Migrant caravans stall on border with no leaders and little hope

Central American migrants who traveled in caravans to the U.S.-Mexico border gather at the entrance of a temporary shelter in downtown Tijuana on Dec. 17, 2018.
(Guillermo Arias / AFP/Getty Images)

The migrant caravans are stuck.

Thousands of Central Americans who traveled north to the U.S. border in the fall, drawing dire warnings from President Trump, have settled into an uneasy existence in Tijuana, facing a backlash on both sides of the border.

Coordinators who helped direct the migrants through Mexico with bullhorns and advice have largely vanished and many of the migrants are frustrated, unsure what to do next.

“It’s like a house without the parents,” said Andrea Ramirez, 41, a Guatemalan who is living with her two daughters in El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana, where many caravan members have settled. “The children do whatever they want.”


Most important perhaps, the migrant caravans have not drawn the same sympathy or political support that some previous groups — such as the surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014 — did in either Mexico or the United States.

“I left my country because I thought this caravan was going to the United States,” said Jose Morenos, 49, who joined a caravan in Honduras after seeing a story on the news. “I would not have come here if I knew they’d stop in Mexico.”

It’s a sign of how little the groups understood the harsh political realities of immigration that they approached the border in November just as Americans were embroiled in a bitter midterm election campaign in which Trump falsely warned of a looming “invasion” of criminals and terrorists.

Since then, Trump has fought Congress over his demands for $5 billion for his border wall, keeping his immigration crackdown in the spotlight.

And the migrants’ chances of gaining legal entry into the United States have only worsened: On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that asylum seekers will be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S., a dramatic policy shift.

Mexican officials initially registered about 6,000 migrants from the caravans at an emergency shelter less than 400 feet from the U.S. border, double the facility’s planned capacity.


Overcrowding and flooding prompted officials to shutter the shelter on Nov. 29, pushing about 2,800 people into El Barretal. Others went to smaller shelters scattered in and around Tijuana.

Their presence has sparked protests in Tijuana — and some violence.

On Tuesday, two people threw a canister of tear gas into El Barretal shelter, according to Mexican federal police. It detonated in the section for women and children. No arrests were made.

The following day, however, state police in Tijuana arrested two men and one woman on suspicion of killing two Honduran teenagers who were part of the caravan.

The teenagers were heading to a shelter for unaccompanied minors, and although authorities said they were not targeted because of their affiliation with the caravan, the case highlights the dangers for migrants in Tijuana.

Mexican authorities have deported about 300 of the caravan members and helped about 700 others move back to their home countries, according to the government. They say about 1,000 others illegally crossed the border, a figure that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials dispute, though they wouldn’t provide their own figure.

More than 1,000 people from the caravans have found jobs or been cleared to work in Mexico, while about 3,500 others have registered for work visas, according to Mexico’s National Employment Service.


Nearly 600 people from the caravans have applied for asylum in Mexico, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. It’s unclear how many have applied for U.S. asylum but the number of migrants claiming asylum at U.S. ports of entry in October and November doubled from the same period last year, Kevin McAleenan, Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said in a conference call with reporters.

On Dec. 11, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an advocacy organization, coordinated a march to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana to ask officials to speed up processing of asylum requests.

U.S. officials have blocked asylum seekers from making claims at border crossings, including the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana, by physically turning them away, citing “capacity” issues, according to a Dec. 3 joint report by research centers at the University of Texas at Austin, UC San Diego and the European University Institute.

“These shifts ... have left lines of asylum seekers waiting in almost every major Mexican border city,” the report says.

McAleenan rejected those conclusions in the conference call, noting a 120% increase in processing asylum claims in fiscal 2018. San Ysidro, the “most capable” crossing, has the largest number of people waiting, he said.

“We work to accept a maximum amount of asylum seekers per day at all of our ports of entry,” he said.


Alfonso Guerrero Ulloa, a Honduran who has lived in Mexico since he was accused of a terrorist attack in his home country more than 30 years ago, led an effort to deliver a letter to the U.S. Consulate that asked Trump to either let migrants enter the United States or pay $50,000 to each migrant who goes home.

Mexican police removed Guerrero from El Barretal shelter last week for trying to organize another march to the consulate.

Teodoro Alvarado, 48, of El Salvador said that the demand for money had tarnished the migrants’ asylum effort, however.

“It hurts us,” he said. “People are going to think we are criminals, because that is extortion.”

U.S. officials have cited the letter as well as a clash at San Ysidro on Nov. 25, when the Border Patrol used tear gas to block hundreds of people trying to rush the border, to question the migrants’ motives.

“You know, as an American, I think that is outrageous,” Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen said on Dec. 14 on Fox News. “They demand Americans pay them $50,000 each. They have demanded we change the way [in] which we do immigration and protect our border. These are not migrants who are seeking asylum.”


McAleenan defended the Border Patrol’s actions and blamed the migrants for the Nov. 25 clash at the border.

“They were assaultive in their behavior. They threw rocks at agents,” McAleenan said at a Senate committee hearing on Dec. 11. He blamed “agitators and lead organizers” for the violence.

U.S. officials shut San Ysidro, the country’s busiest port of entry, for five hours, crippling cross-border business and creating miles of congestion.

“We will not allow our binational relationship to be broken by the bad behavior of the migrant caravan,” Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum said on Twitter.

Orfirio Mendoza, 41, of Honduras said no one took charge as the migrants approached the border.

“Nobody knew what to do and that is when the chaos started,” said Mendoza, who plans to stay and work in Mexico. “There was no plan B.”


Images of the clash further inflamed the debate over the Trump administration’s immigration and border security crackdown.

Administration critics seized on photographs of children fleeing clouds of tear gas, decrying Trump’s immigration policy as inhumane. The White House cited the images to back up Trump’s claims that the caravans posed a threat to U.S. security.

Carlos Garcia, 19, of Honduras was among those who believed he would cross the border that day. He even packed his bag for the journey.

“I thought they’d let us in and give us asylum,” he said.

Many of the caravan migrants stuck in Tijuana have become suspicious of anyone attempting to fill the leadership void.

“Nobody believes in anything,” Mendoza said. “People come and try to establish themselves as leaders, organize a gathering, but nobody pays attention to them.”


Others, like Garcia, feel abandoned.

“They told us it would be beautiful,” he said. “Now that we are here, it is very different. They lied to us about everything.”

Solis of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported from Tijuana and Times staff writer O’Toole from Washington.

Twitter: @mollymotoole