Deported migrants attempted a once-common tactic of rushing the border en masse on Sunday. But Border Patrol agents met them with tear gas and rubber bullets and forced them to turn back.
Deportees in Tijuana said plans to rush the border had been in the works for a week.
It all started with a guy handing out pocket-sized fliers at the Padre Chava breakfast hall for migrants and deportees in Tijuana. The fliers called for a mass border crossing on Nov. 24.
“So that we can reunite with our children, families,” the flier read in small, Spanish text.
“And for those who want the American dream and so that we can help our families succeed,” the flier continued in rambling fashion, ending with a call for discretion and “Sí se puede!” written three times.
Bruno Alvarez Jimenez, a deported migrant who has helped serve breakfast at Padre Chava’s hall for more than a year, said the organizer showed up daily to rally participants. But people were skeptical.
“There was a lot of indecision among those who organized this,” Alvarez said, adding that the proposed time for attempting the border rush kept changing.
“People didn’t take it very seriously,” he said.
The mysterious lead organizer — Alvarez said he’d never seen him before at the breakfast hall, where most diners are regulars — announced that there would be three groups of would-be border crossers.
One would attempt to cross near San Ysidro, one at Playas de Tijuana, near the coast, and one in the Otay Mesa area.
Alvarez didn’t know if the latter two groups actually tried to cross. A Border Patrol spokesperson said agents hadn’t encountered any other large groups attempting to cross last Sunday afternoon.
Alvarez estimates that more than 200 people showed up on Sunday to join the border rush — or at least to watch. Border Patrol said the group numbered “more than 100.”
They met in the trash-strewn Tijuana River canal, about a quarter-mile west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
At around 2 p.m., part of the group approached a Border Patrol agent stationed at an opening in the fence that lines the northern side of the canal. When they didn’t back off, the agent fired pepper balls at the crowd.
More agents showed up and some people threw rocks and plastic bottles at them too.
“Unfortunately there’s always somebody who doesn’t think,” Alvarez said, adding that he thought the guy who started the rock throwing wasn’t even part of the group attempting to cross.
“They made us all look bad,” Alvarez said of the provocateurs, “because we were just planning to run, not confront (the Border Patrol agents) or provoke them.”
In the end, several people were injured by rubber bullets and — according to accounts in the Mexican press — Tasers.
The Border Patrol did not respond to an interview request. In a statement, the agency said several agents were struck with rocks in the arms and legs, and one agent was hit in the head with a water bottle.
In the statement, Paul Beeson, chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector said, "The agents showed great restraint when faced with the dangers of this unusually large group.” He added that no one was injured seriously.
Mass border crossings were common in the San Diego area in the 1990s. Back then, agents often were easily outnumbered and lacked the technology and infrastructure to stop at least some people from getting through during mass crossings.
Since then, the size of the Border Patrol has increased five-fold and a triple-layer fence has been built across much of San Diego’s border zone.
In the wake of Sunday’s skirmish, Alvarez said he worried how Border Patrol agents would treat people like him, who repeatedly attempt to cross the border. He’s tried three times to get back to El Monte, Calif., where he said he lived for 13 years before getting deported.
“That’s where I built my estate,” he said. “I left my house there, my cars, my wife, my son.”
He said he and his fellow deportees who joined the mass border-crossing attempt did it knowing full well they could get caught and thrown in jail. But with better planning and a more prepared leader, Alvarez thinks some could have gotten through to the U.S.
“He didn’t know how follow through what he was organizing,” Alvarez said of the leader.
From now on, Alvarez said, he’d keep trying to cross on his own.