Tijuana, Mexico. Tear gas. A huge refugee camp a few minutes away from the U.S. southern border. Thousands of Central Americans arriving in the northernmost Mexican city of Tijuana in an attempt to change their lives and get a taste of the American dream.
A border almost closed to those who want to apply for political asylum. And a new Mexican government about to take over. This is an international and a humanitarian crisis in which president Donald Trump is partly responsible.
Trump is the wall.
The U.S. president has created a bottleneck in Tijuana. His agents are barely processing a hundred asylum applications per day, as a government official confided to me. They could do many more by sending judges and case-workers (instead of soldiers) to one of the most active borders in the world. But they want to keep it this way for two reasons: to send a message to the people of Central America that they won’t be able to easily cross into the United States and to force Mexican president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, into accepting a plan called “Remain in Mexico” so Central American applicants could stay in Mexico while their asylum cases are being processed and investigated.
Trump finally got his wall.
It won’t be a physical and technological barrier along the 1,954 miles of border with Mexico, as he had promised during the presidential campaign. And it won’t stop all undocumented immigrants since many come by plane and overstay their visas or cross through the Arizona desert and the Rio Grande. But he has been able to effectively close the border in California to the most vulnerable in our hemisphere: refugees and their children who are escaping gangs, the highest crime rates in Latin America, rampant government corruption and extreme poverty.
But the cost has been immense and it won’t last for long. The image of the United States in the world, right now, is that of a nation that throws tear gas to women and children. Trump, justifying his orders, said that the tear gas used was “very safe”. I wonder if he would say the same thing if American children were involved. (Not surprisingly, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto didn’t protest the throwing of tear gas in Mexican territory. Peña Nieto has always been a spineless ally of president Trump.)
The members of the Central American caravans wanted to avoid the brutal Mexican drug cartels on the Gulf coast. That’s why they chose to go to Tijuana instead of taking the closer route to Texas. But by coming here they are facing one of the most protected areas of the U.S.-Mexico border, with metal and concrete walls that date to the Bill Clinton administration, the latest technology on motion detection and savy agents who know all kinds of tricks and hiding places. By adding the protection of the military, the area between Tijuana and San Diego is practically sealed.
So the only way to go north is legally through the ports of entry. The majority of refugees don’t want to go back to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador, nor they want to stay in Mexico (despite the assurances of jobs and legalization by López Obrador). Their only alternative is to wait for months in Tijuana -hoping to the lucky ones in line whose asylum applications are accepted- or to try to cross illegaly.
News at the border travel fast. Especially when you have nothing else to do than to wait. The Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in Tijuana might not have the resources and the will to go south-east to Texas. But the new caravans -and they are coming- will soon realize that they’ll have a better chance to surrender themselves to immigration officers in the Rio Grande valley than to wait for an uncertain future in Tijuana. Record numbers of apprehensions of “family units” have been reported in the Brownsville region.
Tijuana has had many reincarnations. Once it was the party city for the Californian youth, especially during Spring break. Then it became very dangerous, with the drug cartels imposing their will on fearful politicians and a corrupted police force. Lately Tijuana has come back, a little more peaceful, proud of its people, fond of innovation, with first class businesses and universities.
And then came the caravans.
In general, Mexican citizens throughout the country have been very generous to the Central American immigrants. I personally saw how they fed them and provided them with shoes and clothing in the southern state of Chiapas. But racist and xenophobic chants have been heard out loud in Tijuana and in the black holes of social media. The plague of racism is not exclusive to any country. When you have 250 million immigrants in the planet it is inevitable that anti-immigrant sentiments arise (as well as politicians taking advantage of the prejudiced and bigoted).
Mexico is not used to having refugee camps in its territory. And now has one of the largest in the continent, only compared with the Venezuelan settlements in Colombia. Long-term solutions are being discussed in the new Mexican government, exploring the possibilities of U.S. private investments in southern Mexico and Central America. But that will take decades.
What we have right now in Tijuana is a humanitarian emergency that won’t be solved with more walls, soldiers and bureaucratic delays. This is not an invasion. Countries are judged by the way they treat the most vulnerable, not the rich and powerful. The United States can easily absorb thousands of refugees -the same way many European nations have been doing for years- without significan economic consequences. And then implement a legal immigration system, in cooperation with all the countries in North and Central America, that really works. That’s the only reasonable, humane solution.
Tear gas is not a strategy.