A year has passed since two Central American caravans arrived in Tijuana last fall. These two weren’t the first caravans to arrive on the border; they weren’t even the first to arrive that year. But as the midterm elections heated up in 2018, President Donald Trump homed in on the groups’ northward movement to portray a crisis on the southern border. Though the strategy didn’t work for the elections, it did adjust the collective memory: Today, when you think of “the caravans,” you probably think of the two that arrived last autumn.
For many who joined those two fateful groups, the journey north reached a crescendo a year ago, on November 25, 2018. After weeks of living in the mud of tent cities, the pressure had built up, and a peaceful march in northern Tijuana descended into chaos as hundreds of people rushed the border wall. US Border Patrol shot tear gas into the crowd, causing panic. The photos from that day circulated around the world: images of mothers running with their children in their arms, as noxious white fumes bloomed around them.
I was at the border last fall, and two weeks after the tear-gas canisters first flew across the border, many of the Central Americans I spoke to in Tijuana still had hacking coughs. They told me that at that point, they couldn’t tell if it was from the gas or from weeks of living in the dust. But even with the difficulty of their current situation, most of the asylum seekers I talked to hadn’t given up on their plan to move northward. Hope remained. “This tent is better than Honduras,” an asylum seeker I’ll call Marisol told me (because of the risk of persecution many migrants face—from gangs, from cartels, from abusive spouses and from their own countries’ governments—I’ll be using pseudonyms for all the migrants quoted in this piece), pointing at the small tarp she shared with her three children. “And, when we cross, detention in the US will be better than this tent.” Near where Marisol’s family slept, some children had painted the Honduran flag on the pavement.
A year later, everything has changed. The hope that once sent thousands northward has largely been crushed. Back in Tijuana this fall, I found most of the shelters full not with Hondurans or Salvadorans, but with Mexicans—asylum seekers who told me they were fleeing cartel violence in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero. When I returned to the street where Marisol had pitched her tent, I found the scene unrecognizable: Where once there had been hundreds of other families, nothing remained. On the corner near where Marisol’s tent had stood, the flag had been washed away.
Today, few Central Americans asylum seekers have been able to make it to Tijuana. In the last 12 months, a combination of US deterrence policy and a massive Mexican immigration crackdown has destroyed northward movement towards Tijuana. Using threats of tariffs and diplomatic onslaughts, the Trump team has strong-armed the Mexican government into using its military to stop northward migration. When a new caravan formed in northern Guatemala last month, it was quickly barricaded by the soldiers and police: Almost 2,000 people from Central America, Cuba, and multiple African countries were taken into mass detention in Tapachula, thousands of miles from the US border. The conditions in these hastily arranged detention camps have created serious human rights concerns. In a troubling video that went viral in June, a Haitian mother lies on her belly and presses her face through the crack between a detention center wall and the outside. “Help me please, my son is dying,” she pleads, tears marking tracks through the dirt on her face.
With Mexico itself becoming a wall between Central America and the United States, and few Central Americans making their way to Tijuana, the current situation stands in stark contrast to this time last year. By December 2018, so many Central American asylum seekers had arrived in the city that the federal, state, and municipal governments collaborated to open a makeshift migrant camp in El Barretal, a massive defunct nightclub in Tijuana’s southeast. Inside that building, I met dozens of people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. As Christmas approached, some of them had heard that the Mexican government was offering to return Central Americans home for free, but almost all of them told me they were completely uninterested. “I’m not returning to become another one of the dead,” Esteban, a former police officer from El Salvador, told me.
When I returned to El Barretal last month, I found the entire complex vacant. As I peered over the wall, I saw the courtyard that had once been packed full of hundreds of tents completely empty but for a stray dog that ran along one of the walls.
It’s hard to know what happened to the majority of people who had stayed in the shelter. In a bleak report from February 2019, The New York Times reported that many people who had joined the caravans had been ”pushed beyond their limits by prolonged waits in dangerous and squalid conditions.” Thousands had given up; they either returned to Central America, or had gone elsewhere in Mexico.
Tijuana looks much different today than it did a year ago. When the caravans first arrived, the international media descended on the city in a swarm; camera flashes lit up shelters. Now, the city has mostly recovered from the chaos of last fall. Migration from the south has plunged to such a slow trickle that when I asked the city’s new mayor, Arturo González Cruz, what he thought of the issue, he told me, “It is practically not a problem.”
Instead, he said his city was facing a different challenge: People coming back into Tijuana from the United States.
“Right now, the real issue concerning migration has come from the US government deciding to expel migrants,” González said.
The mayor was referring the signature US immigration policy of 2019: the Trump administration’s controversial Remain in Mexico plan, known officially as the Migrant Protection Protocols. Since the MPP was announced on December 20 last year—two days after police found the bodies of two murdered Honduran teenagers in Tijuana—tens of thousands of asylum seekers who crossed the border have been forced back into Mexico to await the outcomes of their asylum court cases. Cities like Tijuana have struggled to absorb thousands of often desperate asylum seekers.
“We have had serious challenges working to adequately serve people who have just arrived,” González said. “Everything that comes with people who have not returned by their own agency, but instead have been forcibly expelled by the United States, constitutes a special problem in this city.”
The MPP is yet another strategy through which the Trump administration has tried to use Mexico itself as a deterrent. The Mexican border region has become so violent, it’s often as dangerous as what asylum seekers fled in their home countries. For decades, the US thirst for drugs has eroded civil society in key transit points like Tijuana: In 2018, the city was one of the murder capitals of the world.
Last year, many of the people who arrived in the caravans went to desperate measures to escape the danger in Tijuana. After seeing people beaten and robbed in the city, Marisol and her family decided to try to cross the border illegally. Though Marisol originally wanted to wait to ask for asylum at the official port, the Trump administration’s controversial policy of “metering” meant that Border Patrol was only accepting a handful of asylum seekers per day; her family still had months left to wait. In the end, she let her children make the choice: They told her they’d rather be in detention than in a tent out on the street. They would ask for asylum after being arrested.
They were hardly the only ones to make that choice: On multiple nights in Tijuana last winter, I watched as families climbed the wall at Las Playas, the beach where the border barrier stretches out into the ocean. They all immediately surrendered to the Border Patrol.
Today, the option of crossing between ports is no longer viable for most asylum seekers. Even if they face persecution in Mexico, crossing both legally and illegally comes with a high likelihood of being returned to Mexico. Though the Trump administration claims that people who have a credible fear of being returned to Mexico won’t be pushed back across the border, journalists and human rights groups have recorded dozens of cases of returned asylum seekers being kidnapped, raped, robbed, and murdered in Mexico.
Despite the danger, some people choose to stay and wait. Last month, in a shelter in the Tijuana’s east, I met Santiago, a Salvadoran man whom the Border Patrol had returned to the city on April 20 with his two daughters. Stuck in overcrowded conditions in the Tijuana shelter, Santiago says his daughters have asked him to take them back to El Salvador. “But we can’t go back,” he told me. “I have death threats against me.” He said they would wait for their court date, still months away.
As with all aspects of Trump’s deterrence-first immigration policy, it is the most vulnerable who pay the highest price. People like Santiago, who have the most to lose if they return home, are still holding out, hopeful that they’ll find safety for their families in the United States eventually. But this in itself is the final, most crucial step the Trump administration’s asylum crackdown: the smothering of that hope.
In July, the Trump administration announced it would no longer accept asylum claims from anyone who transited through a third country on their way to the United States. That means that anyone who is not a Mexican citizen on the southern border will be ineligible for asylum. Though human rights groups have challenged the new policy, in September the Supreme Court allowed the administration to uphold the new rule, pending a final legal decision.
The policy has been most harmful to people who had already begun traveling towards the United States when it was announced. Jamie, a trans woman from Jamaica, arrived in Tijuana soon after the third-country asylum restriction was put in place. She had been saving money to leave Jamaica for years, after her friend was killed in a transphobic mob attack. When she arrived in Tijuana, someone instructed her to go to the El Chapparal, the border crossing, to take a number in the list—the ledger that asylum seekers keep to determine whose turn it is to cross to ask for refugee status. When I went to El Chaparral in December, I had seen hundreds of families gathered to get on the list and to hear their numbers called out. But when Jamie went in August, she found only a few people there: With the asylum restrictions in place, just a handful of individuals were adding their names to the list each day.
Jamie will still try to cross, but she has doubts. She’s been robbed and beaten multiple times in Tijuana—one night, on the street, a group of men tried to kidnap her.
“Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake,” she told me one evening, as we stood on a hilltop in the city, watching the sun settle into the ocean. “If I should have never come here.”