In my time covering the border I’ve witnessed different groups of migrants crossing at the Tijuana-San Diego border. For decades, they were mainly Mexicans, heading north to find work or reunite with family members. But in recent years the flow has been changing.
In 2016, thousands of Haitians showed up at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Many had been living in Brazil, but as the country fell into recession, large numbers headed for the United States.
More than two years later, in the fall of 2018, thousands of Central Americans arrived in Tijuana in giant caravans, many fleeing violence and poverty. There have been smaller groups of Ukrainians, Russians and Cameroonians.
This year people seem to be coming from everywhere all at once. From Ecuador, Turkey, Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India, China and Vietnam.
I decided to see firsthand what was happening just miles from my house – and this time I didn’t even cross the border.
Here’s What I Found
On a patch of grass at a bus and trolley station on Iris Avenue, a half dozen women from Vietnam hovered over cellphones. In the parking lot, a group of men from Senegal tried to figure out how to get to the airport without money. They told me they were robbed in Mexico. On the sidewalk, a man from Guatemala spoke on the phone in a Mayan language to his father in Riverside County. A man from Eritrea sat on the curb, lacing his shoes.
U.S. Border Patrol agents had just dropped them off and they were struggling to find their way. Many of them didn’t have money or working cell phones – just U.S. immigration court documents and pieces of paper with hand-written addresses and phone numbers.
To the west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, just off of Dairy Mart Road, hundreds of migrants waited between two U.S. border fences. The groups I saw were small, traveling with family members or clustered in small groups of fewer than a dozen migrants. Some were traveling alone.
A 46-year-old clothing merchant from the northwest African country of Mauritania, said he could no longer support himself. He had left behind an 82-year-old mother and young daughter, he told me in halting French as we spoke through steel bollards. Back home, “it’s very difficult,” he said.
His journey had taken him through so many countries. First to Turkey, then to Colombia. Through Central America and Mexico, finally to Tijuana, where he had arrived a couple of days earlier and headed straight to this fenced area, he said. When I asked how he got in, he said it was a secret, though one man from Ecuador said he had paid $600 to cross into this barren spot.
Across the fence, volunteers from migrant support groups offered food, water and a cell phone charging station. Border Patrol vans arrived, and left loaded with new groups for processing.
Pedro Rios, director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee, told me he heard of people congregating by the fence two or three weeks ago.
“But they were being moved out very quickly,” he said. “It wasn’t until late last week where we saw people staying here for a longer period of time.”
In some ways, it seems to be a repeat of last May, when immigration officials left hundreds of migrants at a time to wait for days.
As in May, a smaller group has camped near the U.S.-Mexico border fence near the East County community of Jacumba Hot Springs. Voice of San Diego multimedia journalist Ariana Drehsler found a group of more than 100 people there on Sunday night in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol agents.
But the timing of this surge is raising the question: Why now? Back in May, the crossings spiked just as the Biden administration prepared to lift Title 42, the Covid-19 pandemic restriction that had virtually halted the asylum process at the border. Immigration officials instructed asylum applicants waiting in Mexico to sign up for appointments through the CBP One application.
But this new group of migrants has not been waiting to register with CBP. “They don’t know about it,” Rios told me. “The people who are here just recently arrived.”
Some Numbers: As more migrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, many others on their way.
Unprecedented numbers are crossing on foot through the dangerous Darien Gap – a dense tropical jungle between Colombia and Panama, then typically making their way by land through Central America and Mexico. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – citing figures from the government of Panama– reported this month that a record of 330,000 migrants made the crossing–more than half of those from Venezuela. This year’s total already has surpassed the 2022 total of 284,000.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection numbers show that illegal crossings at the southern U.S. border – including San Diego County – initially plunged last May and June following the lifting of Title 42 restrictions. But since July, they have been rising sharply. CBP will release the latest numbers for August soon. But the Washington Post, citing preliminary data, has reported that the Border Patrol “made more than 177,000 arrests along the Mexico border in August, up from 132,652 in July and 99,539 in June.”
Organized crime: David Perez Tejada, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute in Baja California, told reporters last week that organized crime had taken control of several points on the U.S. border. Perez Tejada named several “hot zones” in Tijuana, including the Tijuana River channel and canyons near Playas de Tijuana, El Imparcial newspaper reported. He said traffickers cross close to 1,000 migrants through the Tijuana River channel over the course of a weekend.
Deadly land route: In a report released last week, the International Organization for Migration described the U.S.-Mexico border as the deadliest land route worldwide on record, documenting 686 deaths and disappearances in 2022.
Smuggling by sea: The U.S. Border Patrol last week reported some recent incidents attempting to enter along the Pacific Ocean. Two of the incidents took place at Border Field State Park, one involving a group of 20 swimmers who returned to Mexico once they were spotted. That same night, six swimmers were caught in Imperial Beach near Seacoast Drive after crossing the Tijuana River. In recent days, agents have also reported personal watercraft traveling from Mexico at a high rate of speed, in one instance dropping off an individual at the Imperial Beach pier who was taken into custody
Fatality at border fence: On Friday afternoon, a woman died after falling from the U.S. border fence west of Tijuana’s A.L. Rodriguez International Airport on Otay Mesa, U.S. authorities reported. She has not been identified.
Mexico’s Grupo Beta makes a rescue: A 43-year-old woman and 31-year-old man, both from Mexico City, were rescued earlier this month by agents from Grupo Beta, a federal migrant protection unit, after getting lost in a rocky mountainous area between Tecate and Mexicali. The migrants said that they were deceived by a smuggler who charged them 70,000 pesos–about $4000–to cross them to the United States. The smuggler led them to a canyon, saying they were a short walk from the U.S. border. After they were too exhausted to continue, they were able to call for help and were found by agents 30 hours after they began walking.
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