The Mexican side of the beach feels like a laid-back resort. Tourists stroll on the sand and take pictures of themselves by the slatted iron fence, which is covered in bright graffiti and murals.
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and the International Women's Media Foundation.
Street vendors sell drinks and skewers of grilled camarones, shrimp, on the boardwalk that runs along a beach road lined with humble seafood joints.
Looking north into the United States through the slats in the border fence, though, International Friendship Park is ghostly quiet, its grassy dunes barren except for the few U.S. Border Patrol agents who roll their SUVs up to the fence to keep watch.
On the Mexican side, you can get close enough to stretch your arms through the spaces between slats in the fence and “touch” the neighboring country. But you’d risk cutting your fingers on the razor wire that’s coiled next to it on the U.S. side.
In Tijuana, a man walks at sunrise along the border fence where it meets the Pacific Ocean.
A Mexico Federal Police officer walks near the border fence in East Tijuana.
The gallows humor of a tormented and unappreciated neighbor underpins a famous saying attributed to the late-19th century Mexican President Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.”
Here at the Playas de Tijuana and other locations in this culture clash of a border town bursting with nearly 2 million people, that couldn’t be more true.
Tijuana has all of the trappings of a city at the edge of two countries: Tens of thousands of Mexican commuters traveling across the border to work in the San Diego area each day, busy shopping districts, gritty party zones filled with foreign clubbers, unflappable residents who’ve seen it all.
The city’s also on edge, a battleground in the political fight in the United States over what to do about the thousands of migrants who’ve made their way here in the past year.
The new arrivals have traveled over Mexico’s rugged terrain mostly on foot but also by train, smugglers’ vehicles and other means, from Central and South America and the Caribbean.
What many of them are looking for is the chance to find safety, work or a good education in the United States for their kids.
Once they reach the border, what they often find instead is uncertainty.
Personal items are left in the desert near the United States-Mexico border wall in Tecate, Mexico. This area is known to be a location for smugglers to bring people into the U.S.
Mexico Federal Police officers talk near the border in East Tijuana during a tour with journalists. Just a short walk away is one of the few sections of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana that has no fence. People sometimes cross the border here when seeking asylum or traveling with smugglers.
The distance to Tijuana from Tapachula — the border town in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas that sits just across from Guatemala and serves as a launch site for migrant caravans — is 2,425 miles.
The trip north through Mexico alone takes 44 hours by car, about two days.
It takes 800 hours on foot, a little over one month.
Every day, thousands of Mexican commuters cross this busy border to work in the San Diego area, while Americans visit Tijuana to shop and go to nightclubs.
A zigzag ramp carries pedestrians over Tijuana’s main border crossing, El Chaparral. Asylum-seekers can apply to enter the U.S. at this station.
Jimmy Jeune, center, waits for his order in Wilthene Pierre’s Haitian restaurant in Tijuana. Pierre, an immigrant from Haiti, says his restaurant is known for barbecue, fried plantains and goat soup. Thousands of Haitians have migrated and settled in Tijuana in the past several years.
This isn’t the first major wave of migrants from Central America to arrive at America’s doorstep. Going back to the 1990s, people were fleeing drug and gang-related violence in the region. Internal political conflicts in the 1980s, some supported by U.S.-backed covert operations, also contributed to instability in the region, driving people to safer countries.
But today’s migrants are more heavily influenced by organized crime.
“Whereas migrants fled civil wars in the 1980s, they now flee gangs,” Daniel Reichman, a Central American migration expert at the University of Rochester, recently wrote.
There’s also a Haitian-migrant community of about 3,000 in Tijuana.
A shantytown set in a ravine with no paved roads serves as home base for some migrants from that impoverished country, which is still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010.
In the city center, Haitian-owned businesses, barber shops and restaurants, have sprung up to serve fellow expats as well as locals.
It’s lunchtime at the shelter inside Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús at Cañón del Alacrán. Migrants from Venezuela, Haiti and Central America live there.
It’s both a series of fences, walls, checkpoints and natural barriers and a metaphorical goal post that can be moved back and forth according to the whims and demands of those in power.
The border’s tantalizingly close, and painfully out of reach.
Dogs walk by the U.S.-Mexico border fence in the East Tijuana neighborhood of El Nido de las Aguilas, or The Eagle’s Nest.
Gabriela, 22, left, and friend Daniela, 19, talk in a shelter in Tijuana. Gabriela, mother of two children, was shot several times in El Salvador. They talked about the risks women can face in their home country, including sexual assault, violence and death. The women fled and were in the process of applying for asylum.
Given the recent surge, a dramatic increase in the percentage of asylum-claim denials over the past two years, unpredictable policy shifts at the federal level and a yearslong backlog of asylum cases on the U.S. side, migrants waiting to make their cases face the difficult decision of whether to keep waiting, settle in Tijuana, enter illegally or go home.
Tijuana has a generally welcoming spirit and a strong economy for migrants with Mexican work visas who decide to stay. But it is by no means ideal.
The city recently earned the unwelcome distinction of becoming the fifth most dangerous city in the world — 100.77 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017 — due in large part to turf battles between rival criminal organizations. Last year was its most violent ever — 2,500 homicides.
Juan Carlos and his family left El Salvador in October 2018 and arrived in Tijuana, Mexico in January 2019. They faced a difficult choice: should they apply for asylum in the U.S. and risk deportation back to El Salvador? Or should they try to make it in Mexico? (Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)
This spring he decided to settle on the outskirts of the city, at a home offered to him by generous locals. Up until recently the family was staying at shelters.
A baker and bread distributor by trade, Juan Carlos says he left El Salvador after he was beaten for not paying a $50 monthly kickback to a local gang. He says the gang informed him that if he failed to pay the next month, he and his family would be killed. Because he fears for his life, he asked that I use only his first and middle name.
Gangs such as Barrio 18 and MS-13 have terrorized and extorted entire poor communities in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, neighboring countries that make up the Northern Triangle.
Aracely and Juan Carlos eat lunch with their three children at a shelter in Tijuana.
Juan Carlos and Aracely stayed with their children at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. Earlier this spring, Aracely wanted to finish their application for asylum in the United States. Juan Carlos worried the application could be denied and they could be sent back to El Salvador, where gangs threatened their lives. They eventually decided the risk was too high to continue with their asylum appointment in California. The couple recently found a home and jobs and are trying to provide for their family in Tijuana.
“All that is daily life. On this side, there’s a neighborhood; opposite, there’s another neighborhood. There, they have a gang, and here they have another gang.”
Every day back home, Juan Carlos had to choose sides.
In the end, he’s had to choose countries.
“All that made us scared for our lives,” Juan Carlos says of his situation. “We had to gather our clothes and our children and leave in the middle of the night.”
The family eventually made it to Tapachula, where they lived for three months while waiting for Mexican humanitarian visas, good for one year, before joining a caravan.
“There were times where I lost my sense of shame,” Juan Carlos says of that period. “I had friends who gave me a hand. They’d give me money. And when we had nothing to eat, I’d go begging to the parks.”
Juan Carlos and his family joined a caravan that made its way on foot to Tijuana; they arrived at the end of January.
When we met, he and his family were staying at a shelter run by the group Juventud 2000, in what looked like walled-in lot with a covered roof that let in the cold spring air.
Dozens of tents, a dining area and restrooms filled the small space. Children ran through the aisles while listless-looking grown-ups watched TV in plastic chairs.
Among the migrants waiting in Tijuana for their asylum cases to move forward in the states, there are similar stories of desperation and resignation in the face of a U.S. immigration system that government officials say is overburdened.
Aracely, Juan Carlos, their children and a friend walk to a laundromat in Tijuana. Hugo Castro, of the nonprofit Border Angels, says his organization works with the shelter they lived in and eight others around Tijuana, providing volunteers, donated goods and medical assistance. Castro said migrants and asylum-seekers are fleeing violence, extortion and deaths of family members. “They are in survival mode and just want to stay alive,” he says.
Juan Carlos plays with his youngest child in a shelter in Tijuana. He owned a small bakery in El Salvador but fled with his family last autumn after gang members demanded money and threatened their lives when he couldn’t pay.
Domestic violence and pressure from gangs — the latter of which has been identified as a major reason for the more recent exodus of Central Americans from their homelands — don’t guarantee a successful bid for refuge either.
Juan Carlos realized his chances were slim given the political realities in the United States. That’s one of the reasons why he and his partner decided they’d stay put in Mexico with their three kids, rather than proceed with their plan to make a case for asylum.
They feared that if their claim was denied, they’d be forced to go back home.
“I feel grateful to the Mexican people, and I feel a little upset with North America,” Juan Carlos says.
“We only want the president to touch his heart and say, ‘I’ll give you a chance,’” he says. But “from one moment to another, they tell us, ‘You’re not eligible. You’re all going back to your country.’”
“That’s chaos … It’s like they’re saying, ‘Give me five coffins. I’m sending this family to be buried there.’ It’s not fair.”
Flowers bloom on a Tijuana hillside. The area is home to about about 2 million people.
Roman, 39, left, watches TV, and Nelson, 29, top right, rests in his bunk at a Tijuana shelter for migrants, asylum-seekers and deported people. The shelter supports individuals and families from Afghanistan, Venezuela, Central America and the Middle East, says Hugo Castro, of the nonprofit group Border Angels. At bottom right, cooks prepare lunch in another shelter for migrants in Tijuana.
In fact, about 30% of Mexican nationals who are deported from the United States enter Mexico through Tijuana, according to Jose Israel Ibarra, a journalist and researcher at the El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
The frontera, as the border is called in Spanish, seeps into the local psyche as effortlessly as waves through the posts in the fence at the beach.
The Tijuana craft brewery Insurgente sells a brew called Migrante IPA, proceeds of which go to local charities serving the migrant population.
Within view of the beach fence, there’s the Undocumented Cafe, whose name plays up the Tijuana area’s status as a way station for migrants on the way to the states as well as people who’ve been deported.
The sun sets in Tijuana. The city is one of the largest in Mexico and sits at the border with California.
Daysi rests on her day off from work at a Tijuana shelter. Her son, Jimmy, 12, is an American citizen, and she hopes he can find safety and a good education in the U.S.
Fleeing gangs in Honduras, Daysi and her 12-year-old son Jimmy – who was born in the U.S. – migrated to the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. Daysi hopes for a brighter future for Jimmy on the other side of the wall. (Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)
Jimmy was born in the United States when she was living in New York.
When I met with them in Tijuana earlier this year, they were sleeping at a shelter operated by the nonprofit, migrant-services group Border Angels while she figured out how to get him back to the country of his birth, even if she couldn’t return because of her deportation.
Daysi said she was arrested on drug charges in New York and referred to ICE 11 years ago. She maintains her innocence, saying she was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
What’s more, she argued to immigration authorities at the time, she had a small child who needed her.
But because Daysi didn’t have legal status in the United States, she was given two options: Plead guilty and face jail time or self-deport — voluntarily leave the country.
She chose to leave. Officials sent her baby boy to be with her in Honduras soon after.
She wants the United States government to review her case and allow her to return.
Jimmy, 12, sells shrimp at the beach in Tijuana. Jimmy went against his mother’s wishes and found a job to help with their bills.
Daysi works ironing clothes at a laundry in Tijuana and her son, Jimmy, 12, sells shrimp at the beach near the U.S. border.
Speaking in Spanish with the help of an interpreter, Daysi said she would give up her son for adoption to an American family if she had to, whatever it would take to secure a stable life and safety for her son.
She said his birth certificate is missing and that has complicated her plans.
When I spoke to her, she was earning a little money ironing clothes and Jimmy was selling shrimp skewers on the beach.
They had recently been able to send small amounts back home to Daysi’s struggling mother, to help with her basic needs.
Daysi wanted at least to make it possible for Jimmy to go back and forth to a school on the other side of the border in San Diego, where he could get a better education.
Daysi and her son Jimmy, 12, found a space together in a Tijuana shelter that provides housing to migrants, asylum-seekers and people who have been deported from the U.S. Jimmy is an American citizen by birth, but mostly grew up in Honduras. Daysi says gangs threatened them, so they fled north through Mexico.
Daysi finishes her shift at a Tijuana laundry. She’ll soon transition to a new job as a custodian.
When they first arrived in Tijuana in the winter, they didn’t have jobs, and Daysi and Jimmy slept in parks and on floors and begged for money. Recently, Daysi made the heartbreaking decision to send Jimmy to live with relatives and attend school near Washington, D.C. She hopes they'll be reunited one day.
“I don’t know what my future has in store for me, but the important thing is that I at least put my son there by the wall,” she said.
Jimmy was matter-fact-about his priorities: “Study, work, help my mom,” he said. “And help us get out of all these problems.”
Daysi recalled with some irony the time Jimmy told her he wanted to be a customs and immigration officer when he grows up.
“But now he’s living … with immigrants,” she said, pointing out that the two of them had to sleep in parks and on floors in the beginning, and beg for money in the street.
A 2018 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the recruitment of children and teens in Central America backs up the claims of migrants who fear returning their sons and daughters to their home countries.
“Girls, boys and adolescents, in fact, are groups most impacted by violence and rights violations in their diverse forms, as well as by organized crime,” the report says.
It also says that government officials in those countries do a poor job of protecting children’s rights and preventing their recruitment into gangs.
Daysi and Jimmy were in a holding pattern. But she was resolute.
“I’d rather turn myself over to the United States and be imprisoned,” Daysi said.
“But I won’t give my son to gangs — ever.”
A few months after I spoke to them, Daysi sent Jimmy to stay with relatives near Washington, D.C.
She remains in Tijuana.
Special thanks to Tijuana-based journalists Jorge Armando Nieto, Cristian Arturo Pichardo Lopez and Inés García Ramos, who contributed to the reporting of this story.
Tyrone Beason is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Previously, he was a Seattle Times columnist and Pacific NW magazine reporter.
Corinne Chin is a video journalist at The Seattle Times. She also serves as the newsroom’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force leader, as well as AAJA Seattle president.
Erika Schultz works as a staff photographer for The Seattle Times, where she focuses on documentary photo and video storytelling.
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