Posted on December 10, 2018

Why Do Migrant Caravans from Central America Travel to Tijuana, Taking the Longest Route to the U.S. Border?

Daniel González, Arizona Republic, December 9, 2018

The thousands of Central American migrants who have poured into Tijuana after traveling through Mexico in caravans hoping to reach the United States have strained the resources of the Mexican border city south of San Diego.


This wasn’t the first time migrants traveling through Mexico in a caravan arrived in Tijuana, where the San Ysidro border crossing is the busiest in the western hemisphere. In April, more than 300 Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana after traveling with a caravan that initially started out with more than 1,500 but splintered into smaller groups along the way.

The April caravan was organized by the bi-national group Pueblo Sin Fronteras. The same group also organized a similar caravan that arrived in Tijuana about the same time in 2017.

But why do migrant caravans travel to Tijuana in the first place and not some other border city?


Experts and organizers of recent caravans from Pueblo Sin Fronteras offered three main reasons that have to do with safety, the Tijuana’s network of existing shelters and humanitarian organizations, and the city’s proximity to the “sanctuary state” of California.

Tijuana is less dangerous than other Mexican border cities

Because of the way the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border dips south along the Rio Grande, Mexican border cities south of Texas are far closer to Central America than those on the western end.

The Border Patrol apprehends more migrants from Central America in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas than other sectors, U.S. Department of Homeland Security data show.

But to reach South Texas, Central American migrants must travel along a route along the Gulf of Mexico that takes them through several states, including Tamaulipas and Veracruz, which are notorious for criminal organizations that prey on migrants.


In 2010, 72 Central American migrants were massacred on a ranch In the state of Tamaulipas, which includes the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. {snip}


“Tijuana is not safe either; it’s a dangerous city,” Griffey said. “But it’s much safer than Reynosa or Matamoros or some of these other cities where the violence is palpable.”

In Reynosa, it’s common to see groups of men from criminal organizations waiting outside bus stations and shelters to kidnap migrants.

When the migrant caravan reached Mexico City in early November, organizers held group meetings to discuss which route to take to the border with the United States, said Alex Mensing, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which helped organize the migrant caravan after it crashed through gates into Mexico from Guatemala.


“The cartels have complete control over pretty much everything that happens in Reynosa and other border cities in that area,” Mensing said. “And if you go to seek asylum and you get turned away at the bridge by Customs and Border Protection, when you walk back out on the Mexican side, you’ve got Mexican immigration and the cartels waiting for you. Whoever gets you first, it’s not going to be good.”

The Washington Post speculated that Tijuana is less dangerous for Central American migrants because the northwestern part of Mexico is controlled by the Sinaloa drug cartel. The Sinaloa cartel was built by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the indicted Mexican drug kingpin who is now on trial in New York.

Guzman never developed the same appetite for preying on migrants as the Zetas and Gulf cartels that control northeastern Mexico.


Tijuana has more infrastructure to give migrants shelter

Another reason the migrant caravan decided to travel to Tijuana is because the city has the largest network of organizations that provide shelter and other humanitarian assistance to migrants, Mensing said.

Among the groups is Al Otra Lado — which in Spanish means “to the other side” — a bi-national group that provides legal assistance to asylum-seekers who arrive in Tijuana.

There are also about 20 permanent shelters in Tijuana run by church groups and nonprofit organizations that provide temporary housing to migrants, more than any other border city, said Maria Dolores Paris-Pombo, a researcher at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana.


There’s a reason migrants didn’t want to go to the shelters, {snip}.

Going to the shelters would have meant breaking the caravan into smaller groups. Migrants she interviewed told her organizers didn’t want to do that, she said, because that would have made it easier for Mexican authorities, under pressure from the United States, to block them from leaving and thwart them from reaching the United States.


Mexican officials told the media the migrants had decided to stay in Mexico and apply for asylum in that country. But the migrant told Paris-Pombo “it was like a trap.”


The migrants reached Tijuana quickly because the governors of several states in northwestern Mexico including Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Sonora, provided bus transportation, she said, citing news reports.

“We have information that the buses were paid for by the governments of the different municipalities of the states that migrants were traveling through,” Francisco Rueda Gomez, secretary-general of the state of Baja California, said after government officials decided to convert a sports complex in Tijuana into a makeshift shelter.

Paris-Pombo believes there is credibility to speculation that the governors of those states provided bus transportation not for humanitarian reasons, but because they didn’t want the migrant caravan stopping in their states.

Tijuana’s network of shelters, the largest of any border city, is a legacy of the city’s unwanted distinction as the deportation capital of Mexico, {snip}.

For years, the United States has deported more Mexicans into Tijuana than any other border city.


California is perceived as friendlier to migrants

Tijuana also has become a major destination for asylum seekers from all over the world because of its proximity to California, Meyer said.

Asylum approval and denial rates vary depending on which immigration judge is handling the case, data collected by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse show.

But a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the San Diego Immigration Court had one of the highest percentages of asylum approvals in the country for migrants in deportation proceedings.

California is also under the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is generally considered more favorable toward asylum cases than those heard in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas.


Tijuana also is close to a network of American immigration lawyers from San Diego, about a 40-minute drive, and Los Angeles, about a three-hour drive, who provide legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers, Mensing of Pueblo Sin Fronteras said.

California is also a “sanctuary,” where under state law local and state police are limited from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement authorities.