TIJUANA—As a result of the Russian war in Ukraine that began in mid-February, Tijuana, Mexico has received thousands of Ukrainian citizens seeking humanitarian refuge in the United States.

Although displaced Russians also arrived with them, it was those who proved Ukrainian nationality who were given preferential treatment compared to migrants from Central America, Haiti and Mexico. Migrants from these Latin American countries have had to set up a makeshift camp at the Chaparral checkpoint, where they were forced to wait to be attended by U.S. immigration authorities.

One morning in March, an operation by the Tijuana municipal government evicted the Chaparral Camp with heavy machinery and riot police. Located right at the Chaparral checkpoint, this port of entry was the only one along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico that was still closed. The perfect pretext for the eviction of those at the Chaparral camp was to reopen this important gateway to the U.S.

However, to the surprise of many, neither the eviction nor the reopening of the gate relieved the excessive waiting time at the busiest border crossing in the world, but rather it was exclusively used to process asylum seekers from Ukraine.

This special treatment for Ukrainian refugees caused controversy among the migrant community mainly affected by Title 42, which forces migrants seeking refuge to remain in Mexico during the resolution of their applications, which can take months or even years. The difference in how Latino migrants are treated also caused outrage among locals, who have noted the preference for European migrants, which some consider racist and discriminatory.

Judith Cabrera de la Rocha, Co-director of the Border Line Crisis Center, dedicated to defending the rights of migrants, says she feels joy every time people obtain the long-awaited refugee status in the U.S., but that the difference in the process and the discourses that accompanies certain refugees seeking asylum is worrying.

“We know that Ukrainians are escaping this terrible war in their country, but (Latino) migrants are also escaping another kind of war. Of course it is not an official war, but their lives are threatened, they suffer rapes, murders and all kinds of difficulties,” said Cabrera. “One of the problems is that the U.S. government has constructed two different narratives. On the one hand, one type of migrant is perceived as a hero and another as a criminal, when both groups are fleeing from places where their lives are threatened.”

José Ulloa, a migrant from Honduras, arrived in Tijuana with his family four years ago during the Donald Trump administration. Fleeing gang-related violence, Ulloa has yet to receive an answer on his asylum application. Photo: Luis Gutierrez

In countries like Honduras, the homicide daily average during the first nine months of 2021 was 9.95 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is attributed to violence caused by gangs and organized crime. José Ulloa, from Honduras, arrived in Tijuana four years ago during the Donald Trump administration. He has since waited with his family for an answer on his asylum application. His main reason for migrating: gang-related violence.

“War has always existed in our country, but for humble people because they cannot defend themselves,” Ulloa says. “(The gangs) know who to target, they don’t target people who can defend themselves. They take advantage, doing and undoing one’s life as if it were that of an animal.”

Ulloa recounted how he was shot for trying to keep his son away from a group of gang members who were trying to recruit him. Because of this, he had to emigrate with his family and join the first migrant caravan in 2018.

“My family and I have been fighting for asylum for four years and nothing. We just want to fulfill the dream of helping my mom, my brothers and my family. I have nothing against (Ukrainians) because we all have rights, but just like they were given the opportunity, why not us?”

Migrant economic and racial discrimination and U.S. electoral interest

An activist with the migrant justice organization AGAPE, Pastor Alberto Rivera Colón—originally from Puerto Rico—pointed out that there is a clear differentiation between the treatment of these two groups, but that in addition to ethnic origin, there is also the factor of direct participation of U.S. citizens of Latino origin or in this case, Ukrainian.

The pastor said, for example, that Title 42 forces Latino migrants to remain in Mexico for issues related to health and COVID-19, a clear demonstration of this disparity.

“The message tells us that European migrants are considered ‘immune,’ and those who are sick, those who are contagious, those who have the virus and those who can harm public health are Latino,” Rivera said. “There is a profound imbalance. Immigration policy is blind and there are exceptions based on race or country. I don’t like to talk about issues like (racism), but it’s very notorious.”

Ukrainian refugees in Tijuana seek entry into the United States. Photo: Luis Gutierrez

Although the hardships of Central American and Mexican migrants are different from those fleeing war in Ukraine, by not being able to obtain a plane ticket, they must travel through several countries on foot. According to Rivera, this causes psychological issues that leave these migrants with a deep sense of mistrust with Mexican authorities, who they fear could have ties to organized crime and therefore feel vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping or threats against their families in their countries of origin.

Rivera explained how he has had to support underage women traveling alone to the U.S., who have been raped and have had their children in his shelter. Added to these terrible circumstances, the little-to-no intervention of their countries when it comes to the defense of their human rights, accentuates their vulnerability.

Because of this and for the sake of transparency, Rivera said it is necessary to know how much money the UN or UNICEF uses to help these migratory and refugee movements. He explained that in international terms, European countries invest more resources in these world organizations to ensure better policies for their citizens in foreign countries, an issue almost nonexistent in Latin America, by comparison.

Another important factor is the double discourse between these two groups. They include the political-electoral interests that the U.S. government seeks to take advantage of both internally and externally.

“Sadly what the authorities always see is who is going to vote and who is interested, and that happened with the Ukrainians and the doors opened faster,” Rivera said. “American citizens have to be actively involved. If the government sees that those who are going to help are citizens of those countries, the government is motivated because in the future they want the vote of those people who are also from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, etc.”

Rivera’s analysis of the migrant situation in Tijuana is also a criticism of the racism and discrimination that exists in the U.S. immigration system, but also a criticism of the lack of unity and solidarity of Latin American countries and compatriots on the other side of the border.

For now, Border Patrol has announced that the international crossing at Chaparral will continue to be used exclusively to process asylum requests from Ukrainians. U.S. authorities reported the crossing of 20,000 Ukrainians in a month, of which 12,000 already have refugee status.