Amid uncertainty on US policy, migrant camps grow in Mexico

Mexican Amary Martinez, and her children, Jason and Itzel, sit on the edge of their tent at a migrant camp near El Chaparral pedestrian border bridge in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, July 2, 2021. The migrant camp of about 2,000 asylum-seekers, mostly families, blocks a pedestrian entrance to the US border crossing with San Diego. Mexican officials have suggested they will try to relocate them in coming days in anticipation that the two governments could agree to reopen the border to non-essential travel in the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Emilio Espejel)

As darkness fell, about 250 police officers and city workers swept into a squalid camp for migrants hoping to apply for asylum in the United States. Migrants had to register for credentials or leave. Within hours, those who stayed were surrounded by enough chain-link fence to extend twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.

The Oct. 28 operation may have been the beginning of the end for a camp that once held about 2,000 people and blocks a major border crossing to the United States. There may be more camps to come.

First lady Jill Biden sharply criticized a similar camp in Matamoros, bordering Brownsville, Texas, on a 2019 visit, saying, “It’s not who we are as Americans.” The Biden administration touted its work closing that camp in March, but others sprang up around the same time in nearby Reynosa and in Tijuana.

The camps, full of young children, are a product of policies that force migrants to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court or prohibit them from seeking asylum under pandemic-related public health powers. Uncertainty about U.S. asylum policies has also contributed to growing migrant populations in Mexican border cities, creating conditions for more camps.

Migrants are often out of public view in border cities, but the Tijuana camp is highly visible and disruptive. Tents covered with blue tarps and black plastic bags block entry to a border crossing where an average of about 12,000 people entered the U.S. daily before the pandemic. It is one of three pedestrian crossings to San Diego.

The U.S. fully reopened land borders with Mexico and Canada to vaccinated travelers Nov. 8.

Montserrat Caballero, Tijuana’s first female mayor, said officials did “almost nothing” to control the camp before she took office Oct. 1. When she asked Mexico’s state and federal governments to join her in erecting a fence and introducing a registry, they declined.

“The authorities at every level were scared — scared of making a mistake, scared of doing something wrong and affecting their political careers,” she said in an interview. “No one wants to deal with these issues.”