Migrant camps on the rise in Mexico amid US policy uncertainty

As night fell, about 250 police and city workers stormed a squalid camp for migrants hoping to seek asylum in the United States. Migrants had to register for 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 blocked a major border crossing into the United States. There may be other camps to come.

First lady Jill Biden sharply criticized a similar camp in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, during a 2019 visit, saying, “It’s not who we are as Americans.” The Biden administration touted its work closing that camp in March, but others popped up 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 pandemic-related public health powers. Uncertainty over US asylum policies has also contributed to growing migrant populations in Mexican border towns, creating conditions for more camps.

Migrants are often out of public view in border towns, but the Tijuana camp is highly visible and disruptive. Tents covered in blue tarps and black plastic bags block the entrance to a border crossing where an average of about 12,000 people entered the United States daily before the pandemic. It is one of three crosswalks into San Diego.

The United States fully reopened its land borders with Mexico and Canada to vaccinated travelers on November 8.

Montserrat Caballero, Tijuana’s first female mayor, said officials had “almost nothing” to control the camp before she took office on Oct. 1. When she asked the state and federal governments of Mexico to join her in erecting a fence and introducing a registry, they refused.

“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. “Nobody wants to deal with these issues.”

Caballero said she acted to protect migrants. She is not aware of any homicides or kidnappings at 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 it grow.”

The only entrance-exit is guarded 24 hours a day by the Tijuana police. Migrants with supporting documents are free to come and go.

“There is no asylum procedure (in the US) until further notice,” Enrique Lucero, the city’s director of migrant services, told people asked about US policy during a 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 exercised that authority over only about one in four who come with families, largely due to resource constraints and Mexico’s reluctance to take over families from Central America.

It’s unclear why the United States is releasing many families to seek asylum and sending others back to Mexico, urging those who are turned away to stay until they are successful.

Mayra Funes, a 28-year-old Honduran, said she had no opportunity to make her case with officers when she was deported illegally crossing the border near McAllen, Texas, in March with her 7-year-old daughter. She does not know if she will try again after six months in the Tijuana camp.

“There’s no hope of how they’re 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 shelter, including large facilities recently opened by the federal and federal governments. of the states of Mexico. Many are discouraged by curfews and other shelter rules and fear being further from the border will cut them off from news about changes in US policy.

Natalina Nazario, 37, needed no convincing, stopping Lucero and accepting the city’s offer to pay for the bus fare to Acapulco, about 1,900 miles (3,040 kilometers), for her and his 17 and 11 year old sons. She fears violence in the Mexican beach town but, after a month at the camp, doesn’t want her children to miss school anymore.

Few others noticed Lucero’s presence. Olga Galicia, a 23-year-old from Guatemala, was sitting on a sidewalk washing 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 evict migrants, said Caballero, who expects resisters to leave during seasonal rains. Thousands of migrants who came in a caravan in 2018 were soaked sleeping outside in freezing November downpours.

The city estimates the camp housed 1,700 people two weeks before the Oct. 28 operation, which Caballero publicly warned would happen but did not say when.

The first count, on October 29, reported 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 nearly all the rest.

The sharp drop just before the check-in likely reflects the fact that many residents were Tijuana homeless, not migrants, Caballero said.

The camp occupies a large, once barren square. A maze of walkways includes rows wide enough in places for two people to walk in opposite directions. People lounge inside tents or outside on folding chairs.

There are 12 portable bathrooms, 10 showers and a shared water tap for washing clothes. Charities donate food to migrants who prepare 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 rely on canned food.

The future is less certain for a migrant camp in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas. It has about 2,000 people in a plaza near the city’s main border crossing, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, principal of The Sidewalk School, which educates children there.

The Biden administration, under a court order, plans to soon reinstate a Trump-era policy of keeping asylum seekers in Mexico waiting for hearings in the United States. That depends on the approval of Mexican officials, who have told US authorities they need more shelter beds and are worried about violence in Tamaulipas state, which includes Reynosa.

The “stay in Mexico” policy is expected to resume in “the coming weeks” after U.S. and Mexican officials resolve “a series of outstanding issues,” said Blas Nuñez-Nieto, acting assistant secretary of homeland security. of the United States for border and immigration policy. a court filing on Monday. He did not specify.

Caballero said U.S. authorities failed to pressure Mexico to reopen the busy pedestrian crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that it is 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 reappearance of camps in Tijuana.

“The reality is that camps are going to be established if we are not prepared,” she said.

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