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Denice Garcia, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s director of binational affairs, was lounging in her pajamas at home when she received news from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the agency was taking the shocking step of shutting down one of the world’s busiest border crossings – on the biggest travel and shopping weekend of the year.
Jason Wells, the executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, was standing in his kitchen, a spatula in one hand and his cellphone in the other, trying to simultaneously deal with turkey leftovers and find out what was happening at the border.
Both of their recollections are tinged by a sense of helplessness that is a hallmark of life in a border city: Though the federal government sets and enforces the policies that guide interactions at the border, it’s the local residents and officials who feel their impacts most acutely.
At no point has that tension been so palpable as it was one year ago, during an unprecedented shutdown of the San Ysidro Port of Entry after a group of asylum-seeking migrants ran around a police barricade toward the border crossing.
“The remaining concertina wire and southbound inspections are constant reminders of what happened,” Wells said. “Resentment has grown for closing the border as a reaction. I hope in the future, this will keep everyone a little calmer. We didn’t just lose that Sunday.”
A series of interviews and e-mails from San Diego leaders at the time of last year’s caravan reveal how local officials tried to mitigate and respond to the events leading up to the closure.
Garcia said that in her 15 years of working on border issues, she’s never faced a more challenging time than last fall. Wells and others echoed the same sentiment.
They all remember struggling to figure out how to prepare for the unknown of the Central American migrant caravan and mitigate the border disruptions in the weeks leading up to the shutdown. The day it happened, they frantically worked as intermediaries between the federal officials who had closed the border, business owners in San Ysidro and residents.
Before the 2018 shutdown, the San Ysidro Port of Entry had only closed a handful of times in the past few decades. In 2011, it closed after construction scaffolding fell, injuring two dozen people. Before that, two major events disrupted the border: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the murder of a DEA agent in 1985.
Tensions were high even before the events that directly led to the holiday weekend shutdown.
As the migrant caravan was making its way through Mexico to Tijuana, Immigration and Customs Enforcement changed its policies guiding how it handles asylum-seeking families. The change – which resulted in families being dropped at San Diego’s doorstep without plans or resources to reach family members elsewhere in the country – put so much strain on local resources that county officials eventually filed suit against the Trump administration.
Local leaders in San Diego said those months were challenging – the ultimate test of the binational ties they’ve spent most of their careers developing. But the chaotic policies had one positive outcome, they said: They strengthened relationships between local organizations and leaders working at the border.
“The silver lining of all of this is that we have been more united in our messaging and the importance of the border,” Garcia said. “Now we know we have to speak with one voice and really one voice.”
‘OK, It’s Coming to San Diego’
Initially when the migrant caravan that ultimately spurred the shutdown left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, no one knew toward which part of the U.S.-Mexico border it was headed.
The route to Texas is the most direct for Central Americans, but criminal organizations in Mexican cities that border Texas notoriously target migrants. The path through Tijuana is longer, but has more infrastructure – shelters and access to other services – and despite the city’s high homicide rates, it’s safer than cities like Nuevo Laredo, along the Mexico-Texas border, for Central American migrants.
It wasn’t until Nov. 8, when the caravan members took a vote in Mexico City, that it became certain they were headed from Tijuana. That same day, U.S. troops began to arrive at San Diego’s border as part of Operation Secure Line in response to the caravan’s imminent arrival.
Marcela Celorio, the Mexican consulate general in San Diego at the time, said that before the vote, the country’s foreign minister instructed consular officials and other agencies along the border to assess their abilities to respond to the caravan. They evaluated shelter capacity, security forces, information about the ports of entry and other federal, state and local government resources.
“What we came up with was that the best-equipped city to handle the caravan was Tijuana,” Celorio said. “But this was completely different, something we had never handled before.”
Everyone had been tracking the caravan from the beginning, through media coverage and via federal officials in both the U.S. and Mexico.
“The point that it became, ‘OK, it’s coming to San Diego’ and we got the confirmation from the Mexican consulate, that was when we were like, ‘OK, we need to have a sit down because this is going to come to San Diego and how are we going to be able to effect effectively and efficiently react to the situation?” Garcia said.
Garcia spoke with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, his chief of staff, chief operating officer and officials in public safety, like the police and fire chiefs. She was in constant communication with Celorio.
“We didn’t really know how it was going to play out,” Garcia said. “We knew it was coming, but were people going to be allowed to cross into San Diego? Are they going to need a place to stay? We didn’t know. So it was really just observing, waiting for it to happen and getting information from the federal agencies and the Mexican government on what the city was going to need to do to prepare for this.”
The city wasn’t sure how to prepare, Garcia said.
According to e-mails obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Public Records Act request, Customs and Border Protection organized a meeting on Nov. 16 to brief first responders and the medical community at the border. The acting commander of Border Patrol’s Search, Trauma, and Rescue unit at the time asked county and city officials to collaborate with federal agencies to address “cross border safety and security challenges along with the potential impacts to the legitimate flow of trade and travel.”
“Impacts to San Diego communities includes, road and highway closures, emergency and medical crises, pandemics and communicable diseases, convergence of opposing advocacy groups, and overall public safety. …This is not the first time our agencies have collaborated for the common good (Operation Unified Resolve). The strength of our partnerships will allow a comprehensive and effective resolution that aligns with common objectives,” he wrote.
Garcia began receiving regular updates from the Mexican consulate and San Diego Police Department on the number of migrants arriving in Tijuana and Mexicali, emails show. She scheduled meetings with CalTrans and the Chamber of Commerce to deal with traffic management and minimizing economic impacts of the caravan.
“There was no direction given to the city like, ’We need X, Y, Z from the city of San Diego,’” Garcia said. “It was just more of a ‘Here’s what’s happening. We want to keep you up to date because it may or not affect you.’”
Just days before the closure, on Nov. 20, 2018, a Department of Homeland Security official e-mailed the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, asking if there was anyone in Tijuana who could send a “list” or “roster” of caravan members.
Even the federal government seemed to recognize the two cities’ strong ties.
Meanwhile, Celorio juggled coordinating between U.S. federal agencies, Mexican federal agencies and local officials in Tijuana and San Diego.
“It was pretty challenging for me,” Celorio said. “I never had that experience before.”
Concern was also swelling apart from the bureaucratic scrambling.
“I can remember crossing in my car and seeing officers in black fatigues and getting worried.” Wells said. “The installation of concertina wire was so disconcerting.”
Norma Chavez-Peterson, the executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said her organization started gearing up to ensure the rights of people in the caravan were upheld.
“In San Diego, this was right off the heels of zero tolerance, Operation Streamline and family separations,” Chavez-Peterson said. “It’s been nonstop. But from the ACLU perspective, we needed to make sure all these folks’ rights to seek asylum were protected.”
On Nov. 15, the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce warned its members of potential border shutdowns in an e-mail:
“This caravan is an organized movement. Approximately 1722 migrants have shown up in Tijuana and 3000 are expected to show up in our area in 2-3 days. Unfortunately, some of the migrants have showed aggressive behavior. This morning a group of migrants intended to jump inside some northbound cargo trucks in the Tecate area. Thanks to quick communications between our stakeholders, CBP and Mexican Customs, this situation was handled quickly. IF aggressive behavior cannot be contained and are in near proximity to our ports, that particular port will shut down. This is WORST CASE SCENARIO.”
The Big Closure
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, members of the caravan planned a march in effort to compel U.S. authorities to hear their asylum claims and protest the conditions in the makeshift shelter they were staying in.
“We were monitoring on social media,” Celorio said. “I had a channel of communication with police forces in Mexico and CBP and Border Patrol. [CBP and Border Patrol] knew they were thinking about moving to the border, so CBP and Border Patrol were very clear that they were going to shut down the border if that happened.”
Shortly after 11 a.m., the march splintered as some groups of people attempted to cross the border. Hundreds of those marching got around a Mexican federal police barricade, crossed the Tijuana River and headed towards the border.
U.S. and Mexican authorities shut down the San Ysidro Port of Entry entirely around 11:15 a.m., blocking pedestrians and vehicles from crossing in both directions. It remained closed for roughly five hours.
Shortly before noon, U.S. officials fired tear gas and a “flash-bang” grenade at a group of people attempting to cross through a fence into the United States. Agents also fired tear gas at a group of people who were attempting to use a train crossing to enter the country. That group included families with small children who attempted to hide under the train to avoid the gas.
Garcia received a call from Customs and Border Protection and from the chief of the San Diego Police Department that the border had been closed. She immediately got on the phone with Faulconer, his chief of staff and a few others.
“It was like, ‘OK, this is happening,’” she said. “How are we going to get this message out to people that the border’s closed so there is no immediate fear?”
The San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce also decided the best thing it could do was provide information.
“The best thing we could do was be a real-time confirmed news source to our businesses,” Wells said. “Whether the port of entry was closed, would stay closed, if businesses needed to fear for violence. Because on the internet you could’ve found anything that day.”
Garcia emphasized that the impacts went beyond devastating economic losses.
The closure separated family members who didn’t know when they’d be able to see their loved ones again.
“We’ve worked so hard for this U.S.-Mexico relationship at this border, and that visual wasn’t what we wanted to share with the rest of the world,” Garcia said. “That was one of the thoughts in my head like, ‘God, we worked so hard and now we have this visual of like a militarized border.’ That’s not who we are. We’re here because we share – we share an environment, we share air, we share families, we share cross-border commerce.”
A Humanitarian Crisis on Both Sides of the Border
In the end, the border closure itself lasted five hours and cost businesses in San Ysidro, which depend on cross-border traffic for their yearly profits – particularly between Thanksgiving and Christmas – $5.3 million. The losses to Tijuana businesses were equivalent to roughly $6.5 million.
But, as everyone well knows, the chaos didn’t end there.
The ramifications from the federal government’s decision to stop reviewing migrant families’ plans once they’d been released into the country, including ensuring they had travel arrangements to connect with a sponsor elsewhere in the United States and making sure they go to their immigration hearings, only got more dramatic in the weeks following the border closure.
As border disruptions became increasingly common in the weeks before the port of entry closure, the advocates and nonprofit workers who’d set up a grassroots operation to help funnel migrants to local churches and makeshift shelters moved closer to crisis mode.
On Wed. Nov. 21, 2018, the day before Thanksgiving, an official from the county’s public safety group reached out to Garcia regarding the need for a more stable shelter.
“Our view is that managing this issue largely falls upon the federal and state governments, with the assistance of the many NGO organizations that have mobilized to assist the migrants that are released into San Diego. With that said, we are not naïve to the fact that at some point this community based system currently in place could get overwhelmed or fall apart—requiring us to step in and protect our community’s health and safety. It is for this reason we believe planning and continued coordination between the city and county is prudent and necessary,” the official wrote.
After some fumbling, the city and county eventually began making moves to help secure a more permanent shelter in December 2018. Gov. Gavin Newsom also dedicated state funding to the service providers running the migrant shelter.
Tijuana, too, faced a migrant shelter crisis. All its existing shelters were nearly at capacity when the roughly 6,000-person caravan arrived last November.
“Baja California had to be ready to offer other services – education, housing, health,” Celorio said. “That was a main challenge.”
Border apprehensions – a proxy for how many people are trying to cross at the border – have risen and fallen with seasons and shifts in migration. New shelters have since popped up in Tijuana, and plans for a new government shelter are in the works, though they’re delayed. Migrants continue to face weeks- or even months-long waits to be able to request asylum because U.S. Customs and Border Protection only process a limited number of people every day.
But over the past year, a new policy commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” which requires asylum-seekers to be sent back to Mexico to await their asylum hearings, has shifted the burden even further onto Tijuana and other Mexican border cities. The number of migrants staying in San Diego’s shelter have plummeted since last fall to roughly 100 per week – what they used to receive in a single night.
But the service providers I spoke with said they thought dealing with last fall’s challenges put them in a better position to respond to whatever next shifts and challenges happen at the border.
“What we saw is organizations that typically work in their own silos figure out how to work together,” Chavez-Peterson said. “Beyond that, I think we saw this awakening of people locally, of compassionate human spirit, of good people asking, ‘What can I do to help?’”