Hello from a coffee shop in central Tijuana. I’m taking a moment between meetings to talk about what I’m seeing on my second visit here so far this year.
I’m interviewing experts, officials, and service providers on both sides of the border. In between, I’m pulling volunteer shifts with the coalition of local church and humanitarian groups providing brief shelter, food, and travel assistance to mostly Central American asylum-seeking family members whom ICE releases from custody into San Diego—several dozen every day.
Here are a few impressions, as of day three:
— The airline employees and TSA agents at the San Diego airport are really nice. I’ve guided several families through to their flights to where relatives await—Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas, North Carolina, and elsewhere. (I’ve done some bus station runs too.) Flying isn’t easy when your ID is your ICE “release on recognizance” form, you’ve got an electronic GPS ankle monitor, you’ve got a small child or two, and (for everyone I’ve been with) you’ve never been inside an airport before. All the big airlines, though, have this figured out by now: if the flight is full, they bend over backwards to try to seat the parent and child together. I have no problem getting an “escort pass” to get to the gate. TSA agents, who have to pat everyone down, have all been patient and friendly. Some kids even got little gold “badge” stickers. Many of the other passengers have been cool. Good for you, San Diego Airport.
— A large number of the families I’ve encountered are from rural Guatemala and coastal Honduras. Nearly all are with children under five or six years old, and often with babies under one. Nobody has more than one or two small backpacks of belongings, and these are full of clothes donated by the community. Nobody I’ve accompanied has a mobile phone. Some of those arriving now had a less brutal journey across Mexico, because the new Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador briefly provided humanitarian visas to new arrivals from Central America. Many of these chose to stay in Mexico—but with a legal identity document, those who wanted to move on to the United States could at least take a bus instead of traveling in the shadows with smugglers.
— Most arrived by hopping the fence or crossing the border in a rural area, rather than presenting their asylum request to U.S. officials at an official land crossing (“port of entry”). Requesting asylum at the port of entry would be far better: it’s the safest way, because you don’t have to run a gauntlet of Mexican organized crime to get to un-fenced border areas. It’s technically the more legal way too, since crossing improperly is a misdemeanor. But the port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego—the busiest border crossing in the hemisphere, if not the world—is only accepting about 40-60 asylum seekers on a typical day. U.S. Customs and Border Protection calls this “metering.” Whatever you call it, there are at least 2,500 people on an improvised waiting list in Tijuana, awaiting their turns to approach the border crossing. The wait stretches about six weeks in uncertain, often unsafe conditions in Tijuana, a city in the midst of a record homicide wave. This creates a perverse incentive to take the risky route to a more rural area, climb the fence or hike through rugged terrain, then wait for Border Patrol to apprehend you and your kids.
— Now, even after waiting those six weeks, some asylum-seekers are getting sent back into Mexico to await their day in immigration court. The Trump administration is sending a couple of dozen Central Americans back into Mexico each day, under a unilateral program that they call “Migrant Protection Protocols” but we call “Remain in Mexico.” Under very heavy pressure from Washington, Mexico agreed to this, in principle, just before Christmas. But it has pushed back somewhat. For now, the Mexican government is only taking back asylum-seekers over the age of 18—no families—and only from Central America’s “northern triangle” countries. Still, every day now a group of exhausted-looking adult asylum-seekers crosses back in to Mexico, where they must find legal help to make their cases: many weeks from now, they’ll be admitted back across the border to appear before U.S. immigration judges.
— You don’t see it if you live in San Diego, unless you work for a federal agency, for one of the airlines or bus companies, or for a local service provider. But there’s a quiet humanitarian crisis going on, here and elsewhere at the border. Of every migrant whom Border Patrol is apprehending right now, 3 out of 5 are kids, or parents with kids. That’s never happened before: in 2012, it reached 1 in 10 for the first time. The San Diego Rapid Response Network’s respite center, which helps the new arrivals, needs all the resources it can get. Amid gang violence, rampant extortion, drought and extreme poverty, Central Americans are placing their hope in the U.S. asylum system.
— Some will qualify, some won’t. But the Trump administration’s response couldn’t be worse. That response is symbolized, for me, by barbed wire. There’s concertina wire everywhere along this border. It surrounds the “Mexico” sign as you enter into Tijuana. It tops the border fence that extends from the beach about 100 yards into the Pacific. It’s coiled along the barrier near the paved-over Tijuana River, where border agents used tear gas in November to disperse “caravan” participants, including women and children. It was put there by an ongoing deployment of active-duty military troops to the border, a use of active (not reserve or National Guard) troops that has very few modern precedents on U.S. soil.
— The Central American migrants I’ve met are hopeful and palpably relieved, even though much lies ahead of them. Their kids pay close attention when I point out a jet taking off, follow the route on my rental car’s GPS app, or read “Where the Wild Things Are” in Spanish. After spending time with them, it’s jarring to hear the lies and scare tactics coming from the White House and congressional hardliners, and repeated on Fox News and social media. We need the federal government to make the work of the service providers here easier, not harder. Until we get that, we need firm allies in Congress who’ll do good oversight and who’ll refuse to fund more walls or barbed wire.