Crossing the border and visiting the migrant caravan

Mexico's flag
North America » Mexico » Baja California » Tijuana
December 18th 2018
Published: December 18th 2018
Edit Blog Post

The Central American migrant caravan has been in the news for the last few months, and having a free day in San Diego yesterday, I decided to hop across the border and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Due to a bad experience of getting my car windows smashed many years ago in Tijuana, I decided not to risk it. I parked just before the border and walked across.

One thing I noticed ywas that almost everyone crossing into Tijuana, at least on foot, looked Mexican and was speaking Spanish. I think many people have day passes, and others are dual citizens.

Anyway, there wasn’t any wait at all to go into Mexico, and no immigration check whatsoever on the Mexican side, just an X-ray for those with bags.

As soon as I walked into Tijuana, I looked for a taxi driver who spoke English. I found one right away. I tried to make sure he knew where to take me to see the caravan, and that he wouldn’t rip me off. Once I felt more assured, I got in his cab and we were off.

He said there are two caravan sites, a small one nearby and a big one 15 miles away. I asked him to take me to the big one.

When we arrived, there was a big flea market going on, which I was told has nothing to do with the caravan and takes place every Sunday.

There was a kind of compound, and Mexican Federal Police guarding the entrances.

I tried to gain entrance, but the woman at the entrance said only those with a valid press pass can get inside. They also turned away a US based documentary film crew that arrived at the same time as me. We chatted for a bit, and they briefly interviewed me for their film. Like me, they were interested in talking to the migrants, and even though we couldn’t get into the compound, there was plenty of opportunity to do that.

The migrants each have a badge saying their name and country of origin. They are not restricted from entering or leaving the compound. They get free food and some type of shelter (unfortunately, I didn’t get to see what it looks like).

I immediately noticed a family of four wearing badges, just outside the compound. Father, mother and two boys. Their badges said they were from Honduras. I asked the father how long they’ve been in Mexico. He said almost two months. “Why did you leave your country?” The gangs and violence. I pressed on, knowing that many claim that asylum seekers and refugees are often driven by economic opportunity rather than safety concerns. “So are you looking for safety or economic opportunity?” Both. I believe him. Finally I asked “Would you stay in Mexico, or you only want to go to USA?”. He said they would consider staying in Mexico.

We kept walking around. Standing on the sidewalk, we saw a young woman holding a baby asking passing cars for change.

I gave her some coins and asked a few questions.

Her badge said she, too, was from Honduras. I asked how old her baby was? She said 6 months. How old was she? 17. 17? Yes, 17. Was she married? Yes. Her husband is at the camp in downtown Tijuana trying to get asylum for them. She said he was 30.

This seemed like a good time to get some lobster, so we headed to the small coastal town of Puerto Nuevo, famous for their lobster restaurants. On the way, I asked my driver, German (pronounced “Herman”) about his life and how he felt about the migrants.

He said he was born and raised in Tijuana. He is 33 years old, married with two kids.

When he was 18 years old, he illegally worked for 4 years in the U.S., working as a waiter in a San Diego suburb. He was eventually caught, deported and barred from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years. He has not been back since, and now just wants to stay in Mexico.

How does he feel about the caravan? Not very positive. He says they’re given free food, and then complain about the food.

They’re straining the resources of Tijuana.

Twice in the past month, they stormed the border and the border had to be closed. Now American tourists, which was the bulk of his business, have stopped coming as a result of all the bad news.

When we arrived in Puerto Nuevo, I felt bad for the store owners as all the souvenir stalls were deserted, and there were almost no tourists to be seen on a sunny weekend day. The restaurant was almost empty as well. German offered to wait for me while I had my lunch, and was pleasantly surprised when I insisted we eat together. We sat outside enjoying the sunshine and ocean view. Then walked around the deserted streets and empty shops for a bit before heading back to Tijuana, about 40 minutes away.

We went to visit the smaller caravan camp. They are camped in tents right against the border wall. Apparently, all the caravan was there, but they were offered free room and board if they would relocate to the compound I tried to visit earlier, which is further from the border.

The tent city reminded me of the homeless encampments one sees in San Francisco and other cities (can’t help but wonder if the migrants are aware of this aspect of American society, or just expect to arrive in some kind of perfect paradise).

It seemed like mostly, but not only, young men at the tent city. We saw a young girl sitting outside her tent. She said she was 16, from Chiapas in southern Mexico, was traveling alone and seeking asylum in the U.S. German thought she’s lying and is really from Guatemala. (Chiapas has its own problematic history with the central Mexican government).

Important side note: I think it’s important to point out a reporter’s bias. Both because they are less intimidating to approach, as well as eliciting a stronger emotional reaction, I think unconsciously (until I thought about it) I did the same thing which most reporters do when seeing a group of refugees or migrants: gravitate towards the families or women with babies, not young men. There were, in fact, many young men who seemed to be traveling alone. Just be aware that those you see interviewed by the media are not necessarily a truly representative sample.

I love Mexico, but I usually go to Mexican beach resorts. In recent years I’ve been to Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum. I was telling my driver about my favorite places, but then stopped as I felt bad since it became clear that he couldn’t afford to visit some of the most beautiful places in his own country.

Tijuana is not a major tourist destination, except for day trips, and I hadn’t been there in at least 10 years.

One thing I noticed on this brief visit to Tijuana, is how many black faces one sees. Several thousand Haitians cane to Tijuana a few years ago, also hoping to make it to the U.S. When they found out it wasn’t possible, they stayed in TJ and made their life there. For the most part, they’ve been welcomed by the Mexicans:

Despite sharing a common ethnic, cultural and linguistic background, there’s more resentment towards the caravan migrants. Many say their attitude is arrogant, aggressive and ungrateful.

The ones I met and spoke with were sympathetic people. So I don’t know if it’s just a handful of “bad apples” making the whole bunch look bad.

Last week, a 7 year old girl from Guatemala died while in US custody under unclear circumstances. At the migrant camp, they were handing out flyers with her picture and demanding asylum for all in the US, demanding the removal of Trump “by any means necessary”, referring to themselves twice as being in concentration camps, and saying they don’t want to stay in Mexico.

It’s not clear to me how much US activist groups are involved with the migrant caravan (as has been alleged repeatedly by conservatives), but there’s definitely at least humanitarian involvement. When I visited the compound, a group calling itself Border Angels ( ) was handing out notebooks with pens and some snacks.

As we headed back to the border, we stopped by the main drag called Avenida Revolucion. Again, there were many more tourist shops than tourists. And one thing that hasn’t changed is that bizarre Tijuana speciality - a donkey painted as a zebra, posing for photographs.

Immigration and asylum seeking is a heated topic right now, and this will likely spur some debate, so let me make my personal position clear: I believe every country has a right to enforce its own borders. Without violence, unless absolutely necessary. I do not believe all these migrants should be automatically given asylum. I think their cases should be reviewed individually to see who may be eligible. I think most should be willing to stay in Mexico, which is a relatively safe and stable country with a similar culture and language to their own, making absorption much easier.

There were definitely some people there, like the Honduran family I met, who I would have personally liked to help more and hear what happens to them.

There were also people with terrible attitudes, as indicated by the flyers with the girl’s picture. You want to seek asylum in our country and demand that we remove our President “by any means necessary”??? One doesn’t need to be a Trump supporter (I’m not) to see how ridiculous and outrageous this is.

In my travels around the world, I’ve met countless people whose dream was to come to America. Some were dirt poor, and others were doing relatively well, like my Armenian tour guide. I’ve discouraged all of them from trying to come illegally.

Every day, thousands of people from poor and often war torn or gang ruled countries try to make their way to the US or Europe, hoping for a better life, probably not having a realistic idea of what to expect. And every year, thousands die trying to make the journey to the US or Europe.

This issue will be with us for the foreseeable future. This caravan is a drop in the bucket that got a lot of news thanks to Trump.

Before we reached the U.S. border, we stopped at another tent city along the border wall - this one, my driver said, consisting of people who had been deported, many of them Mexicans. Many will probably try to cross again.

The immigration line back into the US was long but moved quickly. It took less than an hour to cross back. This time, of course, there was immigration control. The immigration officer took a quick look at my passport and waved me through.

I felt fortunate to live in the US, with its freedom and opportunities, and to be able to travel freely all over the world.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Tot: 0.111s; Tpl: 0.021s; cc: 10; qc: 49; dbt: 0.0132s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb