Hoping for asylum, migrants arrive to squalid conditions in Tijuana

Last Sunday, the world’s attention focused on the U.S. Mexico border and a confrontation between Central American migrants in Tijuana and the U.S. Border Patrol. After the migrants approached the border fence en masse, and reportedly threw rocks at the Americans, Border Patrol agents responded by firing tear gas into the crowds of men, women and children.

The incident underscored the plight of thousands of migrants who’ve arrived in the border city in recent days, coming from such countries as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Some of the Central Americans are seeking formal political asylum in the United States, others say they want to go to the U.S. to find a job or to reunite with family members.

Although President Trump has characterized the migrants as dangerous invaders and ordered troops to the border to bolster security, the migrants say they pose no threat. They say they’re just trying to escape grinding poverty and soaring violence in their native countries.

As they try to find a way to get into the United States, whether legally or illegally, Tijuana has become a kind of lifeboat for the migrants, with many finding shelter and help in shelters opened by the city. KCRW spent two-days at one of the shelters talking to some of the newcomers to the border city. Below is some of what we saw and heard. 

Central American migrants who’ve arrived in Tijuana are staying at camp sites across the city. The largest is at the Benito Juarez Sports Center near the U.S.-Mexico border. People sleep in individual tents and big common shelters like this one.  Many have also fashioned temporary dwellings out of sheets of plastic and blankets. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Fleeing domestic abuse and high levels of crime in El Salvador, Roxana Dimas traveled to Tijuana with her two-year-old son Oscar. “I simply can’t go back to El Salvador,” says Roxana. “If I do my son’s life might be in danger.” Roxana wants to apply for asylum in the United States and eventually reach a family member living in Texas. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Concerns are growing about sanitation and hygiene in the camp. Large numbers of people are packed into a relatively small space and few facilities for long-term living. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Men, women and children in the camp try to stay clean using outdoor shower facilities. There’s no privacy, so people bath in their underwear. Portable toilets have also been set up, but they’re often surrounded by pools of stagnant and dirty water. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Santiago Velasquez, who’s 23 and from Honduras, is one of the many young men in the camp. “My dream is making it to the United States,” says Santiago. “I just want to work, an opportunity to get ahead and to make a better future for my family.” According to the World Bank, more than 60% of Hondurans live in extreme poverty. One in five Hondurans survive on less than $2.00 a day. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Just outside the camp, people line up for meals, with women and children in one line and men in another. People are patient as they wait up to an hour until they get served. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Currently the migrants are are being served two meals a day, but Tijuana’s mayor says that could be reduced to only one daily meal, unless the city gets more financial assistance from Mexico’s federal government or international institutions.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Mexican social service agencies and non-profits are providing services at the migrant camp. They range from medical examinations to immigration assistance, like this desk where people can make arrangements to return to their native countries. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
In the neighborhood around the camp, the Mexican military and law enforcement personnel stand watch, with some wearing riot control gear. Mexico says it will deport migrants who commit crimes or try to illegally enter the United States.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Volunteers from both sides of the border are offering assistance to the migrants, from donating diapers and clothing to serving warm drinks and donuts. In Tijuana, a city of 1.8 million people, there’s a growing debate over how welcoming the city should be to the newcomers. While some Tijuana residents offer help, others have protested the migrants presence, saying the city doesn’t have the resources to care for them. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
As Tijuana attempts to care for Central Americans already in the city, new groups arrive daily. These men from El Salvador have just come from the city of Mexicali and are walking towards the migrant center. Like so many others newcomers, they say they have no idea what the future holds.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)