President Trump and his administration spent the weeks before the midterm election warning that a “caravan” of Central American migrants was going to attempt to cross illegally into the US.
Weeks later — with the president’s attention already elsewhere — it looks like his prophecy is finally being fulfilled by at least a few caravan members. But instead of an organized and deliberate invasion, it’s a simple act of desperation from people who have waited for weeks to come legally to claim asylum and can’t afford to wait for months more.
Over the past few days, journalists in Tijuana have followed groups of caravan members as they’ve attempted to cross the border fence that stretches across a beach on the westernmost end of the US-Mexico border, separating San Diego from Tijuana. Writing for the Washington Post, Kevin Sieff and Sarah Kinosian accompanied a group of three women last week as they made multiple attempts; on Sunday night, the New York Times and BuzzFeed both shadowed a group of 30 asylum seekers as they tried to cross.
Not everyone who tries makes it across the fence. But some have. Kinosian, a freelancer who’s in Tijuana with the caravan, sent Vox this video — recorded on Sunday night — of asylum seekers climbing across successfully:
The caravan members are responding to the US government’s refusal to let in people who try to cross into the US legally to seek asylum. Under a policy the Trump administration has had in place in Tijuana and across the border for months, they’re being told to wait — with no official appointment or line, at the mercy of overstretched shelters and local Mexican officials who are ambivalent about their presence.
Faced with a wait that could last until February or March — and no firm guarantee that they’ll get in at all — it’s not surprising that caravan members are taking matters into their own hands.
The caravan and its thousands of members are caught in a vise. For the past several months, the Trump administration has attempted to deter asylum seekers from crossing the US between ports of entry — even though it’s totally legal to seek asylum in the US even if you’ve crossed illegally to do it. But even as it’s done that, it‘s restricted access to ports of entry for asylum seekers seeking to come legally.
The US can stop them from crossing, but it can’t stop them from trying again. And its only plan to deal with the problem is to force them to remain in Mexico even longer — in the very conditions they’re seeking to escape.
Caravan members have been waiting to come into the US legally for weeks — and may not be allowed in until March
Even before the caravan showed up in Tijuana three weeks ago, about 3,000 asylum seekers were waiting there to be allowed to enter the US legally. The wait was already six weeks or longer. With the several thousand caravan migrants added to the queue, asylum seekers are now being told it could be February or March before they’re allowed to enter legally.
This isn’t usually how the US has treated asylum seekers. Until 2016, people who came to a port of entry and presented themselves for asylum were processed when they arrived. But the Obama administration pioneered a policy that the Trump administration has turned into standard practice along the border: turning away asylum seekers before they reach US soil, and telling them there’s no room for them to be processed right now.
The policy, known as “metering,” has been in place in Tijuana since late spring. Since then, the number of asylum seekers trying to get into the US — many of them families, and many from Central America — has increased substantially. But the number actually allowed in at ports of entry has stayed flat. Instead, the bottleneck has built up in cities along the Mexican side of the border.
Officially, in the eyes of the US government, the asylum seekers don’t exist until they’re allowed to set foot on US soil. So there’s no system that guarantees a place in line for people who are told to wait — at least, no official system. What’s emerged instead is an unofficial list managed on a day-to-day basis by asylum seekers themselves, with the tacit support of the Mexican immigration agency’s humanitarian arm. People put their names and information on the list and are given a number representing their place in line — and the best guess as to when their name might be called. (About 40 to 100 asylum seekers are allowed to enter at San Ysidro, the busiest port along the border, per day.)
So when asylum seekers wait with numbers written in marker on their arms — an image that exploded on the internet over the weekend because it evokes the tattoos used in Holocaust concentration camps — it’s not an act of government dehumanization (indeed, government officials didn’t write those numbers). It’s an effort by fellow asylum seekers to keep track of who’s in line so that they might ultimately be allowed to enter the US.
People simply don’t feel they can stay in limbo in Mexico for months
During the weeks that caravan members have waited in Tijuana, they haven’t been in conditions that seem sustainable — or even survivable — for a months-long wait.
The first temporary facility for caravan members, a sports complex, was overcrowded and unsanitary. Families struggled to find enough clean water to dissolve packets of powdered milk for their kids. When it flooded last week, the complex became unlivable.
Over the weekend, Mexican officials moved thousands of caravan members to a better facility, a 15-minute drive from the border. But many of the caravan members haven’t relocated there — either because they’d already dispersed or because they didn’t trust the Mexican government.
Even in a better facility, some asylum seekers have decided they can’t wait. Some are despondent about the prospect of being able to feed their children enough with the food they get in Tijuana, or feeding families back home on the money they might earn temporarily in Mexico (something they’d need a Mexican visa for anyway). Some are worried about safety in the camp. The mothers profiled by the Washington Post last week were the targets of rumors that they were prostitutes, making them feel at risk of sexual violence; one of them was also hit by the tear gas used by Border Patrol agents to dispel asylum seekers in the aftermath of a march last week. And some are simply bored and impatient, waiting for the next phase of their lives to start.
If they successfully cross the border fence and reach US soil but are caught by Border Patrol, they’ll be kept in immigration detention for weeks or longer. But that might be an alternative they’re willing to accept — after all, it means guaranteed shelter, food, and some degree of safety.
The US wants to force asylum seekers back to Mexico — without addressing the conditions pressuring them to leave
The Trump administration is currently fighting in court to reinstate its asylum ban, which would prevent anyone caught crossing illegally from applying for asylum in the US. A federal judge put that ban put on hold after nine days — in part because the judge blamed the US for making it so difficult for asylum seekers to cross legally. So for now, asylum seekers have an alternative to waiting in Mexico for months.
They may not have a choice much longer.
The Trump administration is working with the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on a policy that would force Central American asylum seekers — whether they tried to cross illegally or come in at a port of entry — to go back to Mexico after setting foot in the US to file their asylum claims, then wait in Mexico for months (or longer) while the claim was processed.
The policy, called “Remain in Mexico,” hasn’t been officially unveiled yet, and Mexico and the US are still working out the details. But the Trump administration is already preparing to start implementing it once a deal gets signed.
Under a “Remain in Mexico” policy, asylum seekers who were worried about their survival in Mexico might be forced to return there anyway. It’s not clear where they’d stay — whether the Mexican government would set up camps, or whether they’d be expected to find shelter and food on their own. It’s not clear why the camps would be any safer than the shelters are now.
Because few of the caravan members are well informed about asylum policy (possibly due to caravan organizers’ efforts to keep them in the dark), few of them appear to be aware that there might be a plan that would force them to stay in Mexico even longer before they reached the US.
If they did find out about the “Remain in Mexico” plan, it would be a powerful incentive to cross the border now — before the plan is put into effect. And right now, the only way to do that is to cross illegally.