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Border skirmish worsens anxiety for migrants desperate to enter the U.S.: 'We are still in danger'

Border skirmish worsens anxiety for migrants desperate to enter the U.S.: 'We are still in danger'
Border Patrol agents use tear gas on migrants Sunday at the U.S.-Mexico border fence near the San Ysido Port of Entry. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The unrest at this border crossing Sunday — in which some asylum seekers and immigrants in Tijuana rushed toward the U.S. side and the Border Patrol fired tear gas at them — has heightened anxiety among those trying to enter the United States.

By noon Monday, 40 people seeking asylum had entered the San Ysidro Port of Entry, said a crew of asylum seekers who manage an unofficial notebook that lists the name of everyone seeking asylum at this particular port.

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Twenty of the asylum seekers — mostly mothers and children — waited along a white fence near the U.S.-Mexico border.

They were not part of the recent caravan. Instead, they’ve resided in Tijuana for more than a month, waiting for their turn to give themselves up to U.S. border officials.

Alicia Ramirez of Mexico City corralled her toddlers, bought a pack of cookies and rushed her 3-year-old to a nearby bathroom in preparation to enter.

She said she felt relieved that she’d get to enter soon after more than a month of waiting at a shelter. Yesterday, her hopes sank when she heard the port of entry had closed after a group of people rushed the border fence.

Ramirez, who said she is seeking asylum in the U.S. after a group of drug dealers threatened her life, said she is still upset with those involved in the skirmish.

“They are trying to just run in. That’s not the way to do it. I know we all want to go in, but it takes time and there is a proper process,” she said. “I’ve waited a month, even though I’m still in danger.”

Ramirez, who made a living as a coffin maker, said she was poor but managed to get by. The 22-year-old said she never wanted to leave her home but was forced to after a group of drug dealers broke into her home over the summer.

She happened to catch them in the act, and that’s when her troubles began.

Ramirez said she promised the men she wouldn’t report the break-in. But her extended family got involved and called police.

“We’re going to kill you in front of your children,” the men told her after they found out.

She fled days later.

Ramirez said she would have stayed in Tijuana or elsewhere in Mexico but found out the men have ties throughout Mexico, including the border.

Monday, she and other women waiting to enter the port, shook their heads as they talked about the altercation.

“That’s just not the way to do it,” one woman told another. “Now we are all in trouble.”

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Dennis Martinez, a 34-year-old Honduran seeking asylum, is part of a crew of six men in charge of managing the notebook.

Usually, anywhere from 20 to 30 names are called from the ledger. None of the 20 who were called yesterday entered Sunday after the border altercation, he said.

The skirmish forced the U.S. government to shut down the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the world’s busiest international crossings, for more than four hours Sunday.

A growing number of migrants from Central America has made the arduous trek up through Mexico in caravans to seek asylum in the U.S. or escape economic hardship. Many are from Honduras, a country plagued by poverty and violence.

Martinez, who said he is fleeing a death threat from a gang in his hometown of Tegucigalpa, joined the caravan with his 15-year-old son in Mexico before forging ahead. He arrived a week earlier than the group.

Since the caravan arrived, about 500 have asked for their names to be added to the notebook, he said.

“They have come little by little to sign up. But there hasn’t been a rush,” he said. He doesn’t know why.

Monday, Martinez directed people toward a plastic fold-up table underneath a blue canopy.

There, an asylum seeker from Peru asked for identification before scrawling down their names in blue ink.

While Martinez said he doesn’t agree with those who tried to rush the border, he said he can understand the people’s desperation — especially mothers with small children.

“Here, we are still in danger,” he said. “The Mexican people here are bothered by our presence. They look us up and down. There were protests. Some don’t want us here.”

Initially, Martinez had thought about staying in Tijuana and finding work. But he realized that the border city is not safe for foreigners like him, he said.

“I’m escaping a dangerous situation,” he said. “Why would I then put myself in danger, again?”

Returning is not an option, he said, and neither is staying.

“I’m between a rock and the wall,” Martinez said. “I’m not sure what to do if they shut down the border.”

He won’t entertain the thought of returning.

“No. I just know they won’t shut down the border permanently,” Martinez said. “It won’t happen.”

Sunday’s altercation made it even more dangerous to stay in Tijuana, he said.

“I can understand why the Mexican people are bothered by us,” he said. “Some are not respectful.

“But they are giving us all a bad name. Instead, they should come here and put themselves on the list,” he said, pointing to the black-and-white ledger.

Martinez estimated that he still has about two weeks before his turn.

“I still have hope that I will enter, legally,” he said. “I’m not trying to jump the wall. Many of us aren’t. Why should we be punished for what a few have done.”

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