Life at the Tijuana Border in the Era of President Trump

Fr. Pat Murphy, c.s.
Centro Scalabrini – Casa del Migrante
Tijuana, Mexico

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Life at the Tijuana Border in the Era of President Trump

Since early February 2017, we have been bombarded at the Casa del Migrante by press coming from all corners of the world basically focused on a single question: How has life changed at the border since Donald Trump became President? The incessant repetition of this question has inspired me to share with you what is currently happening at the border and what I think might happen in the future.

From my vantage point, I can think of seven themes that seem to be part and parcel of life at the Tijuana – San Diego border in the first few months of 2017. First, everyone seemed to be under the impression there would be massive deportations as soon as the Trump administration moved into the White House. However, the reality of life at the border is that deportations were down 30 percent across the board in the first quarter of 2017. At present, just like most of President Trump’s political strategies, massive deportations have not occurred.

Second, President Trump promised to deport “bad hombres” – i.e., hard core criminals. However, this has not been the reality, but more like fake news or, should I say, an alternative truth. The hard news is there has been a sharp increase in the number of non-criminals being deported. I suspect that in the quest to deport hard core criminals US immigration officials are just as content to pick up and deport the lowest hanging fruit on the undocumented trees spread across the country.

Third, racism and xenophobia are alive and well in the United States, as we hear many stories of people being profiled and verbally abused due to the color of the skin or at times just because they committed the sin of speaking in Spanish in public. At times, I facetiously think that the Make America Great Again slogan might be more about Make America White Again because so many Anglos feel they are losing control of “their” country. For sure not all Trump supporters are racists but unfortunately it is becoming more and more clear that a good number tend to lean that way.

Fourth, the unexpected exodus of Haitians from Brazil seeking to enter the United States over the last ten months was stopped cold in its tracks when Trump was sworn in as president on January 20, 2017. The result is that about 3,500 Haitians are calling Tijuana their new home. The so-called American Dream warped into the Mexican dream very quickly as the Mexican government in a very generous fashion offered all Haitians the possibility to regularize their immigration status. This presents a big pastoral challenge for the Catholic Church of Tijuana to reach out to this community of new arrivals and accompany them on their faith journey.

Fifth, since President Trump took over the highest office in the land, many of those seeking political asylum in the United States at the Tijuana border are being routinely denied this possibility with such lame excuses as – there is no more room in the United States (I cannot help but think about someone else being told sorry there is no room at the inn). It is so sad to hear about people fleeing for their lives arriving in Tijuana and then very nonchalantly and illegally being denied the basic human right to seek asylum. This response is hardly making America great again.

Sixth, violence on the streets of Tijuana has steadily increased over the last year and unfortunately the first quarter of 2017 is off to an even bloodier start, averaging over 100 homicides per month. The increase in violence is directly related to the territorial struggle of the drug cartels. Consequently, while its many job opportunities make Tijuana an ideal destination for deportees to begin a new life, they must also come face to face with the increase in violence caused by drug trafficking. Ironically the destination of most of these illegal drugs is the United States.

Seventh, in early 2017, we saw the massive flow of Haitians from Brazil come to a halt and many of them of started new lives in Tijuana. However, at the end of April and the beginning of May, we have begun to receive Africans arriving at the Casa in quest of asylum, as well as a steady number of Central Americans. We asked the nine people who arrived at our doors from five African countries during a ten-day period if there were more people coming and their reply was a simple- yes many, many more people are on the road and Tijuana is their destination. I am left with the very distinct impression that we are in for another very interesting summer in 2017.

Considering these seven major themes, I can imagine five huge challenges in the near future. First, President Trump will continue to talk the tough talk and make undocumented immigration and the threat of deportation the centerpiece of his political strategy. He needs a big win to keep his followers engaged and so why not pick on immigrants who are easy targets? Unfortunately, this is an easy nerve to touch for many US citizens. Since the President cannot find other easy victories, I predict he will continue to push the immigration panic button and continue to demonize immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, as potential terrorists, rapists and gang members. As a result, my Catholic faith tells me that we need to move on to another more prophetic vision in terms of welcoming the immigrant. (See Matthew 25: 35 for further guidance).

Second, deportations have not yet increased but I think it is just a question of time before massive deportations become part of life at the border. I hope I am wrong but it seems clear that when Donald Trump has all his ducks (enforcement resources and strategies) in order, things will get worse. The signs of this prediction coming true are as follows:

  • The extension of expedited removal becoming a reality across the country, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement searching for more undocumented to deport.
  • The speeding up the process and hiring of more immigration agents in the months to come with less training, less experience, and diminished screening.
  • A continued attitude of zero tolerance towards all asylum seekers effectively closing the nation’s door to the poorest of the poor.
  • A steadfast strategy of looking for hard core criminals but at the same time a willingness to deport anyone found in the process.
  • A willingness to slowly dismantle all the protections guaranteed by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to appease the Trump followers. It has not yet happened but it would not surprise me if it did.

Third, I also predict that in the near future border cities like Tijuana will become even more violent. This is in due part to the power struggles of the drug cartels. However, violence also rears its ugly head in the increase in kidnappings and extortions that have occurred in the early part of 2017. Because fewer people are trying to cross the border illegally, it seems as if organized crime is pursuing other revenue sources. The defenseless migrant or recent deportee become easy prey for kidnappers and extortionists who demand up to $9,000 to guarantee the safe return of a victim.

Fourth, it is a very dangerous time to be a migrant, deportee or refugee living in a place like Tijuana. As deportations increase, I have no doubt that Tijuana will become a more dangerous place to be dropped off at 11 pm at night. Mexico is not at all prepared for the possibility of massive deportations, and deportees will be in a very vulnerable position. If large numbers suddenly begin to arrive at the border, there will literally be no room at the inn. The irony of all this is that the very people who are called upon to protect, namely the municipal police, are often the last people in the city who will protect migrants, refugees, and deportees. In fact, many view migrants as very easy targets to harass and to seek a mordida (bribe) from. The constant harassment of migrants, even those who are guests at the Casa del Migrante has increased in the early part of 2017

Fifth, I would also like to go out on a limb and predict that comprehensive immigration reform will not be on the Trump agenda anytime soon. All those involved in any type of ministry to immigrants know that no one wants to be undocumented. Everyone we know would love to enter the United States in the right way but, under the system we have, legal immigration is not a possibility for most people. It really is very simple: The clear majority of people come to the United States for family survival and to work. If this dynamic continues, people will continue to arrive. The solution to our immigration problems does not start with building a massive wall, but rather with fixing a very broken immigration system and allowing people to come in an orderly and legal way. However, my greatest fear for the future is that there is no real political will to make broad immigration reform happen anytime soon.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with an image taken from a movie that came out a few years back called The Perfect Storm. It was a meteorologist’s delight as it told the story of a series of storms converging on the same day and in the same place to create what they called the storm of the century.

Some days I am very fearful that we just might be on the precipice of a perfect storm in Tijuana. Just stop and think about the migration storms currently on the verge of landing at the border. I can easily see a scenario in which four migration fronts could converge on us in the very near future. This perfect storm might cause an unparalleled flow of humanity and humanitarian crisis at the border. The four winds of migration that might combine are the following:

  1. Central Americans from the northern triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador fleeing for their lives and arriving in Tijuana in search of a better life.
  2. An increased number of displaced Mexicans running away from cartels in places like Michoacán, Guerrero and Vera Cruz and arriving in Tijuana in search of asylum.
  3. A constant hemorrhaging of African refugees receiving permission to cross the border into south Mexican and travelling to Tijuana where they where they will seek political asylum with the hope of entering the United States.
  4. Finally, the ongoing threat of mass deportations could very well become a reality in the months to come and Tijuana could quickly become inundated by a flood of deportees with no place to go and no place to stay.

I hope that I am in error as I look into my crystal ball and try to predict the future of immigration at the US-Mexican border. However, from where I stand, the potential for a humanitarian crisis should not be easily dismissed or ignored. It could very well happen sooner than we think at the border in Tijuana.

There is also some good news to be mentioned and indeed to be celebrated. In 2016 when numerous refugees arrived from over 30 countries and an increased number of deportees converged at the Tijuana border, there was an outpouring of generosity in terms of donations that we have never experienced in the 30-year history of the Casa. It was heartwarming to witness people coming forward, willing to help their newly arrived brothers and sisters in Tijuana. It inspired many of us to once again believe that, yes, there are many good people in our border community and that heartfelt charity cannot be deterred by any wall no matter how high or forbidding it might be. These generous partners in mercy have not become victims to the voices that too often express man’s inhumanity to man and that strive to drown out all the random acts of kindness we are blessed to witness at the Casa del Migrante. This is the good news that inspires us to go on and to do what we do every day, welcoming every single migrant, deportee or refugee who appears at the entrance of the Casa. This testimony of charity and mercy is what will make all of America, both north and south, continue to be great.

May 9, 2017