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If you want to see what failed U.S. immigration policy looks like, visit Tijuana

If you want to see what failed U.S. immigration policy looks like, visit Tijuana
Part of the camp for migrants, mostly Central Americans, at a sports park adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. (Scott Martelle / Los Angeles Times)

The invaders awoke in Tijuana slowly and fitfully Monday morning, amid coughs and soft murmurs and the voices of excitable children. I had arrived around sunrise, having walked uncontested across the border, my U.S. passport dangling needlessly in my hand, then traveling five minutes by cab to the barricaded Avenida de Cinco de Mayo. From there it was a short walk past rows of at-ease Mexican federal police, riot gear at the ready, to the Benito Juarez sports park, a neighborhood baseball field that has become the temporary home for the mostly Central American migrants. It’s been covered for more than a week now with tents, tarps and blankets.

As the new community of 5,000 migrants began stirring, two early-rising boys — Yheran, 3, and Vairon, 7 — played with action figures, while a few yards away a man teased another young boy with a game of hide-and-seek amid the small sea of tents. Lines slowly formed at portable toilets and outdoor showers placed against the home-run fence beneath a Little Padres Park sign, where some of the travelers stripped down to underwear to bathe in the open, shampoo and runoff adding to the already muddy outfield.

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President Trump has declared that the people squeezed into this encampment are part of an assault on the U.S. border. On Sunday he was, for a few minutes, right. About 500 migrants, nearly all from Central America, made a run for the crossing. Given the hundreds of Mexican soldiers and police on the south side, the hundreds of U.S. border agents and police on the north side, and all that fencing in between, the effort was doomed from the start. But it succeeded in grabbing attention, as U.S. agents fired tear gas at a small group of men, women and children, sending them back to the Tijuana side of the dry border riverbed.

Vairon, 7 (left), and Yheran, 3, each traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with their parents.
Vairon, 7 (left), and Yheran, 3, each traveled from Honduras to Tijuana with their parents. (Scott Martelle / Los Angeles Times)

In truth, the so-called caravan offers anecdotal evidence for just about any political agenda tied to the Central American migrants. The presence of single young men seeking work supports cries by hard-liners that these are economic migrants, while heart-rending stories of parents trying to save their young children from gangs, and of women fleeing sexual violence, support arguments by immigrant advocates that the U.S. needs to open its arms wider. In the end, though, it’s all just one big story of people so desperate that they are willing to travel weeks over land to a country that in all likelihood won’t let most of them in. Hope, it seems, is an export.

And it has led to this: Outside a Tijuana sports park within easy view of the U.S. border, the Mexican military on Monday served breakfast to Central Americans hoping to persuade U.S. asylum officers a mile away that they qualify for legal protection, while in Washington the White House was reportedly trying to come up with a plan to force the migrants to wait in places like this overcrowded baseball field for the months and maybe years it will take for those applications to get processed.

That’s not a border crisis, it’s a policy crisis, and this administration is so blinded by anti-immigrant animus that it is incapable of devising a response that will do anything but make camps like this one bigger and worse. It’s also unclear whether the administration’s efforts will survive court challenges. For instance, there is no clear language in immigration codes that would let the government take asylum requests, which by law are made within the U.S., and process them outside the country. As a result, these migrants could get classified as refugees, subjecting them to annual entry caps that do not apply to those seeking asylum.

Meanwhile, lives continue in an uncomfortable limbo. Journalists milled outside the camp on Monday, and the distinctive television cameras drew small crowds as reporters elicited personal stories from migrants. Vendors wandered around hawking cigarrillos Americanos and disposable razors; under a shade tree one man dry-shaved himself in the side mirror of a parked car. Children wrestled in play as volunteers handed out doughnuts and breakfast rolls, and dogs guarding nearby houses erupted whenever someone approached the fences.

As small groups left the area, police intercepted them for short conversations. No, one group of mostly young men said, they were not heading to the border, they were heading to breakfast, and off they went down a side street in search of a meal.

Scott Martelle is a member of The Times Editorial Board.

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