TIJUANA, Mexico — Every morning, hundreds of refugees gather before sunrise in a small plaza here within sight of The Wall.
They come from various African nations, Mexican states, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Haiti. They are young, old, middle-aged. Many are carrying young children, most are desperately poor. And all of them are seeking asylum in the United States.
So they wait.
In this small park near a pedestrian port of entry, they linger, hoping that today their number will come up. Fellow refugees keep a book in which they assign numbers to the new arrivals, then wait for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to announce how many people it will accept that day.
Today, 35 will get their chance.
A woman calls out the numbers of the lucky few who, after months on the list, are escorted to Mexican immigration vans and driven to the San Ysidro port of entry.
Back in the plaza, the new arrivals stick around until their names are recorded in the book by an old woman sitting at a folding table under a tent. Then they wander off like the veterans, back to their camps or into the streets of this tourist town.
Where they wait. And wait. And wait.
The regulars know something is different this morning because federales are guarding the plaza perimeter. They do not know if this is good or bad, and that makes them wary. But when U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, arrives on the scene, the crowd calms.
Just another gringo politician.
“It’s a humanitarian issue,” Merkley tells a small pack of international journalists. “It seems like we are criminalizing the process of fleeing persecution.”
As more people flock to the border, the United States continues to reduce the number of immigrants it will allow into the country each year. In the past decade, the country has accepted about 75,000 refugees per year. Since President Donald Trump lowered the cap to 45,000, many people tend to agree with Merkley. This, they say, is the real crisis.
In 2018, more than 93,000 legally applied for asylum in the United States. That is a dramatic rise from the 56,000 who applied in 2017, and experts say the surge is a result of families fleeing violence in Central America.
Many of those people end up here, less than 30 miles from downtown San Diego.
To most of the world, Tijuana is the caricature of a tacky tourist town, a collection of bars along Avenida Revolucion where someone will invariably ask for money to have your picture taken with a donkey painted to look like a zebra — if they don’t simply pick your pocket.
But this is a metropolitan area of 1.8 million people, a center of commerce and culture and cuisine. And lately it has become ground zero for refugees fleeing Central America.
A number of conspiracy theories about that have cropped up in Tijuana recently. Some say Mexican immigration officials are trying to help these people, but others argue they’re only trying to get rid of the refugees that they allowed into the country. A few even claim the Mexicans are actually working for U.S. Customs.
But everyone agrees on one thing: Mexico and the U.S. allow refugees to keep the book because neither wants the blame for the interminable wait times.
The process to U.S. citizenship is so complex that most asylum-seekers have no idea what’s going on, when they might get a chance to plead their case or what circumstances they need to list to earn entry into the United States.
No one is even sure what happens after the day’s chosen refugees are loaded into Mexican immigration vans. Some say they’re headed for an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) camp, which they cleverly call going “into the freezer.”
Local rumor has it the people are held for days, without their belongings … or most of their clothes. It’s not exactly inhumane, they say, but it certainly isn’t welcoming.
Similar scenes play out every day at major ports of entry along the U.S. border. In El Paso, Texas, Border Patrol has allowed some people to enter the United States until their asylum hearings, simply because they have no more room to hold them. Local non-profits have run out of space, and now have to rent hotel rooms for some families.
In Tijuana, however, these migrants and refugees stay in camps managed by charities and churches scattered around the city and out into the countryside. They will not be afforded the luxury of a U.S. shelter or motel.
And this is what the debate over The Wall is really all about — keeping these people out.
“These people” are the alleged criminals that some politicians tell U.S. citizens to fear. They are painted as marauders coming to rape and kill “Americans” by folks who don’t realize America is more than just the United States.
Most of these refugees and migrants aren’t plugged into the circus that is U.S. cable news, so they have no idea they have been characterized as criminals and terrorists. There are, to be sure, some unsavory characters trying to get into the country, but most of these people — many children — aren't animals.
Andres Hernandez was a part of the caravan that Trump warned everyone about in the days leading up to the 2018 election. Hernandez is 24, slight and soft-spoken, and he recounts his journey to Tijuana with his 2-year-old son, Evan, sitting on his lap and playing with a Dora the Explorer toy.
He, his wife and their two children had to leave Honduras after he was beaten by three men in a street gang, Hernandez says. He reported this to the police, but turns out the men had powerful friends and relatives — and they were not happy he had turned informant. The family fled to escape reprisal.
They sold their belongings to make it out of Honduras, fell in with a migrant caravan around Mexico City, but eventually drifted off on their own.
For the past two months, the Hernandez family has been sitting in a central Tijuana shelter, an old storefront with no signage. Even inside there is little to suggest there are dozens of refugees living here save for a half-dozen boxes of Cheerios stacked on top of a refrigerator.
Hernandez says he’s been tempted to try and go over The Wall, but fears being caught and deported. Instead, he has applied for asylum. He doesn’t understand the perception of refugees like him held by so many people in the United States.
“I just want to go over there and work,” Hernandez says. “The only thing I want to do is protect my family.”
A few blocks away, at a shelter operated by the Movimiento Juventud 2000 (which translates to youth movement), volunteers have arrived to cheer up some caravan children who are living in tents inside an old warehouse with two public restrooms.
The volunteers are dressed as Batman, Spider-Man and Minnie Mouse, trying their best to catch the attention of kids playing with Iron Man toys and Uno cards. U.S. culture seems to permeate everything around the world, especially in these refugee camps.
Most of the people in this shelter started out in a field outside the city, but uncharacteristically heavy winter rains turned their camp to mud, ruining all the belongings they had left. Now they are living off donations, most of them from U.S. charities.
If the children are oblivious to their plight, their abject poverty, they can’t ignore it when one of the teens reads his poetry and shares his artwork. It’s about the prevailing perceptions of refugees and racism.
Those sentiments are not confined to one side of The Wall. Some people in Tijuana are upset by the influx of migrants. Across the street from the Movimiento Juventud shelter, some homes now sport concertina wire swiped directly from The Wall.
The media made this out to be a political statement on Trump, but most people here say little of such politics. More likely, they saw something useful and took it. But others claim the wire was put up to thwart caravan criminals — because it appears some of them are here to stay.
Some refugees have apparently chosen to settle in Tijuana, giving up on their original destination either because of the daunting asylum process or the attitudes they’ve learned some U.S. citizens have toward them.
Many have gotten work cards from the Mexican government, and earn enough money to rent their own apartments, to get out of the shelters. Local businesses are often glad to hire them because these refugees will do the jobs that Mexicans won’t do.
Of course, not everyone trying to get into the United States is content to labor through the asylum process. That’s where the "coyotes" come in, and their business is thriving in Tijuana. Border Patrol officials say in the past couple of years these human smugglers have doubled their rates for a ticket to the States.
J. Anselmo Hernandez Gonzalez has decided to take this route. He once lived in Denver with his family, but claims he was deported while at a store to buy his son a lollipop. Although he says he has no “bad record” in the U.S., he doesn’t think his prospects for asylum are very good.
Instead, Gonzalez openly admits he’s trying to buy falsified U.S. citizenship papers. He has been told the coyotes charge $14,000 for such documents. So far, he has saved a $20 bill and a few errant singles.
That is not an option for most of the thousands of people stranded in Tijuana, who made their way across Mexico only to be stopped at The Wall. So, in boroughs all around the city, they wait.
At the Agape Mission Mundial, 20 minutes outside downtown, some caravan refugees spend their Sunday afternoon listening to a Christian preacher. The service includes singing and traditional Mexican dancing.
The production goes on for a long time, one song after another, and it’s not clear everyone understands what’s going on. But the refugees sit in plastic lawn chairs and listen politely.
They have nowhere else to be.
Read the rest of the series:
Part 4: U.S. Sen. Tim Scott is walking along one of the oldest stretches of The Wall, outlining his answer to the nation’s $5.7 billion question.