS for anywhere from 10 minutes to a week until Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehends and transports them to Border Patrol detention facilities or the San Ysidro Port of Entry to determine their immigration processing pathway. CBP controls access to the area, keeps track of migrants’ length of stay in OADS, and drops migrants off at OADS. Despite CBP’s comprehensive control of the area, CBP fails to provide adequate food, water, shelter, sanitation, and basic necessities for migrants held there, in violation of its own standards for treatment of migrants in custody.

In addition, since September 13, 2023, CBP has dropped off more than 20,000 individuals from its custody at San Diego transit stations, where nonprofit organizations and volunteers have set up makeshift operations to help meet basic needs of people seeking asylum and support their onward travel. Since September 20, 2023, Al Otro Lado has documented more than 700 instances where some family members are separated from others, typically occurring either at the OADS or when a family member is hospitalized.

In October 2023, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) Migrant Rights and Justice program visited San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, to assess the conditions that people seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border face.(1)

We visited a migrant shelter and an encampment located between two border walls where migrants await apprehension, and volunteered to aid migrants and people seeking asylum following their release from immigration custody. We also met with local officials, nonprofit organization partners, and individuals seeking asylum. Based on what we learned, WRC provides the following assessments and recommendations.(2)

Summary Recommendations

  1. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must process migrants, including people seeking asylum, in a humane and timely manner and eliminate its use of open-air detention sites to detain people prior to their processing in holding facilities.

  2. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should work with all levels of government to develop a comprehensive, sustainable response that effectively coordinates the processing and release of migrants and people seeking asylum in the San Diego region.

  3. Congress must significantly increase investment in local governments and nonprofit organizations providing short-term aid, as well as those that provide medium-term housing and services.

  4. The Biden administration should rescind its Circumvention of Lawful Pathways rule, also known as the asylum ban, expand asylum processing capacity at ports of entry, and ensure that US and Mexican officials are not limiting access to asylum.

(1) The WRC Migrant Rights and Justice program regularly conducts monitoring visits to the US-Mexico border to interview people seeking asylum and other stakeholders, including service providers and government officials, to research access to protection and advocate for improvements to US policy and practice. Recent reports include New Asylum Ban Leaves Migrants Stranded: Recommendations to Increase Access to Protection at the US-Mexico Border (August 2023), https://www.; Observations and Recommendations Following April 2023 US-Mexico Border Monitoring Visit to Arizona, Southeast California, and Northern Mexico (May 2023),
(2) WRC thanks the people seeking asylum who generously shared their experiences. WRC also thanks the shelter providers, humanitarian aid workers, nonprofit organization partners, and local US and Mexican officials, for their time and willingness to speak with us.

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