People listen as a volunteer calls out the names on a waiting list for asylum-seekers waiting to see U.S. authorities on Nov. 21, 2018. The list is being kept by asylum-seekers themselves to maintain order for those waiting and for those who have just arrived at the port of entry. (David Maung)
Updated Monday, Nov. 26, at 1:15 p.m.
Tensions flared at the Tijuana-San Diego border on Sunday, after scores of impatient Central American migrants broke off from a protest march in Tijuana that numbered in the hundreds, and tried to get over the border and into the United States.
In anticipation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had closed the San Ysidro port of entry to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic earlier in the day . As some migrants threw rocks and attempted to breach the border fence, CBP agents fired tear gas into Mexico and arrested 42 people who entered the U.S. There were also reports that Mexican police had arrested additional protesters in Tijuana.
Some Central American migrants told news outlets that they were marching to the border to attract attention to their plight and express frustration with the long wait to present their asylum claims to U.S. immigration authorities. But the thousands who recently arrived in a migrant caravan are not the only ones waiting.
For the past six weeks, Styves Sama has been coming every morning to the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, and waiting anxiously for his number -- 1,119 -- to be called. Sama, 36, said he feels dismayed by the daily trickle of asylum-seekers allowed to see U.S. authorities at the port of entry.
“It’s a little bit disturbing, because spending all this money from Africa to be here ... I have nothing left with me," said Sama, a former crane operator from Cameroon.
Sama traveled to the border to ask the U.S. for asylum. He said his government arrested and tortured him.
“I’m not going to America for pleasure, I’m not going for job. I’m going to America because my life is in danger,” he said, wearing a red New York Yankees baseball hat.
As hundreds of Central American migrants with the caravan continue to arrive in Tijuana, others seeking refuge in the U.S. worry wait times will worsen.
The Trump administration has focused significant resources on “hardening” the border and preventing illegal entries. But just days before Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, takes office Dec. 1, officials with his incoming administration want the U.S. to do more to help ease a potential migrant crisis along a border both countries share.
Tonatiuh Guillén López, who will soon head Mexico’s national immigration agency, said he intends to push the U.S. to process migrants more quickly and reduce the bottleneck at ports of entry.
“I hope we can agree that the processing flow needs to be greater,” said Guillén López, a former academic in Tijuana who led Mexico’s immigration policy at the Instituto Nacional de Migración.
“We are going to start a much-needed dialogue on this issue” with U.S. authorities, he said.
On Nov. 21 at the El Chaparral border crossing, volunteers yelled out 40 names of people whose turn had come to ask U.S. officials for refuge. The asylum-seekers had come here from Russia, Central America and other countries.
The list of migrants waiting there already has 4,200 names.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection processes undocumented migrants as “expeditiously as possible,” said a spokesman for the agency. The number of individuals CBP can process depends on factors such as the complexity of their cases, translation requirements and detention space, he said.
“Port of Entry facilities were not designed to hold hundreds of people at a time who may be seeking asylum. And we are also charged with keeping the flow of legitimate trade and travel,” said the CBP spokesman in a statement. “Balancing these demands, keeping illicit goods and people out of the country, and managing the influx of Central Americans seeking asylum … requires a careful balance of our resources and space.”
Guillén López said the barbed wire, barriers and soldiers don’t belong at the busy international crossing with San Diego, a region with a long history of cooperation.
“It looks like we are at the border between North and South Korea,” he said. “Those images don’t belong in this region.”
The commercial exchange between San Diego and Tijuana is worth $2.1 million per day, according to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
For now, as many as 5,000 Central American migrants with the caravan milled around a sports complex turned into a migrant shelter in Tijuana, while dozens more arrived with weary faces and dusty bags.
“The situation is not easy,” said Maria Oriana, as her 4-year-old grandson clutched her leg. “My heart aches to know the boy has to sleep on the ground.”
The monthlong journey from Honduras was especially tough for her grandson, she said, adding that her family had fled violence and gang threats. Now Oriana realizes it could be months before they can ask for refuge in the U.S.
Other migrants at the shelter said they felt sick, and as temperatures get colder at night, some looked for blankets and hoodies among donations being distributed by volunteers.
Tijuanans say the city is struggling to accommodate thousands of Central American migrants for a stretch of months or longer. That pressure was compounded Sunday when U.S. authorities closed the San Ysidro port of entry entirely. That came after officials shut down 10 out of 26 northbound vehicle lanes at the border crossing last week.
CBP officials said the goal was to prevent migrants from illegally rushing in, and to install concertina wires and jersey barriers.
But Marco Antonio Sotomayor Amezcua, Tijuana’s head of public safety, said the ports of entry should remain open, because they are critical to the city.
The San Ysidro border crossing is among the busiest in the world. More than 100,000 people traverse north every day, said Pete Flores, director of field operations for the CBP San Diego office at a recent press conference.