I spent the week of February 11, and some of this week, in San Diego and Tijuana. It was like holding down two jobs. Each day:

  • At 4:30am, I’d go to the airport and escort migrant families to the flights that, in most cases, relatives had purchased for them. The San Diego Rapid Response Network migrant shelter dropped them off at the terminal, and I’d accompany them through ticketing, the TSA, and to their gates. The shelter desperately needed airport guides: no family I accompanied had ever been in an airport before. I did a few families each day. By this week, San Diego TSA agents knew me by sight, and dreaded seeing me.
  • Then I’d go into either SD or TJ and do research, interviewing a few people working, in some capacity, on the humanitarian situation: shelters, experts, lawyers, journalists.
  • By 4:00pm, I’d head over to the shelter—that’s when DHS/ICE would start dropping off apprehended migrant families—and do whatever volunteer work was needed: copying immigration forms, sorting and handing out clothes, serving food, driving people to the bus station or, one time, the hospital. That shift ostensibly ended at 8:00 but sometimes ran longer—and ICE buses would make drop-offs as late as 11:00pm.

This trip multiplied the number of Central American migrants whom I’ve had the chance to get to know. I came away impressed with the work of the San Diego Rapid Response Network, who are doing a heroic job trying to keep up with the flow of families. Please consider donating to them, or buying things on their Amazon wishlist. It’s a lean, effective organization.

Here are a few observations from this visit. This is in raw form, as I just got back to Washington after midnight last night.

The San Diego Rapid Response Network receives the migrants whom ICE would otherwise be dropping off at the bus station, and provides them brief respite while they make travel arrangements. During my first week, I saw intakes range from a low of 40-something people per day to about 90. Two days this week, though, it shot up to way over 100. This requires use of overflow facilities. It’s not clear why the number surged.

Of the migrants I accompanied in the shelter and airport, most were from Honduras and Guatemala. The Hondurans (and a few Salvadorans) were largely from cities. Most Guatemalans, on the other hand, were from seriously remote parts of the western highlands, from Jutiapa to Quiché to Huehuetenango (I talked to people from at least seven departments of Guatemala, but none from the capital). The urbanites were more savvy and talkative. The rural dwellers were much quieter, more nervous and apprehensive; often, their Spanish was rudimentary.

Languages that people spoke into my phone, as they called relatives to let them know when they’d be arriving: Spanish, Haitian Creole, K’iche’, Kakchiquel, and Qan’jobal.

Lots of families had very young children, five or younger. One parent was the norm. Some had teenage kids, who usually did much of the communicating. A few babies were alarmingly listless and small for their apparent ages. Lots of kids coughing.

Many of the Guatemalans were from the northwestern department of Huehuetenango. Many had arrived in southern Mexico during the post-January 15 caravan/wave and had been given Mexican humanitarian visas.

I didn’t meet a single family who had waited on the “list” at the port of entry, though I heard many of them do pass through the shelter. Everyone who would talk about it said they went over a low part of the fence, or “in the mountains.” In most cases, Border Patrol was waiting on the other side. Some had only left their homes in late January or early February, crossed Mexico and gone in and out of Border Patrol custody—some made the whole trip in three weeks or less.

Will all of these people qualify for asylum? Probably not. Still, a significant portion no doubt have strong asylum claims, and it’s going to be up to judges to sort that out.

The “list” continues for asylum seekers waiting to present themselves at the Tijuana port of entry. The number being called was in the 1,960s on February 14. It was in the 1,650s on January 9. (Each number stands for 10 migrants, though many do not show when their names are called—they give up or cross elsewhere.)

The latest numbers on the “list,” posted outside Tijuana’s Chaparral port of entry.

I didn’t see anybody get “returned to Mexico” under the new DHS initiative called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” and challenged by a lawsuit filed last week. Those returns happen irregularly, at different times of day, and some days not at all. As of February 14, it had been done to 65 people, though it was accelerating with the February 13 return of 18 people, including the first families with children.

Few migrants with whom I spoke knew where in the United States they were, or how far from their intended destinations. Very few were headed to the west coast; nearly all were going east of the Mississippi.

None with whom I spoke had strong complaints about Border Patrol treatment. Mostly, agents were described as indifferent and ignoring them: no reports of rough or abusive treatment. A few sounded kind. Border Patrol did separate one migrant, though, from a 16-year-old cousin for whom that individual was a guardian. Many complained about the burritos that Border Patrol gives in custody, and said they were very hungry because there was nothing else to eat. Of those who told me, those who had spent the least amount of time in custody had spent just a day or two; a father and son said they had been together in custody for five days. Not clear whether that owed to Border Patrol suspicions about them, or to logistics.

The 17 or 18 shelters on the Mexican side are near capacity too, especially now that the Mexican government has closed the El Barretal facility that housed many of the October caravan members.

It’s incredible that these private/church run shelters are getting the burden of “Remain in Mexico” completely dumped on them. The Mexican government, which agreed to the short-term deportations, is putting up no resources to accommodate those who are returned.

The number of Mexican citizens deported to Tijuana is a steady 120 per day, with little variation. Deportees used to be most of the Tijuana shelters’ population, but with so many northbound migrant families, now only some of the shelters attend to deportees.

The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute is not allowing unaccompanied Central American kids to present at the border for asylum. If it apprehends them, the INM sends them to the DIF, the Mexican government child welfare institute. It’s not clear what happens next: it seems some may be sent back to their home countries, back to the danger that they’re fleeing. About 30 are in one Tijuana shelter, in a state of “limbo jurídico,” the shelter doesn’t know what to do with them. The unaccompanied children situation in Tijuana is untenable.

Operation Streamline—the criminal prosecution of migrants who cross between ports of entry—is much different in California’s federal criminal courts than in Arizona’s. The result is probably similar—guilty verdicts and jail time, not being applied right now to parents—but the process offers more of an opportunity to claim “not guilty” or at least to petition for a lighter sentence. Instead of 60-ish defendants saying “culpable, culpable” in succession, as in Arizona, the magistrate judge in San Diego asks 6-8 defendants at a time to each answer a series of questions: whether they were coerced, whether they are on medication affecting their judgment, whether they understand the consequences of a guilty plea, and a few more. The magistrate judge and the DOJ prosecutors seemed inclined to give “time served” sentences to all first-time offenders, and rarely threw the book at second-time offenders. Defense lawyers have a chance to seek lenience by describing some defendants’ life circumstances. Each group of 6-8 appeared to take 45-60 minutes to enter guilty pleas and receive sentences.

U.S. on the left, Mexico on the right.