Honduran Deana Quczada peels back her young daughter's black hair to reveal a deep scar on her forehead. She was beaten, Quczada says, six months ago as part of an apparent revenge attack on her family by gangs that Quczada's husband may have been mixed up with. When her daughter was released after spending a month in the hospital, Quczada immediately fled with her north in hopes of making it to the United States, where she could ask for political asylum.
I've heard that if you ask the U.S. for help, they will give it, she says in Spanish.
Quczada, 36, made it all the way to Tijuana before being turned away by U.S. customs authorities at the San Ysidro border crossing, the busiest port of entry on the U.S. border with Mexico. In recent days, customs officials have told her and dozens of other migrants that the facility was too overwhelmed to begin processing would-be asylum seekers. The Border Patrol has called it a temporary situation. But Quczada is starting to lose hope.
We had no other choice but to come here and we can't go back, Quczada says.
Her family has spent several chilly and drizzly nights sleeping out on the square next to the border crossing. They had an offer to stay with a family friend on the Mexican side, but it's more than two hours from here.
Quczada's is just one of many harrowing personal accounts you hear when you visit the encampment of asylum seekers, most from a highly-publicized recent caravan from Central America. Lately, the small tent city has been transformed into something more akin to a small refugee camp, with volunteers streaming in from both sides of the border to donate clothing, food and other supplies as people wait to hear if they can get into the U.S. to be processed.
Returning home is not an option
While the most recent caravan — there have been others like it in past years — is getting most of the attention from the Trump administration and the media, the fact is there were already many other migrants staying in Tijuana shelters for weeks, some much longer.
One of them is Haitian Jean Stevenson Dorvil, who has been waiting to get in for six months, working the odd job in Tijuana when he can. He spent six additional months just getting here from Venezuela, where he had been living. The journey overland through countries such as Colombia and Guatemala was dangerous at times, he says. Dorvil says he paid $1,000 just to get through Nicaragua.
"Right now it is very difficult to live in Venezuela," Dorvil says. Basic things are extremely expensive and jobs are scarce. The situation in Haiti is even more bleak. He says if he is granted permission to live and work in the U.S., his life will improve. There are jobs there, he says.
"I've got my family in Venezuela to help, my family in Haiti to help, every month I send them money," Dorvil says.
Like a lot of people here, Dorvil says returning home is not an option.
At last count, humanitarian aid workers here say at least a hundred migrants from the caravan are still waiting on the plaza, and then there are the estimated dozens more like Dorvil who were already here. Since Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials confirm that 28 asylum seekers from the caravan itself have been admitted into the U.S. for processing. Aid groups say some two dozen other migrants have been allowed into a more sheltered foyer at the border crossing so they don't have to camp outside in the cold. Their fate though, like those still outside, is far from certain.
Aid workers and migrants have been under pressure by the Mexican authorities to remove their encampment and go to shelters. Whether police will actually enforce that rule soon is uncertain. One aid worker told NPR that usually migrants are not allowed to camp outside on the streets, but that police weren't moving them due to the presence of all the TV cameras and news crews.
The Trump administration's messaging
Meanwhile, on Monday the Justice Department announced criminal charges against 11 suspected members of the Central American caravan for trying to cross the border illegally a few miles west of the San Ysidro port near the ocean. The arrests began last Friday, and included six migrants from Honduras, two from El Salvador, two from Guatemala and one from Mexico. A number of these migrants were apprehended in larger groups trying to cross the border illegally — groups that included migrants from India, Mexico and other countries. It is unclear whether or not these other migrants were criminally charged.
Immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs in San Diego said the criminal charges against the 11 migrants were "highly unusual." Most people apprehended for illegal entry are turned around and expeditiously removed from the U.S., she explained. These criminal charges are part of the Trump administration's messaging, she said. "They are trying to dissuade future caravaners from attempting to come to the states" to apply for asylum, Jacobs explained.
At the same time, she questioned whether these migrants were actually part of the caravan. Caravan participants were given extensive training in Mexico by human rights activists on how to apply for asylum, and were told repeatedly that if they tried to enter the U.S. illegally, they would be prosecuted.