Scenes from the Mexican border



I met Franco standing outside the migrant shelter in Tijuana when I was planning to leave for the day. He clocked my white skin and media lanyard and called out to me in English. I stopped and said hi.

Two men walk along a border fence that stands along a beach in the city of Tijuana. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Franco's from El Salvador; he crossed the border into the US for the first time 20 years ago, spending the subsequent years living in California. He had a relationship with a woman, they had a daughter. One day he was taken from his home and deported back to El Salvador.

Like so many who join migrant caravans, Franco is in Mexico right now because he's trying again to get to the US. He wants to see his daughter, to have some chance of making enough money to support a family. The Mexican government has granted him a humanitarian visa for Mexico and the El Salvadoran consulate has provided identification papers.

After a couple of days living in the migrant shelter Franco met Marta, who runs the tiendita (little shop) two blocks up. The shop sells bottled drinks and snacks and serves cooked lunches — fried chicken, beans, rice, and salad. It's part of a three-storey building which is a family home with many rooms.

Marta's young great-grandchildren are the fourth generation to live there, and they play in the courtyard with water pistols and tricycles as various household and community members move in and out. Soon Franco was living in the family home too, lodgings he pays for by helping cook chicken and clean the store. 'This is my family, here, now,' he tells me. 'They will help me until I'm reunited with my family.'

'We're all equals, we all have red blood,' says Marta when I interview her. 'For me, anyone who comes here from another country is welcome.'

That day, President Trump visited McAllen, Texas (across the frontera from Reynosa, Mexico) to declare further measures against any who would try and cross the border without prior approval. Mexico and the US had already agreed that asylum seekers are to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed in the US — a wait that is likely to be many months.


"This, for all their bluster, is what anti-migrant politicians miss: try as they might, the movement of people will happen as long as life itself does."


Of the numbers who arrived in Tijuana with the caravan in November, at least 1300 returned to their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Guatemala — finding a way back on foot, hitching rides on trains and trucks, or reporting to Mexican immigration authorities for voluntary deportation.

Even as violence and poverty await them at home, it was clear that they would not get to the US; they missed their partners and children left behind; and they could neither see a viable future in trying to stay in Mexico.

The others remain in precarious shelters, in family homes like Marta's or rented rooms, considering their options in Mexico, waiting for US authorities to see them for an appointment for their asylum claim or otherwise working our their options for getting across the border.

Later in the week, on Tijuana beach on the other side of the city, I stand at the border wall; staring out into the no-mans-land between the fence on the Tijuana side of the beach and that on the San Diego (US) side. Border Patrol cars zoom up and down the asphalt, clearly with nothing much else to do. I think of the people I feel physically, viscerally bonded to; like my sister and my nephew.

There are others here on the beach, too, standing and staring at this innocuous-looking piece of infrastructure as the ocean tides crash and spray. I've met so many now who have been separated from their partners, parents, and children — suddenly banished to another country, left with few resources to remake a life, those physical bonds forcibly, deliberately torn with little possibility of reconnection.

This week, another caravan is on its way from Honduras, and it includes many more people who have made it to the US in the past and been sent back; many more who embody the sheer hustle that is supposed to be what makes America great. As one man told the Washington Post: 'I know only some in the last caravan made it, but I have to try.'

The patience and determination of people like Franco comes from a deep place. If there's a spark of hope, they'll carry it — cradling it against the bitter winds coming off the ocean to stop it blowing out. This, for all their bluster, is what anti-migrant politicians miss: try as they might, the movement of people will happen as long as life itself does.



Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is an Australian freelance writer who lives in Mexico City. Tweet her at @Ann_dLandes and read her other work here.

Main image: Two men walk along a border fence that stands along a beach in the city of Tijuana. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, Mexico, United States, Donald Trump, migration



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Existing comments

Perhaps some insight into why they can't stay in their own countries would be helpful. Simply saying "Even as violence and poverty await them at home," is not enough. "This, for all their bluster, is what anti-migrant politicians miss: try as they might, the movement of people will happen as long as life itself does." As the movement is usually one way, there comes a point at which receiving countries (like Australia & the US) must say "slow down". Maybe what we should do is assist countries like El Salvador & Guatemala become more attractive to their own citizens.
John Cook | 18 January 2019

Conflating ‘refugee’ with ‘migrant’ won’t help fix the problem of what to do with people, who are not as individuals being persecuted for who they are or what they believe, streaming out of failing countries which offer them nothing but a slow process of ‘life is hard and then you die’. Migrants are expected to abide by the immigration laws of destination countries, in particular the laws that require them to seek an invitation before turning up. Refugees are an exceptional category of migrants for whom the laws are relaxed precisely because there are specific criteria, to do with emergencies, for belonging to this category. Exodus prompted by the anticipated (and often reasonable anticipation) of dissolution of prospects for leading a life of normal dignity, caused by systemic failures that discriminate against the population in general rather than against an individual in particular, is not one of these criteria. The concept of economic exodus should not be shoehorned into the concept of refugee morality. It needs its own debating space at a UN General Assembly, if only, in order to make a solution possible, to dragoon in as partners to the debates those nation-state laggards who are causing the problem.
roy chen yee | 19 January 2019

In response to John Cook The US has already provided political destabilisation to much of Latin America. It is a good question that you could yourself research. "Why do they leave?" Lyn Bender
Lyn Bender | 20 January 2019

The scenes portrayed by Ann are removed from historical context. Roy makes some very important points. Concepts of refuge, migration, asylum processing and protection are mixed. The USA has settled over 3,000,000 refugees since 1975. And many millions of migrants from these regions. No other country has done more for resettlement of refugees and migrants. Welcoming of migrants. This period of history may be more a more difficult period. Is the Trump time the blip in the long term trend? Not accurate to portray Mexico as unwelcoming. Or unsafe to migrants. USA is asking them to await processing. There is something very illusory and coordinated in this that is troubling. What's the policy solution? Entry without assessing claims?
John Kilner | 24 January 2019


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