US: A red pickup truck pulls up next to a migrant tent camp in the Mexican city of Tijuana with its bed full of bread and clothes. Men, women and children run to meet it.
“A rule! Form a line!” shouted someone. A woman in a long skirt climbs into the pickup and starts preaching into a microphone: ‘You all hope to go to the United States! she says, “You all hope to be blessed! Take God’s hand!”
Migrants raise their hands in prayer. Food can be scarce in the camp, and the line stretches back along the road, past dozens of tents and dirty portable toilets.
Opposite the famous pedestrian crossing from Mexico to the United States at El Chaparral, a refugee camp has sprung up over the past few months, filled with asylum seekers desperate to cross the still-closed border between America and Mexico.
Migrant activists say the camp, which began growing in February and now numbers about 2,000 migrants per count, arose in part as an unintended consequence of US President Joe Biden’s mixed approach to the harsh immigration policies of the predecessor, Donald Trump, undo.
The camp is becoming increasingly dangerous, migrants and activists told Reuters about unhygienic conditions, drug use and gangs entering the area. Government organizations are mainly absent and humanitarian presence is only alternate. Rumours are raising hope among migrants that they will soon be able to enter the United States.
Reuters spoke to more than two dozen migrants in the camp for four days, consisting of tents and sails spread out in different directions in a concrete plaza and under a crosswalk.
Hundreds of children, including babies, live in the camp. Most migrants are Mexican and Central American.
The discussion of kidnapping attempts is high tide four, and many migrants avoid their tents for fear of their safety and the safety of their children. The only sustained state security is Tijuana municipal police cars parked at the edge of the camp. But migrants say it is not enough to make them feel safe.
“I do not sleep at night,” said Rosy, a migrant from the Mexican state of Guerrero, who is terrified that her three children of 5, 3 and 5 months will be abducted.
The camp has no running water except a diverter pipe used for cooking and bathing. Activists say portable toilets are cleaned too often to be hygienic. There is no government structure in the camp, which depends on donations from churches, non-profit organizations and individuals for essential maintenance.
In February, the Biden government announced that it would begin phasing out Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which has forced thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their asylum cases are heard. People with active MPP business would be allowed in the United States. By March, the infamous Matamoros refugee camp just across the Texas border – where many in the MPP program were waiting for their turn to be processed – was closed.
Activists told Reuters the announcement directly impacted the start of the new camp in Tijuana, across from San Diego and about 4,000 miles from Matamoros. Migrants began camping on February 18, the night before MPP migrant processing began, amid confusion over who strictly would be allowed into the country.
The US border remains closed to the vast majority of asylum seekers under a Trump-era COVID-19 health-related order that Biden did not revoke.
But the confusion remains. Many migrants with whom Reuters spoke said they believed they would soon be able to claim asylum in the United States once they were in camp, based on rumours and news reports that the situation at the border had changed under Biden, who took office in January.
Biden seeks to balance a more humane immigration policy with a desire not to encourage further migration from Mexico and Central America. He is already leading with increasing criticism from opposition Republicans and even Democrats about an increase in the number of people crossing the southern border illegally.
The White House said in a statement that it would take time to rebuild the country’s immigration system after the Trump administration. It did not address questions from Reuters about the abolition of MPP affecting the start of the Tijuana camp, and referred further inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“The Biden government has made it clear that our borders are not open, that people should not undertake the dangerous journey, and that individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including eviction,” a DHS spokesman said in a statement a separate statement said. ‘Physical presence in a gateway or a camp’ does not provide access to the phased United States access system.
The Mexican little foreign affairs agency said in a statement that government representatives were trying to encourage migrants to go to shelters.
Tijuana’s director of migra José Luis Pérez Canchola, affairs, says officials are trying to find a safe space for the migrants, but there is no concrete plan yet.
Migrants said they fear they could lose their place in a queue that does not really exist, or that conditions in shelters will be worse than in the camp if they move away from the camp. Some were afraid to leave their tents for safety.
Some have lived elsewhere in Tijuana for months, while others have only recently arrived there. Others said they moved to Texas and were driven to Tijuana and came to camp because they did not know where else to go.
New families arrive at the Tijuana camp every day, entering what activists and campers say is an increasingly dangerous situation, with reports of gang members walking through the camp, selling drugs or investigating members of rival gangs.
The Matamoros camp has been widely seen as a result of Trump’s tough policies, but some activists say the situation in Tijuana is even worse in many ways.
While Matamoros was dangerous and bad, there was eventually a strong NGO presence and was demarcated by obstacles. Migrants there were also on their way to possible access to the United States.
“The migrants in the Tijuana camp are definitely worse off,” said Erika Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado’s legal and policy director. A non-profit organization that initially went personal in the camp, but was discontinued, in part due to a lack of personal volunteers and safety concerns.
“There is less infrastructure, more security issues and migrants are not related to any functioning asylum process,” she said. The organization serves migrants, including some from the camp, through a remote search process.
Dulce Garcia, executive director of Border Angels, a non-profit organization that worked in the camp, said she regularly receives messages from frightened campers at night. They reported beatings and kidnapping attempts. She no longer goes to camp alone because she fears for her safety and hopes that more volunteers will start working in the camp to make it safer.
“You stay quiet, but you live in fear,” said Ana, a 21-year-old from Guatemala who is desperate to enter the United States to rejoin her father. “I was abducted and bad things happened to me, and I live with the fear that it will happen again.”
In recent days, migrants have begun marching to the San Ysidro port of protest with protest signs reading such as “COMMANDED SOLUTION”, “WE WANT TO BE HEARD” and “WE NEED POLITICAL ASYLUM.” There is a hunger strike in the camp.
“The only thing we want is a response from the president,” said Claudia Melendez, a Honduran asylum seeker who came to the camp a month ago. “He did not say anything.”