TIJUANA, Mexico—The border fence separating the United States and Mexico runs right into the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean at a beachside neighborhood called Playas de Tijuana.
The Mexican side of the beach feels like a laid-back resort. Tourists stroll on the sand and take pictures of themselves by the slatted iron fence, which is covered in bright graffiti and murals.
Street vendors sell drinks and skewers of grilled camarones, shrimp, on the boardwalk that runs along a beach road lined with humble seafood joints.
Looking north into the United States through the slats in the border fence, though, International Friendship Park is ghostly quiet, its grassy dunes barren except for the few U.S. Border Patrol agents who roll their SUVs up to the fence to keep watch.
On the Mexican side, you can get close enough to stretch your arms through the spaces between slats in the fence and “touch” the neighboring country. But you’d risk cutting your fingers on the razor wire that’s coiled next to it on the U.S. side.
Eighteen miles up the coast, the beachside community of Coronado, on a peninsula across the bay from San Diego, practically gleams on the horizon but seems like another world.
The gallows humor of a tormented and unappreciated neighbor underpins a famous saying attributed to the late-19th century Mexican President Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.”
Here at the Playas de Tijuana and other locations in this culture clash of a border town bursting with nearly 2 million people, that couldn’t be more true.
Tijuana has all of the trappings of a city at the edge of two countries: Tens of thousands of Mexican commuters traveling across the border to work in the San Diego area each day, busy shopping districts, gritty party zones filled with foreign clubbers, unflappable residents who’ve seen it all.
The city’s also on edge, a battleground in the political fight in the United States over what to do about the thousands of migrants who’ve made their way here in the past year.
The new arrivals have traveled over Mexico’s rugged terrain mostly on foot but also by train, smugglers’ vehicles and other means, from Central and South America and the Caribbean.
What many of them are looking for is the chance to find safety, work or a good education in the United States for their kids.
Once they reach the border, what they often find instead is uncertainty.
In Tijuana, the idea of “asylum” takes on many different meanings. The city has come to represent a safe haven of its own—the place to regroup, hold tight or settle while the dream of living in the United States hangs in the balance or fades entirely once the reality of America’s shifting asylum rules becomes clear.
The distance to Tijuana from Tapachula—the border town in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas that sits just across from Guatemala and serves as a launch site for migrant caravans—is 2,425 miles.
The trip north through Mexico alone takes 44 hours by car, about two days.
It takes 800 hours on foot, a little over one month.
Lots of factors have forced people to take this grueling journey. Poverty, organized crime and political instability have upturned countries in the Americas, particularly El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela, that were already fragile. The latest shift by the Trump administration would make it all but impossible for any of these migrants—adult or child—passing through Mexico from other countries to get asylum. It is being challenged in court.
This isn’t the first major wave of migrants from Central America to arrive at America’s doorstep. Going back to the 1990s, people were fleeing drug and gang-related violence in the region. Internal political conflicts in the 1980s, some supported by U.S.-backed covert operations, also contributed to instability in the region, driving people to safer countries.
But today’s migrants are more heavily influenced by organized crime.
“Whereas migrants fled civil wars in the 1980s, they now flee gangs,” Daniel Reichman, a Central American migration expert at the University of Rochester, recently wrote.
There’s also a Haitian-migrant community of about 3,000 in Tijuana.
A shantytown set in a ravine with no paved roads serves as home base for some migrants from that impoverished country, which is still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010.
In the city center, Haitian-owned businesses, barber shops and restaurants, have sprung up to serve fellow expats as well as locals.
The border looks like a fixed presence, a line on the map. But the closer you get to it, and the more you talk to migrants living near it, you come to realize that it is much more than that.
It’s both a series of fences, walls, checkpoints and natural barriers and a metaphorical goal post that can be moved back and forth according to the whims and demands of those in power.
The border’s tantalizingly close, and painfully out of reach.
The Department of Homeland Security says that a 600% surge of apprehensions of families migrating with children at the U.S. Mexico border over the past year has brought America’s border-security and immigration systems “to the point of collapse.”
Given the recent surge, a dramatic increase in the percentage of asylum-claim denials over the past two years, unpredictable policy shifts at the federal level and a yearslong backlog of asylum cases on the U.S. side, migrants waiting to make their cases face the difficult decision of whether to keep waiting, settle in Tijuana, enter illegally or go home.
Tijuana has a generally welcoming spirit and a strong economy for migrants with Mexican work visas who decide to stay. But it is by no means ideal.
The city recently earned the unwelcome distinction of becoming the fifth most dangerous city in the world—100.77 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017—due in large part to turf battles between rival criminal organizations. Last year was its most violent ever—2,500 homicides.
Juan Carlos, a 36-year-old who migrated with his wife and three children from El Salvador in October, has no intention of going back, despite the challenges of living in Tijuana.
This spring he decided to settle on the outskirts of the city, at a home offered to him by generous locals. Up until recently the family was staying at shelters.
A baker and bread distributor by trade, Juan Carlos says he left El Salvador after he was beaten for not paying a $50 monthly kickback to a local gang. He says the gang informed him that if he failed to pay the next month, he and his family would be killed. Because he fears for his life, he asked that I use only his first and middle name.
Gangs such as Barrio 18 and MS-13 have terrorized and extorted entire poor communities in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, neighboring countries that make up the Northern Triangle.
“If you get along with the guys in the street, the police come and kill you or unfairly put you in jail for several years, and if you become friends with the police, the gangsters come and do entire massacres in your house,” Juan Carlos says.
“All that is daily life. On this side, there’s a neighborhood; opposite, there’s another neighborhood. There, they have a gang, and here they have another gang.”
Every day back home, Juan Carlos had to choose sides.
In the end, he’s had to choose countries.
“All that made us scared for our lives,” Juan Carlos says of his situation. “We had to gather our clothes and our children and leave in the middle of the night.”
The family eventually made it to Tapachula, where they lived for three months while waiting for Mexican humanitarian visas, good for one year, before joining a caravan.
The family was broke.
“There were times where I lost my sense of shame,” Juan Carlos says of that period. “I had friends who gave me a hand. They’d give me money. And when we had nothing to eat, I’d go begging to the parks.”
Juan Carlos and his family joined a caravan that made its way on foot to Tijuana; they arrived at the end of January.
When we met, he and his family were staying at a shelter run by the group Juventud 2000, in what looked like walled-in lot with a covered roof that let in the cold spring air.
Dozens of tents, a dining area and restrooms filled the small space. Children ran through the aisles while listless-looking grown-ups watched TV in plastic chairs.
Among the migrants waiting in Tijuana for their asylum cases to move forward in the states, there are similar stories of desperation and resignation in the face of a U.S. immigration system that government officials say is overburdened.
Complicating matters for the migrants, not all stories of hardship by asylum-seekers are equal. Poverty, for instance, doesn’t qualify a migrant for asylum in the states.
Domestic violence and pressure from gangs—the latter of which has been identified as a major reason for the more recent exodus of Central Americans from their homelands—don’t guarantee a successful bid for refuge either.
Juan Carlos realized his chances were slim given the political realities in the United States. That’s one of the reasons why he and his partner decided they’d stay put in Mexico with their three kids, rather than proceed with their plan to make a case for asylum.
They feared that if their claim was denied, they’d be forced to go back home.
“I feel grateful to the Mexican people, and I feel a little upset with North America,” Juan Carlos says.
“We only want the president to touch his heart and say, ‘I’ll give you a chance,’” he says. But “from one moment to another, they tell us, ‘You’re not eligible. You’re all going back to your country.’”
“That’s chaos … It’s like they’re saying, ‘Give me five coffins. I’m sending this family to be buried there.’ It’s not fair.”
Tijuana has long been accustomed to the ebb and flow of people on the move from hardship and heading to the promised land up north—and vice versa.
In fact, about 30% of Mexican nationals who are deported from the United States enter Mexico through Tijuana, according to Jose Israel Ibarra, a journalist and researcher at the El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
The frontera, as the border is called in Spanish, seeps into the local psyche as effortlessly as waves through the posts in the fence at the beach.
The Tijuana craft brewery Insurgente sells a brew called Migrante IPA, proceeds of which go to local charities serving the migrant population.
Within view of the beach fence, there’s the Undocumented Cafe, whose name plays up the Tijuana area’s status as a way station for migrants on the way to the states as well as people who’ve been deported.
Daysi, a single mother from Honduras who was deported from the United States when her 12-year-old son Jimmy was just a year old, fears for her boy’s future if she has to take him to her native country. Because of safety concerns, we’re only using their first names.
Jimmy was born in the United States when she was living in New York.
When I met with them in Tijuana earlier this year, they were sleeping at a shelter operated by the nonprofit, migrant-services group Border Angels while she figured out how to get him back to the country of his birth, even if she couldn’t return because of her deportation.
Daysi said she was arrested on drug charges in New York and referred to ICE 11 years ago. She maintains her innocence, saying she was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
What’s more, she argued to immigration authorities at the time, she had a small child who needed her.
But because Daysi didn’t have legal status in the United States, she was given two options: Plead guilty and face jail time or self-deport—voluntarily leave the country.
She chose to leave. Officials sent her baby boy to be with her in Honduras soon after.
She wants the United States government to review her case and allow her to return.
One thing she refused to consider was sending her son back to the dangers that await a teenage boy in Honduras. She feared he would be recruited by gangs, or killed for rejecting them, if they went there.
“I don’t know what my future has in store for me, but the important thing is that I at least put my son there by the wall,” she said.
Jimmy was matter-fact-about his priorities: “Study, work, help my mom,” he said. “And help us get out of all these problems.”
Daysi recalled with some irony the time Jimmy told her he wanted to be a customs and immigration officer when he grows up.
“But now he’s living … with immigrants,” she said, pointing out that the two of them had to sleep in parks and on floors in the beginning, and beg for money in the street.
A 2018 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the recruitment of children and teens in Central America backs up the claims of migrants who fear returning their sons and daughters to their home countries.
“Girls, boys and adolescents, in fact, are groups most impacted by violence and rights violations in their diverse forms, as well as by organized crime,” the report says.
It also says that government officials in those countries do a poor job of protecting children’s rights and preventing their recruitment into gangs.
Daysi and Jimmy were in a holding pattern. But she was resolute.
“I’d rather turn myself over to the United States and be imprisoned,” Daysi said.
“But I won’t give my son to gangs—ever.”
A few months after I spoke to them, Daysi sent Jimmy to stay with relatives near Washington, D.C.
She remains in Tijuana.