Families sleep in tents at a migrant shelter in Tijuana as they wait for the U.S. government to process asylum claims. (Courtesy/Warren Binford)

In a canyon outside Tijuana, Mexico, hundreds of families crowded together in tents inside a shelter, waiting to apply for asylum in the U.S.

The shelter bathroom was dirty, with many families sharing two sinks: one for the bathroom, and one for washing clothes.

Though children can attend school, few do because of safety concerns or lack of transportation.

That’s what Willamette University law professor Warren Binford saw during a week-long trip to Tijuana in late November to report on conditions for Central American children who are kept in Mexico while seeking asylum in the U.S.

More than 10,000 migrants, children and adults are now staying in camps and shelters in Tijuana waiting for their cases to be processed, according to a waitlist maintained by volunteers.

“We saw nowhere near that number. We don’t know where all of them are,” Binford said.

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Binford, an international child rights attorney and other lawyers who monitor detention conditions went to the press last summer to tell of filthy, inhumane conditions for children held without their parents in a U.S. Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas.

Starting in January, the Trump administration required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for weeks or months as their cases work their way through the U.S. court system Binford said often makes little sense even to the immigration attorneys.

“It’s not clear how their claims are being processed, if their claims are being processed,” she said. She called the process “Kafkaesque.”

Families wait to be processed in Tijuana (Courtesy/Warren Binford)

The paperwork prepared by Border Patrol agents she reviewed which is supposed to document a family’s reasons for fleeing was poorly written and often had little to do with the family’s story. When an applicant’s words were translated back to them in Spanish, they often said the claim was incorrect.

“Whoever is filling out this paperwork, they’re basically copying and pasting,” she said.

Most are fleeing gang violence in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Boys who refuse to join a gang may be threatened, beaten or killed, she said. Girls who refuse to date or have sex with gang members are often raped or subjected to other violence.

Some migrants are seeking asylum based on that violence, a claim not accepted by all U.S. judges. Others are seeking to be reunified with family members or may be eligible for another type of U.S. visa.

The gangs that migrants are fleeing are active in Mexico too, she said, so safety is elusive. In the city, many families don’t let children leave the shelter. The shelter she visited outside Tijuana was in an area considered dangerous enough that a driver didn’t want to take her there.

In the camps, she saw women from different families gathered and cooking tortillas and making a large vat of chicken soup to feed the group. Children played, and some received help from doctors and nurses or students who had travelled from the U.S. to run health clinics and play with the children.

“What kept me going is the best of humanity,” she said.

A shelter for migrant families in a canyon outside of Tijuana (Courtesy/Warren Binford)

Though living conditions are better than what she saw in Clint, where children were kept dirty, neglected and left hungry she said they’re not necessarily better off in Tijuana.

“Are the children better off not being in hell? Absolutely. But that shouldn’t be the choice. Abandoning them in a canyon in Tijuana is not the answer,” she said. “They’re not receiving an education and other things they have a right to. You shouldn’t have to make a choice between the two. The U.S. government has legal obligations for these kids.”

The U.S. government doesn’t have a formal system for tracking migrants waiting to apply for asylum, so non-government groups have stepped in to track who arrived first.

Each day, families wake up in the middle of the night and head to the border Port of Entry, a bridge stretching to San Diego. They wait for hours for a chance to present their case.

Binford watched as migrants who had waited for months were finally processed, snapping selfies or calling family members.

Then, some immigrants informed the group Border Patrol would likely separate parents from children for processing, likely for a few days or longer.

“We saw all the parents in a state of panic,” she said.

A sign at the Port of Entry shows the waitlist number for asylum claims being processed (Courtesy/Warren Binford)

Families passed around Sharpies so parents could write names and contact information on their children’s bodies so they wouldn’t get lost or permanently separated.

“They were asking, ‘Are they really going to take our kids from us?’” Binford said of the group. Some questioned how the separation could be legal.

In her career, she’s visited orphanages and war zones to monitor conditions for children. The image of parents frantically writing on their children’s bodies has been one of the most memorable in her career, she said.

She said many of the steps in the process seem intended specifically to discourage people from seeking asylum or to make the process as confusing as possible.

“It’s wearing them down,” she said.

Correction: This article originally misstated who told families to write contact information on their children. It was other immigrants, not advocacy groups.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.