The “crisis at the southern border” suggests families crammed in the backs of semi trucks or huddled on inflatable river rafts, cartel smugglers trafficking migrants into America along with drugs and weapons. Yet at the border with Tijuana, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now overwhelmed by a surge of migrants seeking asylum lawfully—by requesting it at a port of entry. The strain will only intensify with the arrival of the caravans now making their way from Central America.
It’s not yet clear where or how the caravans will attempt to cross. If they opt to do so legally, one good option is here at San Ysidro, the Western Hemisphere’s busiest land-border crossing. The architecture is sparse and modern, channeling travelers like mice through gray stone hallways, between metal railings and into queues. Some 100,000 people cross north through San Ysidro each day. Customs and Border Protection processes them with mechanical precision, but even with 34 lanes open for vehicles and 36 for pedestrians, the lines are interminable.
Bedlam erupts within these tidy queues. Customs and Border Protection oversees entry into the U.S., but it also enforces hundreds of laws for 40 different agencies. Homeland security is central to its mission. Sharp-eyed customs inspectors intercept drugs and guns galore, tucked behind dashboards or stowed in gas tanks. There’s naloxone on hand in case a drug-sniffing dog accidentally ingests narcotics. Once caught, smugglers sometimes try to escape, bolting on foot or flooring their car toward the highway.
On a weird day, all bets are off. Eleven miles east, at the Otay Mesa port of entry, a customs inspector recently spotted something moving in the back of a Chevy Camaro. The traveler said it was a kitten. Sort of—it was a tiger cub.
The craziest thing to happen at San Ysidro this year is a surge of migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 17,000 requested asylum at legal ports of entry along California’s border with Mexico, the vast majority of them at San Ysidro. That’s up from about 8,000 the year before. Asylum-seekers account for less than 0.01% of cross-border traffic, but tending to them now consumes more than 9% of San Ysidro’s staff.
After migrants announce that they’re afraid to go home, they’re given questionnaires and interviewed to collect their names, countries of origin, dates of birth and other biographical details, as well as illnesses and other medical conditions. In the next room, officers collect biometric data, including fingerprints and photos. Customs and Border Protection tries to verify the biographical information, flagging those with gang or terror affiliations. Officials assign each asylum-seeker an identification number and begin compiling a file that will follow him through several bureaucracies and on to immigration courts.
Customs and Border Protection emphasizes that it provides safe, humane treatment to migrants in its temporary holding facilities. The poor huddled masses often show up with diseases, including contagious or exotic ones. During my visit, several asylum-seekers had scabies. Chickenpox and tuberculosis are common, and the on-duty physician’s assistant said she’s seen typhoid and leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of female phlebotomine sand flies. Ideally, illnesses are treated immediately in-house.
San Ysidro provides showers, laundry, medicine and food for those in its custody. That includes at least two hot meals a day, one cold meal, snacks, and vegan, kosher and other options for those with dietary restrictions. The migrants are housed in immaculate but bleak holding rooms made of metal and concrete. There are no beds, only mats and blankets. Through a small square window on a locked door, a man who looked as if he’d been weeping waved at me and mustered a smile.
At maximum, San Ysidro can host about 300 people at a time. But that capacity fluctuates based on the demographics of the asylum-seekers and available staff and resources. The facility won’t house single adults in the same room as a family, and it also provides separate lodgings for gay, transgender or otherwise vulnerable migrants. For security, Customs and Border Protection avoids hosting an asylum-seeker with possible gang affiliations in the same room as a member of an opposing gang. And migrants with infectious disease require their own room. So a holding room made to hold six or 10 people may end up with a single occupant.
This year’s surge means that asylum-seekers often must wait to enter and exit San Ysidro. When Customs and Border Protection is full, it coordinates with Mexican government agencies and nonprofits. Migrants wait in Tijuana shelters for their turn to cross the border and ask for asylum.
Asylum-seekers’ first legal hurdle is an interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in which they must establish that they have credible reason to fear returning to their native country. If they fail, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detains and deports them. If they pass, ICE holds them at a detention facility or approves supervised release until their case can be decided by the Justice Department’s immigration judges. But ICE’s facilities are also filling fast, leaving asylum-seekers stuck in Customs and Border Protection custody at facilities like San Ysidro.
The backlog will only worsen. Already, mini-caravans of 100 or so people have been arriving routinely, crossing legally or illegally and demanding asylum at the San Diego border. Bigger groups are soon to follow. If San Ysidro is overwhelmed, smaller and older facilities along the border have it worse. As Customs and Border Protection is spread thin, there’s an increased likelihood of drugs, guns, criminals and contraband getting through.
Nothing in current law or regulation prevents Central American migrants from traveling to the U.S. to seek asylum in a large group. But there’s clearly a policy problem when the U.S. is incapable of handling migrants who respect U.S. law even as they flee genuine peril.
Ms. Melchior is an editorial page writer at the Journal.