TIJUANA, Mexico: Huge metal or concrete barricades and walls of concertina wire went up Monday (Nov 19) on both sides of a bustling US-Mexico border crossing as a caravan of US-bound Central American migrants pours into Tijuana, the last stop before California.
US authorities went so far as to briefly close the San Ysidro Port of Entry altogether – it is one of the busiest land border crossings in the world – as the new barriers were set up, triggering total gridlock for vehicles and pedestrians going from Tijuana across into San Diego.
“It was as if time stopped. Nothing is moving. Neither cars, nor people, nor my business,” said Armando Lopez, who sells newspapers, cigarettes and candy on the Mexican side.
US Customs and Border Protection “suspended operations to safely place impediments at the port of entry that would restrict access to a large group attempting to run through the border crossing,” the agency said in a statement, referring to the migrant caravan.
President Donald Trump has characterised the caravan’s journey as an invasion, making it a central plank of his anti-immigrant platform.
The thousands-strong group set out more than a month ago from Honduras, fleeing poverty and gang violence and sometimes forcing its way across borders as the migrants head toward the US.
Some 3,500 migrants have arrived so far in Tijuana and another 3,000 are expected to start flowing in as of Tuesday. Most of those making the trek are Hondurans.
The big question is whether, once they are all together, they will try to cross over as they did from Guatemala into Mexico – by force – or opt instead for the long and tedious process of requesting asylum in the US.
ECONOMY IN DANGER
After putting the new barriers in place at the border crossing, the authorities reopened it partially to northbound traffic.
On the Mexican side, too, metal barricades and concertina wire were put up. Federal police and soldiers patrolled the area.
“I am OK with these defences,” said Arturo Gonzalez, a 35-year-old American who was losing his patience as he sat in his black pickup truck waiting to get into California.
He works as a janitor in a school in the US but lives in Mexico because the rent is cheaper here.
“Because of those Hondurans, we are paying the price. They should be thrown out,” Gonzalez said.
Walking swiftly through the pedestrian conduit toward California, Ana Maria Gutierrez, who is Mexican, was in a hurry to get to her job as a nurse in a psychiatric facility in San Diego.
“They do not realise the impact of closing the border,” she told AFP.
“It is not just the economy that is in danger of dying out. We are talking about the lives of people and families,” Gutierrez said before showing her papers to the US border authorities and entering California.
Mexico and the United States share a border that stretches along more than 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) of desert and is crossed by undocumented travellers, drugs and weapons.
But a million people also cross over legally each day, while trade across the frontier totals a million dollars a minute, according to government figures.
At the San Ysidro port alone, 70,000 vehicles make their way into California each day, as do 15,000 students and 25,000 workers.
Trump has sent about 5,800 troops to the border to forestall the arrival of the caravan. During the campaign leading to his election in 2016 he referred to Mexican migrants crossing over as rapists and “bad hombres.”
Trump has also issued a new order under which people who do not cross at official points of entry can no longer apply for asylum. This was challenged in court and a judge Monday night temporarily barred the Trump administration from enacting the ban.
At another border crossing, between Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, US soldiers have also set up many reels of concertina wire.
Amelia Prados, a Mexican who works in a bank in Tijuana, said the migrants were simply seeking to escape violence and find a better life.
“The United States is defending itself from a danger that does not exist,” she said.