Left With Nothing By Biden Administration, Migrant Families In Tijuana Face An Impossible Choice
There’s a rack of shoes drying in the sun outside of Embajadores de Jesús Shelter in Tijuana. The tongues of the shoes are just hanging out, because Customs and Border Protection took the laces from them — even from the tiniest of shoes.
35-year-old Claudia Vasquez Del Cid held the hand of her six-year-old daughter, Keymi outside of the shelter last week. They had fled rampant crime, domestic abuse, and joblessness in a hurricane-wrecked Honduras. After a difficult trip to Reynosa, Mexico, they crossed the Rio Grande in Texas earlier this month.
They were held two days in a freezing Border Patrol station, known as a “hielera,” before they were told they would soon be reunited with their family and put on a plane to California. But that’s not what happened.
“I don’t have anything. They threw away our clothes. They threw away our clothes and, well, our shoelaces. They stole our money,” she said, through tears. “They’re throwing us away, they send us to be thrown out.”
Vasquez Del Cid is one of over 3,000 asylum-seekers flown from the Texas border to the San Diego-Tijuana border during the past month.
The move by Border Patrol to begin the flights last month was spurred by a Mexican state’s decision to no longer accept returns of Central American migrant families with young children. But Baja California continues to accept families with young children of any age. Between November and March, 78% of families encountered by San Diego Border Patrol were expelled to Baja, according to CBP statistics.
In response to questions about the flights, Customs and Border Protection told KPBS that over the past few weeks, “several Border Patrol Sectors have seen an increase in encounters. In order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible, other sectors along the southwest border are assisting by processing these subjects at their facilities.”
Each day, hundreds of people are flown to San Diego from Texas. On Friday morning last week, a father held the hand of his young daughter as they walked down a staircase on the tarmac of the San Diego International Airport, to be loaded into a waiting government van.
Some families are allowed to remain in the United States. Others are driven to the border, handed over to Mexican authorities, and driven to the Embajadores De Jesus shelter, where they’re greeted by Pastor Gustavo Banda Aceves, who has operated the shelter for the past six years.
At least 100 migrants have arrived at the shelter each day for the past month. The children are mostly between the ages of two and eight.
“They arrive in very bad shape. Some of them faint in their seats, especially the children. All of them come with coughs, with vomiting, with stomach illnesses. They don’t bring anything; they take everything from them, even their shoelaces,” the pastor tells me. “They’re children. We’re talking about kids. Why do you take shoelaces from kids?”
After crossing the border, the families are all held in the dangerously crowded Border Patrol stations, where COVID-19 and other illnesses spread quickly.
28-year-old Gladis Luna Garcia was held in one with her young daughter, Maria, for three days. There, her daughter became ill — she said she struggled to breathe.
“Her chest got really bad. I got to the point where I asked them for medication; they said they didn’t have any medications, instead to drink water,” Garcia said. “Then I asked one of them to give me a little pair of pants or a jacket for my daughter and they said they didn’t have any.”
Garcia and her daughter are from Honduras, like many, many others at the shelter. They left Chamelecón, which she described as “ground zero” for the two hurricanes that devastated the region last fall. She told me she was living in the street, in the mud.
With gangs taking over what was left of the neighborhood, they decided to try to get to the United States. Her mother lives in Houston.
She thought she was close to reuniting with them when they were being removed from the Border Patrol station. But she was wrong.
“We asked [Border Patrol] if we would see our families while inside there, or if they were going to deport us,” she said. “And they laughed at us. They told us that, no, inside there we would be reunited with our relatives. Then they put us in a plane and took us to California.”
Later that day, she was in Mexico.
Before January 2019, families were allowed into the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims. Since then, however, a combination of restrictive policies under the Biden and Trump administrations have kept them mostly out. But migrants continue to arrive at the southwest border, as conditions worsen in Central America, with rising crime, ecological disaster, and corruption often cited by migrants as their reasons for leaving their home countries.
A rule known as Title 42 bars the entry of any asylum-seekers into the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Border Patrol has been immediately sending border crossers back to Mexico or their countries of origin.
But with the Biden administration no longer removing unaccompanied children under the policy, many parents at the border are deciding to send their children ahead, alone, in the hands of smugglers.
Bandas, who’s known around the shelter simply as “Pastor Gustavo,” said this decision has contributed to the record-breaking rise in the amount of unaccompanied children crossing the border.
“The people who are sending their children over, they think that they will have a better future and they know that, if they return them to their country, the same thing can happen to that kid that has already happened to their other kids – that they’ll be killed,” he said, explaining why some of the families are sending children ahead alone. “We might not understand it. It’s a very complicated choice that they make because they may never see their children again either.”
One morning last week, some families lined up for a bus to take them back to Central America. Others headed back to Reynosa, to cross the border again in Texas in the hopes they’ll be let into the country.
Claudia Vasquez Del Cid, holding the hand of her young daughter without shoelaces, doesn’t know what she’ll do. She just says she can’t go back to Honduras.
“There is no better future for the children and that’s why we made the decision to come," she said, "even if we're risking the lives of our little ones.”