The federal shutdown has ended, at least temporarily, in squalid defeat for President Trump. He failed to secure funding for his signature border wall, and none seems forthcoming. True to form, the prolonged shutdown eclipsed another immigration story that Trump had pushed to the top of the news cycle just a couple months earlier: the caravan of 6,000 or so Central American migrants making their way toward the United States. They arrived in Tijuana in November to find the border less hospitable than they had been led to believe: a pre-existing backlog meant that they would not be granted speedy “credible fear” hearings to start the asylum application process, with waitlists that stretched in some cases for months. Some attempted to cross the border anyway, some went home, but most waited, shuttling between makeshift shelters in a city overwhelmed by the new arrivals.
The migrants’ outlook worsened on December 20, two days before the shutdown went into effect, when the Trump administration announced that those awaiting asylum hearings would no longer be allowed into the United States following that initial “credible fear” interview, as has traditionally been the case. Instead, they would be forced to remain in Mexico. On January 25 of this year, that policy began to take effect with a pilot effort at the San Ysidro crossing between Tijuana and San Diego.
Today, many of the migrants from the first caravan remain in Mexico, even as the conversation north of the border has careened past them. They decided to make their way through Tijuana to avoid areas along the Texas border considered more violent due to cartel activity. But Tijuana just had its deadliest year on record, with over 2,500 murders. Most of those still in the city are staying in the Barretal, a converted music venue southeast of town where they moved in December after conditions in the old sports arena where they had been sheltered deteriorated beneath heavy rains. In December, two people threw a tear gas cannister inside. The same month, two members of the caravan were killed in a botched robbery while awaiting asylum hearings. Now, heavily armed Mexican federal police guard the perimeter, ostensibly to keep the migrants safe.
While Mexico has long been considered friendly to newcomers, the mood in Tijuana has soured: by pushing waiting migrants south, the tightened border pushed local resentment south with them. When a group tried rushing the border over Thanksgiving weekend, U.S. border patrol agents fired tear gas at them and shut down crossings for five hours, costing millions of dollars in lost economic activity on both sides of the border. Locals largely blamed the migrants. The mayor of Tijuana, Juan Manuel Gastélum, has drawn attention for his nativist views, calling some members of the caravan “bums” and “pot smokers” and saying, bluntly, “We don’t want them here.”
“It sucks, because I know that Tijuana got a really bad rap, and of course there are douchebags everywhere,” said a woman who works for the government and requested anonymity. “It’s not like we hate migrants, and we don’t want them here—we are a city of migrants, all of us. There’s no one here that doesn’t have a story of immigration in their family. We’re a border town. But they got rowdy. You can’t have that many people without any order, living in little tents. Tijuana doesn’t have the resources to house that many people at once.”
Padre Pat Murphy runs the Casa Del Migrante, a decades-old shelter for men near the city center. Murphy has a shuffling gait and speaks in an accent inflected with his native New York. Until this year, the Casa has mostly housed deportees from the north, providing food, a bed, social workers, and help finding work. With the caravan’s arrival, more than 70 percent of their clientele are Central Americans moving north.
The inability of local government to prepare for the caravan, even with advance notice, troubles Murphy. The lack of information amid systemic flux exacerbates that worry. Almost two weeks after the new U.S. policy was announced, Murphy had yet to hear anything official from the Mexican government on the changes to asylum policy. “If they accept it [the U.S. policy], they haven’t talked to the people who run the shelters,” he said. “They haven’t given any plans to how they’re going to house these people. Because once it goes into full effect, Mexico, the northern border, will become the ‘waiting room,’ as a lot of people are saying, for the entire world. And the vast majority will come to Tijuana, because San Diego has the reputation of being more organized and processing people quickly.”
But resources in the city already feel stretched. “Probably there’s three, four thousand Central Americans in the city right now. If they start coming in huge numbers to ask for political asylum, it’s going to be really a scary proposition here to have all these people come in and no place for them to stay.”
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s new president, has pushed for a “Marshall Plan” for Central America that would invest $30 billion in the local economies of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and poorer southern regions in Mexico, to ameliorate the conditions that lead people to migrate in the first place—violence, poverty, and drought among them. Trump’s administration has earmarked $10.6 billion in funds for the area, but most of it is reallocated from existing aid. In the meantime, the López Obrador administration has accommodated itself to increased migration from the south by expediting its application process for one-year humanitarian visas, shortening wait times from a month to five days. Still, with many migrants trying to ultimately reach the United States, Tijuana is left holding the bag. “One of the things we’re going to be asking the government is, okay, if we help, how are you going to help us?” Murphy says. “I have no idea what this means. Are we talking about one thousand people a year, or 20,000 people a year? Thirty thousand? It’s hard to imagine.” In mid-January, another caravan of 12,000 people left Honduras heading north.
When the first migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana last November, they learned that nearly 3,000 asylum seekers were already in line awaiting an initial asylum hearing. U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been processing 60 to 100 asylum requests a day, according to Anthony Rogers-Wright, who calls that number unnecessarily low; by slowing the process to a crawl, the border agents are creating an artificial bottleneck.
“It’s not my place to say it’s being done by design,” he says, “but it appears to be very passive-aggressive. Like: frustrate, discourage, and then they just give up.” Rogers-Wright is a volunteer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, a faith-based organization that provides assistance to migrants applying for asylum and, if they are granted entry, helps them to integrate into American society. After the caravan caused such a firestorm north of the border, he traveled from Seattle to lend a hand. I met him outside the Barretal on a dry January afternoon. He and a crew of colleagues had set up a booth to help migrants prepare for their asylum hearings. Each day’s appointments are decided by a semi-formal list, which has been around since the Obama administration began “metering” asylum hearings in the face of a caravan of Haitian migrants who came through town in 2016. The ledger of these numbers, la lista, is handled by the migrants themselves. A sign atop the New Sanctuary Coalition’s table listed the latest number to be called.
Rogers-Wright is a climate activist, and says he came to help because “this is a direct result of the climate crisis. It’s not just about the storms, it’s about the human impact. We’re going to see more of this around the world if we don’t take immediate action, and lasting action, on this climate crisis. More climate migrants, more skirmishes between people fighting over limited resources.”
Near an intersection down the street, I spoke with Noe Diaz Moreno, 46, who, like other members of the caravan, wears an ID tag with his name and home country in order to be able to enter and exit the Barretal. He told me he’d been robbed by a narco in Honduras and threatened with death if he went to the police. When he saw information about the caravan on social media and television, he decided to come.
He left his wife and daughters back in Honduras and hoped to find work in the United States to remit money south. On their march north, Moreno said, “we suffered. We saw things that we never expected—people that were thrown from trucks, they fell asleep and fell off at midnight. Mothers that left their kids alone riding on vehicles, abandoned kids, people kidnapped en route—many that jumped on buses or trucks and were taken elsewhere.” But it was worth it to reach the United States, where wages were higher. Especially since, in Tijuana, “it’s really dangerous too. And so we don’t want to stay here, because we imagine that the police here are the same: corrupt, bought and sold. We want to arrive in a country where the laws are stricter.” Still, he felt safer thanks to the federales and marines lining the Barretal.
Nearby, Marla Brewa, from La Ceiba, Honduras, sat with her sister on folding chairs while their two kids played. Brewa, like the other migrants, was trying to sort through the rumors about what awaited them. “It’s not so safe here,” she said. “We want to reach the other side. They say that there they give you asylum. And they told me that on the other side, they give me fifteen days of permission and then deport me to Honduras. So for my daughter, why am I going to go to the other side if they’re going to send me to Honduras, if my life is in danger in Honduras? I can’t. So I’m arranging my papers for Mexico, here. To be here for a while, and stay in a safe house or something like that, and to work.” Still, she would like to cross north eventually. Her three-year-old daughter, Arcy, was sick: her eyes jaundiced, her lip blistered, she seemed to have a throat infection and had been unable to eat anything lately but soup. A doctor that visited the Barretal could not diagnose her beyond saying she probably acquired the illness on the road. In any case, Marla said, there was no medicine.
Brewa anticipated it would be months yet before anything happened. She credited the people of Mexico with helping the caravan along as it came north. But “when we finally arrived here,” she said, “they didn’t treat us the same as before.”
The Tijuanense government worker I spoke to had an explanation for that: “It’s different once they stay.”
López Obrador is hoping that proactive policy will help integrate Central Americans into Mexican society more widely, diffusing the pressure on Tijuana and demonstrating what a more humane immigration policy might look like in the region. In addition to expediting the visa process for migrants, the Mexican federal government raised the federal minimum wage 16 percent in January, hoping to induce some of the newcomers to work in low-skill jobs around the country for which employers are having trouble finding workers, and he has pledged to fund public works projects that would create new employment. Still, the raise only brought the floor to close to five dollars a day nationwide and a shade below nine dollars a day in northern border states—just above the federal hourly minimum wage in the United States—which is why, despite a more welcoming climate in Mexico, many of the migrants hope to keep moving north. If the official crossings turn out to be impermeable, said Moreno, “people will leave to cross the border elsewhere, but still go north. Here is almost the same as Honduras, the money here. It’s little.” When I spoke with Moreno, he had already been in Tijuana for over a month, waiting. “It’s the same always,” he said. “Just thinking about when the moment will come when we’re selected. In the caravan, everyone is waiting for their number.”
The “remain in Mexico” policy’s rollout means the wait to enter the United States will only grow longer. With border areas so often unsafe, the new restrictions on asylum seekers are nearly certain to face challenges in court. Attorney Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project—who helped lead a successful lawsuit against earlier federal restrictions on asylum claims by migrants who had crossed outside an official border crossing—told the AP that “this plan cannot be done lawfully and will result in countless people in life-threatening situations.” But for now, the border bottleneck and fickle U.S. policy coming from the Trump White House have created a status quo of desperation and confusion at the United States’ doorstep. Meanwhile, caravans of refugees continue to depart the countries to Mexico’s south.
As I spoke to Moreno, a scuffle broke out in front of the Barretal’s main entrance. Three men in cuffs were being led into the back of a pick-up truck by police. One, crying, middle-aged, managed to pull his hat down to hide his face. The youngest began to weep silently as well. The third stared stone-faced at the arid mountains to the south. A crowd stood around and filmed on their cellphones. Nobody could name the men’s infraction. The truck rolled off in a cloud of dust.
Sammy Feldblum lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and reports from all over the map.