I’m back from my third visit to the San Diego-Tijuana border so far this year. I spent much of Monday with U.S. authorities, CBP and Border Patrol. Tuesday was an excellent day-long meeting with non-governmental groups from all four border states. I went to Tijuana on Wednesday, and on Thursday met with civic leaders and experts in San Diego.
On Monday, an agent took me the entire length of the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana. Here, since the 2000s there’s been a double fence for much of the 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean to where the fence stops east of Tijuana, for a couple of miles, due to difficult terrain. I saw a lot of construction, as they’re replacing old fence very quickly, using money from the 2018 Homeland Security appropriation.
In one of the most densely populated areas of the entire U.S.-Mexico border, the need to spend minutes climbing a fence deters those border-crossers who’d want to avoid capture and disappear into San Diego’s southern suburbs. It doesn’t, however, deter asylum-seekers who do want to be apprehended, like thousands of children and parents from Central America. If your intention is to stand on U.S. soil, in the no-man’s land between the two rows of fencing, the outer fence is just a speed bump. The Border Patrol agent accompanying me said that the other day, a mother climbed over the 14-foot fence with a 1-year-old slung to her back.
The concertina wire that Trump’s military deployment put up can also be defeated. In this photo, it’s all tangled and pushed down by asylum-seekers climbing over. They shield themselves from the sharp edges by laying carpet over the wire, or simply risk cutting themselves.
The agent showed me the area where the fence ends, just east of the Nido de las Águilas neighborhood on Tijuana’s eastern periphery. Many asylum-seeking families come here too, but others have told me that this area is tightly controlled by organized crime, and migrants must pay a fee to access it.
I went back to the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro port of entry, first thing Wednesday morning, around 7:00 AM when migrants gather to find out whether their numbers will be called from a notebook in which they’d inscribed themselves several weeks earlier. (Another line of newly arrived migrants waits to add their names.) The number denotes their turn to seek asylum the “proper” way, by entering the U.S. port of entry and presenting to a CBP officer. Last Wednesday, CBP allowed only 50 migrants to do this, which is a pretty typical number for San Ysidro.
Most asylum-seekers, though, are crossing elsewhere and turning themselves in to Border Patrol. After they process them and give them notices to appear before an asylum officer, CBP and ICE release asylum-seeking families into San Diego, where a network of charities (the San Diego Rapid Response Network) has set up a shelter to provide a short-term stay, meals, showers, clothing, and help arranging travel to where relatives or other contacts await them. (Those destinations, incidentally, tend to be agricultural areas and zones with a lot of construction—only sometimes the “sanctuary cities” where president Trump proposes to leave them.)
I pulled a few volunteer shifts with the San Diego shelter, mainly helping families get from the airport curb to their gates. The shelter was running low earlier in the week, with about 50 guests, but it had reached 300 the previous week, and by Thursday it was back up to 150. Nobody could explain the fluctuation.
I visited two Tijuana shelters, one run by a Catholic order and one by an NGO. Both were busy, but not full to capacity. Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border, San Diego is fourth in arrivals of families and fifth in unaccompanied children. Despite news of “caravans” in Tijuana, far more kids and parents are coming right now to El Paso, south Texas, and Yuma, Arizona.
After three visits to the same area in four months, the border feels much more familiar. I still don’t really understand much of what goes on here, though. I don’t have a feel for the rhythms of work and life. I don’t understand how some residents are totally binational while others rarely even think about the other country in plain view on the other side.
Like a lot of northeastern cities—Washington included—this place combines a transient and diverse population, vast differences in wealth, and a big security presence. But it’s starker here: this is a place where semi-skilled people on one side of the line make $8.80 per day, and those on the other side make at least that in an hour. Where 14 people were killed in one April day one one side of the line, but it took two months last year to reach that total on the other side. The photos help, but it’s still really hard to describe this place to people here in Washington.