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Inside the Central American migrant crisis in Tijuana

Inside the Central American migrant crisis in Tijuana

The U.S.-Mexico border wall seen from Playas de Tijuana, Dec. 16, 2018. Photo: Grayson Morris

Grayson Morris is an artist and activist based in Los Angeles. When the Caminata del Migrante reached the U.S.-Mexico border in November and quickly developed into a migrant crisis, she decided to get involved. What follows is a first-hand account of her experience.

I drove down to Tijuana from Los Angeles because someone had posted on Facebook that the caravan migrants needed help—“No special skills needed, just come help.” I didn’t know what to expect, but I speak Spanish and I have a car, so I figured I could be of some use down there.

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I created a Facebook fundraiser and was surprised that people were so interested in hearing about my experience. The combination of knowing me personally and the caravan being in the news this fall prompted folks to mine their pockets, and I was able to raise $2,800.

I would use that money to buy shampoo, body lotion, foot powder, Q-tips, panty liners, baby food, cooking equipment, freezer repair, tents, socks, underwear, warm hats, sweaters and jackets for babies, deodorant, toilet paper and soap, and to secure a space to store all the items for distribution, as well as water and light bills for that space and a washing machine, and a cell phone for one caravan leader.

Enclave Caracol


The first thing I did when I got to Tijuana was connect with Enclave Caracol, a community space affiliated with Food-Not-Bombs, the loosely organized “all-volunteer global movement” that prepares and distributes free meals in protest of poverty and corporate greed.

At Enclave, foreign volunteers, locals and caravan refugees all work together, making it  something of an epicenter for “mutual aid” in Tijuana. Enclave has brought together teams of lawyers and medical workers, and stockpiled donations. It also has a big kitchen and lots of volunteers looking to help. Every day people here cook and serve and deliver food, and strategize about how to meet the changing needs of the migrants, but also they offer migrants the opportunity to have some coffee, use the bathroom, fill up their water bottles, charge their phones, and sit down for a minute. It is a wonderful place.

Throughout December, Enclave provided food for refugees camped in the street outside of Benito Juarez sports complex, where the first migrants were initially housed upon arrival. Migrants were eventually forced to relocate to a different shelter, Barretal, which is 45 minutes away. About 400 refused to move, however, because they were waiting for an asylum appointment, trying to organize politically, and/or didn’t want to be isolated away from the city center. Most of the international aid moved to Barretal, so the folks in this hold-out street encampment by Benito Juarez had very few resources. (On Dec. 18, the police removed the  Benito Juarez street encampment at 4 a.m. and bussed everyone to Barretal.)

Barretal shelter

Migrants stay in tents set up in an enclosed family area in Barretal refugee camp in Tijuana, Dec. 15, 2018. Photo: Matthew Campanella

Barretal is a large enclosed concrete area housing around 3,000 refugees that was hastily transformed into a “shelter” with armed guards at the entrance. There are tents everywhere, some outside, some set up under large white tents like you’d use for a wedding, some set up in an enclosed building (families with children) and some people sleep out in the open if they don’t have a tent yet. There are Porta Potties scattered around, piles of garbage, a filling station for drinking water, an enclosed children’s play area, medical tents, and lots of people milling about. Some men are gone during the day because they have been able to find work outside the camp.

People complain that Barretal feels like a prison. As the control of the camp shifted from the city to the state, more and more “order” has come, and so too has the feeling of being institutionalized. People have been issued photo IDs, which they use to enter the camp, and every time they receive goods and supplies it is recorded. This is supposed to prevent hoarding and manage the distribution of things, but feels increasingly dehumanizing and repressive.

In Barretal, one group of migrant caravan organizers are running a small organized and trusted donation distribution center in the camp, independent of the state system. They have a pop-up tent with a table full of goods and two camping tents where they store items. The operation runs like a free store: People can show up, ask for what they need and receive it right away. They can also tell people like us what they’re running out of and we buy it for them.

But we (foreigners) can’t walk in with armloads of supplies, because we would be forced to give them to the state-run acopio, a big makeshift warehouse which distributes supplies sparingly. With this little pop-up operation though, migrants can go to our car and get what they need,  and then walk back in and distribute it. Eventually more space to receive larger quantities of foreign donations was needed, so volunteers used donation money to rent a space just outside the camp where bulk items received could be stored and distributed to those in need. (This rented space was also used for a Christmas party and New Years party which featured Honduran holiday fare and cell phone karaoke.)

The powers that be at Barretal have made it increasingly hard for foreigners to enter, and have demanded that all donations must go to the acopio. While I was there a bunch of supplies mysteriously disappeared from the warehouse (presumably they were stolen by the authorities themselves, as no one else had keys to the building).

One thing I’ve observed that prevents supplies from getting to people in need is ego. The “savior” mentality can lead to the over-structuring of systems and a prison-like bureaucratic feel. It can quickly become impractical when people don’t respect it. Or maybe it was already impractical (and insulting) to plan from outside a community instead of from within?

Some foreigners created a system to distribute goods to the people in the street encampment. They have the supplies fenced in and they let people in five at a time to ask for what they need. But everyone hated the system. These gate keepers tried to prevent things from being distributed directly to the people and wanted everything to go through them in an organized way, so people wouldn’t have to clamber for goods.

It makes sense, but it sometimes resulted in actively preventing caravan organizers from distributing things to the people who needed them, because foreigners thought they knew best who needed what.

Los Migrants

Almost everyone I have met in the caravan was from Honduras. A few were from Guatemala and El Salvador, but Honduras is really a mess right now. The military/police/narco-trafficking/organized crime infrastructure there has lead to extreme violence and fear as normal citizens get wrapped up in it in various ways, voluntarily or not. People’s families are being murdered, their houses burned down, their lives threatened. This is why they are seeking asylum.

The migrants are feeling disillusioned. They mobilized 7,000 people and walked 2,000 miles to ask for asylum, and when they arrived they were denied the right to have their cases processed, they were tear gassed, they were divided up and moved away from the city center, they were denied distribution of relief supplies that were sent for them, and then it rained. Some people jumped or crawled under the fence or swam so they could arrive on U.S. soil and be detained by ICE and at least get their paperwork started. Some are walking back, some are being pressured into “voluntarily” deporting themselves. Some are trying to figure out how to live and work in Tijuana, but the vast majority are still holding out hope that their asylum cases will be processed.

One thing to remember about this wave of Hondureñan migrants is that unlike so many who migrate to the United States, they are not relocating simply to improve their earning power. They are actually fleeing for their lives. Many people in the caravana were employed and they had families and owned homes and businesses. They are not accustomed to begging for food or socks or underwear or shoes or jackets for their children. It is degrading to be suddenly poor—many people told me things like, “Never in my life have I asked for a handout.”

As they marched in the caravan, they were full of hope for a better life. Now, hitting the U.S.-Mexico border wall with its barbed wire and armed guards (and failure to comply with international asylum law), the migrants find themselves in a stalemate. They don’t know how to proceed. Every day is so much waiting, hoping, wondering if things can ever be good again.

The lesser known refugee camps in Tijuana, of which there are many, are receiving much less attention right now. No one is officially in charge of everything, so different organizations supporting refugees continue to try to communicate with each other about what’s going on and what is needed where.

I was distributing socks and underwear in the Benito Juarez camp one night, and a woman approached me asking for food for the eight young men she has taken into her home. Enclave Caracol does not officially distribute items to the camps, but they allow individuals to distribute them as independent agents. I went into the basement and got a bunch of canned and dry food and drove it directly to her house. Her name is Berta and she is exceptionally kind; everyone in her house seemed so happy to be there and so thankful for the food we brought. Señora Berta is like an auntie to them and calls them her “muchachitos.” It occurred to me that if everyone would just take a few refugees into their home, we wouldn’t have to have refugee camps.

Although there are certainly those like Berta who are kind and supportive of the migrants, I was struck by how many people in Tijuana seemed completely unaffected by the whole thing. They went right on living their lives, Christmas shopping, as if a humanitarian disaster was not happening in their backyard.

The prospect of asylum

Pop up tents for the autonomous distribution system organized by migrants to distribute donations in the Barretal migrant camp. Photo: Grayson Morris

There is a station at Barretal where people can start the paperwork for Mexican asylum, but there is no station where people can go daily for legal advice on receiving asylum in the United States. Sometimes lawyers are there and people can find them and ask them questions if they see them walking around. Many people though don’t know what’s going on or how to get started.

One day another American woman and I entered Barretal and were immediately approached by people, who asked how they could get married so they could stay together during the asylum process, if domestic violence is a case for asylum (it’s not), and what asylum number is currently being processed. You can go to the border and take a number and wait for an appointment to tell your story about why you need asylum. Thousands of people have taken numbers, but only 40-60 people per day are seen for these asylum interviews, so it will take months and months to even start the process.

Some people have a number and will wait months for their appointment. Some don’t even know where to go to take a number. Many will get turned down for asylum when they do finally get an interview and they’ll be deported, and some of them will be murdered when they return home.

There are narrow parameters to qualifying for asylum: You must demonstrate that you cannot return to your home country because you were persecuted there based on your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; you must show that you were persecuted by your country’s government (for example, police, army, or government officials) or by a nongovernmental group that your government is unwilling or unable to control; and you must be able to prove every element of your asylum claim.

A call to arms

I went to the beach one day and watched the waves wash along the border wall. It was beautiful and stupid at the same time. What an arbitrary thing, a line in the sand. It took me four-and-a-half hours to enter the United States and it felt like a dystopian police state from a science fiction novel, complete with barbed wire, armed police officers with semi-automatic weapons, drug sniffing dogs and multitude of automatic cameras and scanners.

One thing I have learned about relief work (and activism in general) is that organizing doesn’t mean centralizing power through one channel—which often results a bottleneck. The most effective and efficient way is to have many people working together in small trusted groups, each attending to the job that they think is most pressing, and in contact with other groups to strategize when appropriate. “We are like ants” one caravan organizer told me, “Each is doing their part. They’re all working together, nobody is in charge, and the job gets done.”

It’s a lot easier to drive down to Mexico with socks and hand them out than it is to change our government. Socks are very concrete. That is why everyone gave me money for socks. And the people liked the socks, and I was glad I was there to give them out. My friends keep asking me what else they can do to help and I don’t know that much about anything, I just drove down to help distribute socks.

All I can say is get involved. Get deeply involved with organizations in your community, organizations that fight for justice and solidarity with those harmed by flawed systems—not merely those that offer depoliticized charity. There are many people around the world seeking asylum from political violence caused by greed and until we get to the root of the problem, there will continue to be waves and waves of refugees.

Everyone has a different idea about what is helpful, and that’s why effective organizing necessitates decentralization. We can’t agree but we must act now. With an understanding of this diversity of tactics we can cross-pollinate instead of thwarting each others’ strategies and being self-righteous.

Some people cook food, some call senators, some throw rocks, but if we all want justice, uniting involves maintaining space in your heart for different strategies. In disaster situations, people often display how smart and kind and skilled they are. At the end of the day you can’t keep people down. You can disenfranchise them, discriminate against them, deny them care, wall them off, imprison them, enslave them, bomb them, torture them even, but they will never stop organizing. The indomitable human spirit will rise.

As of press time, the number of migrants at Barretal shelter has dwindled to only a few hundred. Authorities have announced they will close the shelter on Jan. 23. Many of the migrants have relocated to smaller, longer-term shelters. Some have gotten Mexican work visas, some are waiting for their asylum cases to be processed, and some have chosen to cross the border through the desert. The refugee crisis has shifted from its emergency phase to a search for longer term-solutions, just as a second migrant caravan is set to depart Honduras this week. Some migrants from the first caravan are taking busses down there to help guide the next group.

Story by: Grayson Morris

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