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Tijuana grapples with the presence of Central American caravan members

Tensions were up when two individuals climbed the bollard fence to detach the razor sharp c-wire that was installed on the top section of the bollard fence in Playas de Tijuana on Nov. 14, 2018. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

As large numbers of Central American migrants continued arriving in Tijuana in hopes of crossing to the United States, one thing became abundantly clear: They won’t be leaving anytime soon.

For both state and municipal officials, this has prompted growing anxiety about providing food, shelter, health care, and other services while the migrants wait for a turn to apply for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry — or reach other decisions about their future.

“We’re estimating that they will be here at least six months, and in some cases as long as a year and a half,” Francisco Rueda Gomez, Baja California’s secretary-general, said Friday at a City Hall meeting, before rushing across the border for a meeting with U.S. officials in San Ysidro.

Five days after an initial group of 77 caravan members arrived in Tijuana, the total by Friday had reached 2,679, according Mexico’s National Migration Institute.

A smaller number, 657, remained in Mexicali, the state capital. Another 3,200 were in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, and presumably headed to Baja California, an immigration official told a room packed with government officials, human rights representatives, migrant advocates and shelter directors.

Also in attendance was the Honduran ambassador to Mexico, Alden Rivera Montes, who announced the immediate opening of a consular mobile office in Tijuana. He said staff will attend to the needs of Hondurans who make up the majority of the caravan, providing birth certificates and other documents; ensuring their rights in Mexico and as they approach the U.S. border for asylum.

Many Honduran migrants, “travel invisibly, that is to say without documents,” Rivera said.

The growing presence of the Central American caravan members has caused a wide range of reaction in Tijuana over the past five days — from anger to to compassion.

Many are calling for more federal presence and resources to address the situation, and state and local officials have been asking for Mexico’s federal government to provide about $4 million to support local efforts to house the migrants, and are awaiting a reply.

Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum has leveled harsh criticism at Mexican federal authorities for allowing the continued flow to his city. “Why Tijuana? Why not Matamoros? Ciudad Juarez?”

“It’s a tsunami,” he said during a news conference at City Hall. “This situation is purposely orchestrated, with the intention of harming Tijuana,” he added, without specifying who might be behind the group.

By Friday, Tijuana police had detained seven caravan members — six Hondurans and a Guatemalan — according to Marco Antonio Sotomayor, Tijuana’s public safety secretary, who said they will be turned over to Mexican immigration authorities for deportation.

Two were inebriated and fighting each other in Playas de Tijuana; three were arrested at the city’s newly opened shelter in the Zona Norte for smoking marijuana, and two were arrested for consuming illegal drugs across town in Camino Verde, one of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The mayor is calling for a referendum, one that would allow city residents to express their concerns about the large number of caravan members ending up in the city. He has also suggested checkpoints at the city’s entrance, but on Friday called them “an extreme” measure suggesting that he was not yet prepared to take such a step.

But Gastelum himself has come under much criticism from migrant advocates for his comments made in an interview Thursday on Milenio TV, a Mexican national television network, where he complained about the arrival of the caravan members: “Some of them are a bunch of bums, smoking marijuana in the street, and attacking our families in Playas de Tijuana,” the mayor said. “Who is leading them?”

In Zona Norte, a municipal sports stadium that has been turned into a temporary shelter for the caravan members, the population rose to more than 2,000 by Friday, city officials said. More than half of them are adult males, along with 441 women, 275 boys and 144 girls. About 100 slept outside, reluctant to enter the facility, which is locked after 10 p.m.

On Friday morning, migrants passed the time outside trying to earn extra pesos by washing cars, playing soccer on the street, talking to relatives on borrowed cell phones or waiting in line to pick up donations from organizations that brought food, toiletries, clothes, and other supplies throughout the day.

Several said they were aware that their presence in Tijuana has created tension. Cristian Herrera, 24, said he was present in Playas de Tijuana when a confrontation broke out between a group of migrants and residents who were protesting their presence.

“They called us dogs and told us they didn’t want us here,” said Herrera, adding that one of his companions got hit in the face with a rock, just below his left eye.

Another migrant, Sonia Gonzalez, did not completely disagree with the mayor, but was nonetheless stung by his comments. “There are some bad people here but we are not all like that. It isn’t fair that we are all judged for the actions of a small group of people.”

Maria Santos Perez, 29, said she was grateful for the warm reception the people of Tijuana have given her and her 7-year-old son.

“The Mexican people have taken good care of us,” she said. “They’ve supported us very well so I can’t say anything negative about the Mexican people.”

However, Perez said, the situation could change when more migrants arrive if the city is unable to handle them.

“I’m worried about my son,” she added.


© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.