TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) – As night fell, around 250 police and city workers stormed a squalid camp for migrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States. Migrants had to register to get credentials or leave. Within hours, those who remained were surrounded by a chain-link fence sufficient to span twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.
The October 28 operation may have been the beginning of the end for a camp that once housed around 2,000 people and is blocking a major border crossing to the United States. There may be other camps to come.
First Lady Jill Biden sharply criticized a similar camp in Matamoros, on the Brownsville, Texas border, during a visit in 2019, saying: “This is not who we are as Americans.” The Biden administration touted its efforts to close the camp in March, but more emerged around the same time around Reynosa and Tijuana.
The camps, full of young children, are the product of policies that force migrants to wait in Mexico for U.S. immigration court hearings or bar them from seeking asylum under public health powers linked to the pandemic. Uncertainty over U.S. asylum policies has also contributed to increasing migrant populations in Mexican border towns, creating conditions for more camps.
Migrants are often out of sight in border towns, but the Tijuana camp is highly visible and disruptive. Tents covered with blue tarps and black plastic bags block the entrance to a border post where an average of 12,000 people entered the United States daily before the pandemic. It is one of three crosswalks leading into San Diego.
The United States completely reopened its land borders with Mexico and Canada to vaccinated travelers on November 8.
Montserrat Caballero, Tijuana’s first female mayor, said authorities had done “next to nothing” to control the camp before she took office on October 1.
“Authorities at all levels were afraid – afraid of making a mistake, afraid of doing something wrong and affecting their political careers,” she said in an interview. “No one wants to deal with these issues.”
Caballero said she had acted to protect the migrants. She is not aware of any homicides or kidnappings in the camp, but the Associated Press found that assaults, drug use and threats were common.
“I couldn’t close my eyes to the flashing red light I saw,” she said. “Closing your eyes only makes you taller. ”
The only entry-exit is guarded 24 hours a day by the Tijuana police. Migrants with credentials are free to come and go.
“There is no asylum procedure (in the United States) until further notice,” Enrique Lucero, the city’s director of migrant services, told people asked about US policy during a briefing. morning visit last week.
Since March 2020, the United States has used Title 42, named after a public health law, to deport adults and families without the possibility of asylum; unaccompanied children are exempt. But the Biden administration has only wielded that authority over about one in four people who come with families, largely due to resource constraints and Mexico’s reluctance to take over Central American families.
It is not known why the United States is releasing many families to seek asylum and sending others back to Mexico, prompting those who are turned back to stay until they are successful.
Mayra Funes, a 28-year-old Honduran, said she did not have a chance to argue her case with officers when she was illegally deported from the border near McAllen, Texas, in March with her 7 year old girl. She does not know if she will try again after six months in the Tijuana camp.
“There is no hope of how they are going to open the process,” she said.
Lucero, a soft-spoken George Washington University graduate who worked at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago, says his job is to persuade migrants to move to shelters, including large facilities recently opened by federal governments. and state of Mexico. Many are discouraged by curfews and other safe haven rules, and worrying about being further from the border will cut them off from information about changes in US policy.
Natalina Nazario, 37, needed no conviction, stopping Lucero and jumping on the city’s offer to pay for a bus ticket to Acapulco, about 1,900 miles (3,040 kilometers) away, for her and his 17 and 11 year old sons. She fears violence in the Mexican seaside town but, after a month in the camp, does not want her children to miss school any further.
Few others noticed Lucero’s presence. Olga Galicia, a 23-year-old Guatemalan, sat on a sidewalk rubbing clothes in a plastic trash can filled with soapy water. She had been at the camp for about six months and said she would stay with her 3 and 1-year-old sons until she got more information on how to apply for asylum in the United States.
Tijuana will not forcibly withdraw any migrants, said Caballero, who expects the refractories to leave during the seasonal rains. Thousands of migrants who came in a 2018 caravan were drenched sleeping outside in the freezing rains of November.
The city estimates the camp held 1,700 people two weeks before the Oct. 28 operation, which Caballero has publicly warned of the coming but did not say when.
The first count, on October 29, showed 769 migrants, more than 40% of whom were children. Half were Mexicans – many from the conflict-torn states of Guerrero and Michoacan – and a third were Hondurans, with Salvadorans and Guatemalans making up almost everything else.
The sharp drop just before registration likely reflects that many Tijuana residents were homeless, not migrants, Caballero said.
The camp occupies a large formerly sterile place. A maze of walkways consists of rows wide enough in some parts that two people can walk in opposite directions. People are lounging inside the tents or outside in folding chairs.
There are 12 portable bathrooms, 10 showers, and a common water faucet for washing clothes. Charities donate food to migrants who cook hot chocolate, fried eggs, hot dogs and spaghetti for everyone. The federal utility recently stopped the camp from stealing electricity, leaving it dark at night and forcing the makeshift kitchen to depend on canned food.
The future is less certain for a migrant camp in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas. It has around 2,000 people in a square near the city’s main border crossing, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, principal of The Sidewalk School, which educates children there.
The Biden administration, by court order, plans to soon reinstate a Trump-era policy of making asylum seekers in Mexico wait for hearings in the United States. are concerned about the violence in Tamaulipas state, which includes Reynosa.
“Stay in Mexico” policy is expected to resume in “the coming weeks” after US and Mexican authorities resolve “a set of outstanding issues,” said Blas Nuñez-Nieto, acting deputy secretary of homeland security of the United States for border and immigration policy. a court case Monday. He did not develop.
Caballero said U.S. officials had not pressured Mexico to reopen the busy crosswalk between Tijuana and San Diego. US Customs and Border Protection said in a statement they were working closely with Mexico “to determine how to resume normal travel in a safe and sustainable manner.”
The mayor plans to ask the Mexican National Guard to help prevent the re-emergence of camps in Tijuana.
“The reality is that camps are going to be established if we are not prepared,” she said.