The Mexican Border as Refugee Camp

One of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States sleeps on a street in Tijuana, Mexico. Credit Mohammed Salem/Reuters
One of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States sleeps on a street in Tijuana, Mexico. Credit Mohammed Salem/Reuters

When I was in Tijuana last month, a heavy rainstorm poured down on the Benito Juárez sports park, where more than 6,000 Central American migrants were crowded into tents, under tarps, or simply sleeping on the mud.

The rain mixed with sewage that was leaking from broken toilets, forming putrid puddles that seeped into the tents and prompted a vain scramble for dry spaces. I saw one young mother squatting in filthy water, trying to comfort her sick baby. The city government eventually closed the park because of the unsanitary conditions.

The men, women and children who have traveled north in a stream of caravans in recent months have grabbed attention because it is unusual for people to move through Mexico together in such large numbers. It’s even more unusual for them to have to seek temporary shelter in such awful conditions. There are refugee camps in many places in the world, but that one existed right next to the American border, where its occupants could literally see California, is disturbing.

I’m worried that such scenes will come to seem normal. The Trump administration’s announcement on Thursday that it will make some asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their court cases are resolved in the United States makes this very likely.

Mexico has increasingly become a transit country for refugees and migrants — especially those fleeing gang violence and government crackdowns in Central America. This puts it in a similar position to Turkey and Italy, where the passage of refugees and migrants has caused enormous domestic problems.

Those fleeing Central America often face a level of violence akin to what we think of as occurring in war zones. I have talked to refugees who have been shot, raped, extorted, kidnapped and had their houses burned down by gangs allied with corrupt police officers. The latest move could potentially cause hundreds of thousands of them to pile up along the Mexican side of the border. With thousands of asylum applications being made every month, and with a huge backlog in United States immigration courts, migrants’ cases could take years to resolve.

The new Trump administration rule would strand them in crime-stricken Mexican states. Two Honduran teenagers from the caravan were murdered in Tijuana, officials said Tuesday.

It also raises the question of who will support the refugees, who are being helped here by churches, charities and some local governments that already complain they are short on money. “How is Mexico suddenly going to support hundreds of thousands of non-Mexicans for years?” asked the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization, in a statement on its website in response to Thursday’s announcement.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claims the move will prevent people from using asylum applications to get into the United States and slip into the shadows. “Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates”, she said on Thursday. Studies show, however, that the vast majority of asylum seekers show up for their hearings.

The move may well be challenged in United States courts. But will Mexico also oppose it? On Thursday, it sent mixed signals. The Foreign Ministry initially said in a statement it would accept those with United States court dates, but then the head of Mexico’s immigration institute said it was legally and logistically impossible to do so.

Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power on Dec. 1, he has been trying to develop a long-term strategy for the crisis. On Dec. 10, his foreign minister promised that Mexico will invest $30 billion in Central America over five years in a “Marshall Plan” aimed at curbing the march northward, including increasing jobs in southern Mexico. He has said he is looking to work with Washington on such a plan.

Cooperation on finding a regional solution to the causes of the exodus would be a big step forward. But Mexico should not agree to house United States asylum seekers as part of any bigger deal. This would leave refugees in a painful, drawn-out limbo. The growth of long-term refugee camps along the border could also cause resentment among Mexicans, who are already questioning their obligations toward the caravan members. And it could lead to more conflict between frustrated refugees and border guards that snarl border crossing points, hurting the millions of people who rely on cross-border commerce and travel.

The scenes of border guards firing tear gas into Mexico and migrants in sewage-filled water next to the United States should not be something we become accustomed to seeing. This should not become our new normal.

Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.

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