Monday, 22 Apr 2024

Visiting the Migrant Camp at the San Diego-Tijuana Border

SAN DIEGO — At California’s southern border, two parallel, towering fences stretch for miles, their reddish steel beams cutting through rugged hillsides thick with tall stocks of yellow wildflowers and marking where Mexico ends and the United States begins.

Around 10 days ago, as the end of a pandemic-era expulsion policy known as Title 42 approached, a migrant camp sprung up between the two border walls, with hundreds of people hoping to be allowed into the United States. I traveled to San Diego and Tijuana last week to report on the sprawling and diverse camp, its existence speaking of America’s shifting immigration policies as well as the desperation of migrants from across the world who are searching for better opportunities.

“There’s no other choice,” said Azamat Alin, 41, who spent at least $10,000 on a long journey from Kazakhstan to Brazil, and then through Central America to Mexico.

Alin had set out seeking financial opportunity and political freedom in the United States. He hadn’t expected to spend several nights in a migrant camp without shelter or sanitation. When I spoke to him through the metal bars of the border wall, he was wearing a plastic bag on his head to keep warm and had just spent his last few dollars on a box of Little Caesars pizza that a Tijuana food delivery driver sold him through the wall.

But he still would have made the journey, he said, had he known that the conditions would be this grim.

“Everyone is looking at the arrivals at the border, but the root of the problem lies in push factors inside countries of origin that are going to persist,” Justin Gest, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies immigration, told my colleague Miriam Jordan. “When crises occur, they generate northbound flows.”

At the border between San Diego and Tijuana, roughly 1,000 people jumped the first barrier separating the cities last week and then remained stuck behind another wall, as they awaited processing by U.S. officials. The area between the two border walls is technically on U.S. soil but is considered a sort of neutral zone. A Colombian man in the camp told me that he had paid $1,500 to smugglers who sawed a hole in the fence on the Mexico side for him, his partner and his toddler to climb through.

Reporters aren’t able to enter the camp, but we crowded on the San Diego side to speak to migrants through the wall. I saw hundreds of families there, huddled together for warmth under Mylar blankets, sharing protein bars and bottled water. Some had fashioned tents out of tarps and black plastic garbage bags.

A mother brushed her daughter’s long brown hair. A father chased his giggling toddler through the trash-strewn patch of dirt.

I had never observed such a diverse group of people in one place, with migrants from Angola, Russia, Guinea, Venezuela, Turkey, Pakistan and dozens of other countries. They wore styles and clothing from all over the world: straw sun hats, hijabs, tank tops, ponchos and kofias.

The meager supply of food and water birthed new businesses — delivery drivers on the Mexico side sold fried chicken, loaves of bread and bottles of Coke through the wall — as well as a striking system of order within the camp.

As aid workers distributed toilet paper, bags of clementines, water bottles and packages of toothbrushes, migrants from various regions designated leaders to receive and distribute the supplies for their groups.

The Africans in the camp — from Ghana, Somalia, Kenya, Guinea, Nigeria — selected a tall Somali man, who communicated with aid groups about the number of sanitary pads and blankets they needed that day. The Colombians had their own leader; so did the Afghans, the Turkish and the Haitians.

The system emerged organically as migrants sought to ease tensions among groups fighting over limited resources, according to Adriana Jasso, a volunteer with American Friends Service Committee.

“People are cold, hungry, desperate, destitute, nervous,” she told me. “It’s a dire situation, to say the least.”

For more:

Title 42 is gone, but the conditions driving migrants to the U.S. continue.

How immigration politics may play out in the 2024 presidential election.

The end of Title 42 has set off new arguments among Democrats around immigration.

See scenes from the border as Title 42 expired.

If you read one story, make it this

In San Diego County, where the homeless death toll has increased by nearly 10 times in the last decade, one man fights to stay alive.

The rest of the news

Motherhood after 40: Raising children in your 40s can be wrenching, rewarding and sublime, but it also comes with unique triumphs and challenges. The New York Times recently asked mothers who had children after 40 to share their experiences. Read their stories.

Gloria Molina: The transformative Latina leader with many firsts to her credit, including the first Hispanic woman elected to the State Assembly, has died at 74, The Los Angeles Times reports.


Entertaining: The New York Times Style Magazine wrote about an Indian Chinese feast in Los Angeles celebrating female founders.

Los Angeles Opera: How the Los Angeles Opera is redefining itself after Plácido Domingo.


Campgrounds: Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf campgrounds in Yosemite National Park will not be open for the 2023 season after the harsh winter and record-breaking snowpack, The Fresno Bee reports.

Flooding: Abnormally high temperatures in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley are expected to speed up the melting of the record snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and add potential flooding concerns in the Tulare Lake Basin, The Fresno Bee reports.


Teachers’ strike: After seven days out of the classroom, Oakland teachers are nearing the end of a strike that has affected 34,000 students across the city, The Mercury News reports.

Homelessness in Sacramento: After years of threatening to do so, Sacramento County has cleared a decades-old riverfront encampment of homeless seniors, The Sacramento Bee reports.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Jennifer Russell:

“Living in the Bay Area means access to our wonderful East Bay Regional Parks. They are particularly awesome in spring with wildflowers, newts, luscious green hills, trails for every skill level, soaring birds, expansive views, rushing creeks and so much more. My favorites are Briones, Tilden and Castle Rock.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

And before you go, some good news

The City Nature Challenge is an annual contest that calls on people worldwide to take and submit photos of plants, animals and insects in their backyards and neighborhoods.

Originally started in 2016 by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the contest is intended to help people connect with nature while also documenting and celebrating biodiversity.

In the 2023 City Nature Challenge, which was held in late April, more than 66,000 people around the world captured over 1.87 million observations — more observations than ever before.

The most observed species worldwide was the Mallard duck. In Los Angeles County, it was the Western fence lizard, followed by the western honey bee. In the Bay Area, it was the California poppy.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Allison Honors contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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