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The Pro Amore Dei migrant shelter is buzzing with energy in anticipation of the Easter Sunday celebration—the incessant sound of children playing, babies crying, dozens of conversations, and food being prepared for the shelter’s approximately 100 inhabitants echoes all the way down the block. Located deep inside one of Tijuana’s hilly working class neighborhoods, Pro Amore Dei is just one of dozens of migrant shelters dotting the border city’s sprawling landscape. 

Inside the shelter, Sandra tells me, “Pa’tras no puedo ir” (“I can’t go backwards”) while rocking her two-year-old daughter in her lap. Sandra is just one among hundreds of migrants caught in the last week by Border Patrol agents while attempting to surreptitiously cross into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley—far to the east of Tijuana. 

Migrants stuck at the Tijuana port of entry live in a makeshift tent encampment located just south of the border wall while waiting to migrate to the United States. Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy

Every day since mid-March, approximately a hundred would-be asylum seekers detained by Border Patrol have been flown from Texas to San Diego and subsequently transferred to Tijuana without being told where they were being taken. Pro Amore Dei had recently taken in 35 of these deported migrants. 

Over the past two months, the media has been saturated with accounts of a new crisis at the border, with most attention focused on the thousands of unaccompanied minors being held in U.S. detention facilities. Less attention has been given to the several thousand migrants currently residing in migrant encampments and shelters throughout Mexico’s border cities. Many of these migrants, fleeing unprecedented violence and economic insecurity in Central America, are awaiting a sign from the Biden administration that their claims for asylum protection will be heard in U.S. courts. Others are making a risker choice. They are crossing without authorization, hoping they won’t get caught or that their asylum claims will be taken seriously by agents if they do. Though most who attempt this journey are not so fortunate, like Sandra, they remain hopeful. 

Migrants stuck at the Tijuana port of entry live in a makeshift tent encampment located just south of the border wall while waiting to migrate to the United States. Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy

Sandra is from Apopa, a neighborhood in El Salvador’s capital city with notoriously high murder rates associated with an ongoing territorial rivalry between five gangs, or maras. Like thousands of other Central Americans—most from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—Sandra and her family have had their lives threatened by gangs associated with drug-trafficking. She explains that if she were to return to El Salvador, she has no doubt her child would be taken and she would be killed. Moreover, she has had to send money to gang members since she left El Salvador to prevent them from killing her family members who stayed behind. She explains that if she doesn’t pay, they will kill one family member at a time. This payment is known locally as a “war tax”—the cost of having your life spared while living in a war zone. 

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In her desperation, Sandra attempted to cross into the U.S. with the help of a coyote near Reynosa, Tamaulipas. She hoped to be reunited with a cousin who lives in Boston. Even after being caught, having her personal belongings and clothing taken, and being placed in a cold detention center, she hoped her asylum case would be heard. Agents inside the detention center kept her hope alive, telling her and others that they would be released and reunited with their families in the U.S. They were given gray sweaters and sweatpants and meager meals, just enough to not go hungry. After two days in detention, Sandra and about 100 others were loaded into a plane not knowing that they would be back in Mexico in a few hours. Despite the severity of her situation, Sandra was never given the opportunity to discuss her case with an asylum officer. 

When I asked an official working at a shelter funded by the International Organization for Migration why the U.S. was sending people caught in Texas all the way to Tijuana, he replied, “who knows, probably to torture them.” 

Indeed, being deported to Tijuana, a city that most migrants currently attempting to cross never traveled through, is quite disorienting. Many are being taken to shelters like Pro Amore Dei, while others are ending up in a growing tent city that popped up in February next to one of Tijuana’s pedestrian points of entry into the U.S. 

Regardless of where they end up or how they arrived there, migrants in Tijuana are living an incredibly precarious existence. Many fear that the gangs they are attempting to flee can still catch up to them. Some have been subjected to the violence of local narcotrafficking organizations, which have been waging their own battles for territorial control—giving Tijuana the unfortunate honor of being designated the most violent city in the world for two years in a row. 

She explains that if she doesn’t pay, they will kill one family member at a time. This payment is known locally as a “war tax”—the cost of having your life spared while living in a war zone. 

The hope that propelled Sandra’s journey and that of thousands of other migrants in the last few months has hinged on the belief that the Biden administration would undo Trump’s harsh crackdown on the asylum system. Unfortunately, they now have first-hand experience of the inertia that has largely defined Biden’s immigration agenda. Though Biden announced plans to end the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which forced thousands of asylum seekers to await their court proceedings in Mexico, he has not eliminated the prior administration’s lesser-known weapon against asylum—Title 42. 

Title 42, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, allows border agents to immediately expel migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross into the United States as soon as they are encountered, thus eliminating access to traditional due process and the ability to pursue asylum claims. Ostensibly aimed at defending against the spread of COVID-19, Title 42 dramatically bolstered the Trump Administration’s crackdown on the asylum system. 

Migrants stuck at the Tijuana port of entry live in a makeshift tent encampment located just south of the border wall while waiting to migrate to the United States. Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy

Sandra and the one hundred migrants being transferred to Tijuana every day are being deported under Title 42. Though legal advocacy groups have challenged Title 42 and several public health leaders have argued that the policy has little impact on the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration has offered no timeline to eliminate it. 

Despite the odds being stacked against them, migrants like Sandra say that they have no choice but to maintain hope and press forward. In the meanwhile, they continue finding ways to build lives and new relationships amidst their precarious present. Even while listening to the gut-wrenching details of the circumstances they are fleeing, one can still glean glimpses of joy and laughter like those I witnessed on this Easter Sunday. 

Carlos Martinez, MPH is a PhD candidate in the joint program in Medical Anthropology at UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley and is currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Tijuana.