The US has made migrants at the border wait months to apply for asylum. Now the dam is breaking.

The center of the American asylum crisis is the El Chaparral plaza in Tijuana, which sits at the foot of the western pedestrian bridge to enter the US at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in California.

On Sunday, members of the migrant “caravan,” after a week of waiting in makeshift Tijuana shelters under poor conditions, marched up to the US side of the border to demand that the US admit them to seek asylum.

At the plaza at El Chaparral, Mexican federal police in riot formation blocked the marchers from going any farther toward the bridge. Then the march descended into chaos. Hundreds of marchers evaded and scuffled with Mexican police in an attempt to cross the border en masse. Some of the marchers threw rocks at Border Patrol agents. Agents fired off volleys of tear gas at the crowd, which included families and children.

It was nearly inevitable that tensions at the border would boil over, and that they would do so at El Chaparral. For months, it has been the unofficial “waiting room” of the United States.

At San Ysidro and many of the other official crossings that line the US-Mexico border, families who have traveled thousands of miles, fleeing poverty and violence to seek asylum in the United States, have been stopped outside ports of entry before they can set foot on US soil and trigger their legal asylum rights.

Before 2016, and in some cases as recently as six months ago, they would have had no problem and no delay. But for the last several months, the Trump administration has made a practice of limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day — a policy it calls “metering.” It’s the counterpart of the Trump administration’s months-long crackdown on asylum seekers entering the US illegally — telling those who do try to come legally that there’s no room for them, and ordering them to wait.

They don’t say how long the wait will be. And there’s no line for asylum seekers to wait in — no official way for them to hold their spot or secure an appointment, no guarantee that they’ll ever be allowed to cross.

And so asylum seekers wait, for days or weeks or (increasingly) months: sometimes in migrant shelters whose capacity has stretched to the breaking point, sometimes huddling together on bridges, sleeping on the street, in the cold, vulnerable to the violence they hoped to escape in their home countries.

The violence that erupted Sunday was a distress signal, a sign that the situation at the border has grown untenable. The unofficial, sometimes arbitrary processes to let people in under metering are threatening to collapse into chaos, and it’s not clear if order can be restored.

The Trump administration’s proposed solution is to legally codify the idea that asylum seekers should be held in Mexico, in limbo. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the administration would sign an agreement with the incoming government of Mexico that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico after starting the asylum process — changing the current practice of allowing them into the US to wait for their asylum claims to be heard. Dubbed “Remain in Mexico,” the new policy, if enacted, would essentially formalize what’s been happening on the ground these past few months.

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Dara Lind