Anxiety at the border as one crossing closes

As United States Border Patrol decided to close one of the busiest border crossings in the world Sunday, firing tear gas and bullets at a group of migrants trying to claim asylum there, many people who wanted to enter the United States from Tijuana headed to the next nearest border, a normally sleepy entry point called Otay Mesa.

A long line quickly formed at Otay Mesa, about six miles from that first border crossing, San Ysidro. People stood in a line that snaked around itself, sandwiched between a car wash and a row of shops. Eventually, it reached the walkway of a small park, where people waited alongside three lanes of cars, also in line to cross the border.

As new people lined up, a kind of ritual began to form – they craned their necks, searching for the end of the line, before realizing that it stretched far out of sight. Then, they returned to their spot, dejected and sometimes laughing at the absurdity of it.

Photos: Carla Green

Reports of what happened at San Ysidro quickly became international news, but information in the line was patchy. Closing the border at San Ysidro felt extraordinary – no one could seem to remember that happening before. The San Ysidro border closing also stoked fears that, like the thousands of migrants waiting in Tijuana to apply for asylum, anyone in the line could be shut in – or out of – Mexico.

The San Ysidro border crossing opened up again a couple hours after it closed, and Otay never closed. But fear that the border might close at Otay, too, loomed over the line – it was an upsetting prospect for some people who cross the border weekly, or even daily.

Noemí, who was standing in line with her daughter Jocelyn, lives in San Diego, and visits Tijuana every weekend. All her family lives there, she said.

She had been following what’s going on with the caravan and said both the governments of both Mexico and the United States were at fault for the current crisis.

“I think this is all unorganized,” she said. “And I feel what is happening right at the border, and all about the caravan, I blame the governments. It’s not the people who are in the caravan. Not the Honduran people. It’s the governments.”

Her daughter, Jocelyn, chimed in.

“We totally understand where these people are coming from,” she said. “It’s just unfortunate how the repercussions of their movement are falling on what we’ve already been struggling with for a long time, which is the border. There could be a potential for us to permanently not be able to visit our families, like we have been able to do for a very long time. And that’s sad because we have lives in both sides of the country.

As the sun started to set, an informal marketplace of goods and services coalesced around the line – a woman selling popsicles out of a small cart. A man with a pastry tray. A churro stand, popular with the Mexican federal police standing around near the border.

Paul Bumstead had been in line since about 3:30 PM, and he was worried. A middle-aged guy from Boston holding a battered yellow Louis Vuitton bag with glasses hanging off his nose, he said he just moved to Tijuana recently. Living there, where it’s cheap, and commuting to San Diego to work as a day laborer.

“I mean, they left this one open, but what’s next, they’re gonna close this one, too? Then there’s no way to get back into the United States?” he said. “Then what would I do? I don’t got no way to support myself over here. I’d be stuck over here.”