It’s 5:30 a.m, just before sunrise, when multiple sets of headlights shine north through the steel pillars of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Dozens hop out and hurry over the sandy gravel, bags slung over their shoulder or young children in their arms.
“Move, move, move!” one of the drivers yells out behind them.
At a break in the border wall – one of many large gaps in southeast San Diego County – the group files into a line, pushing past branches and razor wire to step into the United States. For many, those steps mark the transition into a new life.
This scene has played out countless times over the past few months, as this remote stretch of the border has become an unofficial gateway for migrants desperate to enter the U.S.
The migrants find their way to gaps in the wall from Mexico then cross into the U.S. and look for Border Patrol who will eventually document, process and release the migrants into the country with an immigration court date often years into the future.
But before that happens, Border Patrol agents tell the migrants to wait hours – sometimes days – at makeshift holding areas in the open high desert with little food, water or shelter from the elements. The agency has said capacity and personnel restraints at their facilities cause the delays in processing.
Meanwhile, migrants have weathered rain, wind, stifling heat and near freezing temperatures. Volunteers and aid workers who have sprung into action at the camps have responded to heart attacks, bone fractures, hypothermia, burns and gangrene.
Yet these encampments in Jacumba and Boulevard, unincorporated communities in the county’s southeast region, make up just a small part of the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border which for the past two years has seen undocumented crossings top 2 million.
As the numbers surge to historic highs, the Biden administration is facing increasing pressure to act – including from leaders in both Republican and Democratic-led cities and states across the U.S. bearing the brunt of migrants arrivals.
In response, the president recently pushed Mexico to increase its own immigration enforcement, and congressional lawmakers are negotiating a deal that would drastically change asylum and border policy if enacted. Time will tell if those efforts lead to any solutions, which have eluded the nation’s most powerful leaders for years.
Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol, said it has made every effort to respond quickly to migrant arrivals, funneling “personnel, transportation, processing, and humanitarian resources to the most active and arduous areas.”
To better understand the unfolding crisis and the official response, inewsource reporters spent 48 straight hours, starting noon Jan. 2, in and around the encampments.
Noon, Tuesday, Jan. 2
A handful of volunteers shuffle about the youth center in Jacumba, shifting boxes stacked to the ceiling with canned foods, medical supplies, donated clothing and kids’ toys. The supplies are destined for encampments a few minutes drive away.
Karen Parker, sorts through shelves by the window. For months, volunteers here have provided aid to the newly arrived, despite some criticism that their efforts only encourage more people to come.
“We're not encouraging migration. They're coming anyway,” Parker said.
“They're not coming for Sam's sandwiches,” referring to a fellow organizer.
A short drive away, Noel peels an orange inside his tent at a camp in Jacumba. Outside, a handful of migrants waiting to get picked up by Border Patrol wander near old train tracks or sit in the shade of the border wall.
The 15 hours Noel has been at the Jacumba camp haven’t dimmed his excitement.
“This is like a dream come true to me,” he said, preferring to go by his middle name in fear sharing his story could negatively affect his asylum claim.
The 24-year-old left behind extreme violence caused by separatist movements in his home country of Cameroon. In the U.S., he hopes to one day join the Army.
"I love it because I like action films, so I always see the U.S. Army and I just love it," Noel said.
It’s 48 degrees at the Boulevard encampment, a few miles west of Jacumba.
At the border wall, agents line up about 60 migrants who just crossed into the country. They stand against the rust-colored barrier, hands in their pockets to protect from the cold. They look down nervously.
Then another agent walks toward where the families are lined up, whom they have separated from the single adults, closely following a handcuffed Chinese man.
“That our last guy?” another agent asks.
“Yeah, but he’s being difficult,” the agent replies.
The agent then pulls the man back to face him, begins to uncuff him and says, “I’m not playing your game. You listen to what I say. You got it? You understand? Look up and look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Then using an audio translation app, the agent speaks a similar message into his phone, holding it up for the Chinese man to hear.
Turning to the man’s wife, the agent says: “Your husband, he’s stupid. He doesn't think.”
Shortly after, the agent lets the migrants put their luggage in the back of his truck for the walk back to camp.
At camp, the new arrivals navigate the tents in the darkness, using their phone flashlights to find their way inside, their silhouettes like shadow puppets shifting inside the tents.
A group of five from China are struggling to close the zipper of their tent. After a few minutes, they give up and settle in. The oldest of them, 68, translates for the group.
They’ve come to the U.S. for freedom, but so far, their time in the country has been trying.
“It’s cold, I have a heart condition, and we are suffering,” he said.
It’s 37 degrees and a piercing wind is whipping up debris, loose tents and blankets. A thick moisture in the air leaves everything damp and wet.
A man from China shivers and his teeth chatter. He’s with his family, about a dozen total, but his wife is squatting, doubled over in pain.
He needs to get her somewhere safe, he said. But as he and a few other family members approach a Border Patrol van to ask for help, the spotlights kick on and an agent yells: “Get away, get away, back up!”
The man yells back to the agent, asking for help. His wife needs shelter, he said.
“No,” the agent says. “You’ll have to wait. There will be a bus soon; I don’t know when.”
The man walks away defeated. He can make a fire to keep his family warm, but he doesn’t have anything to feed them.
“We need some food, too. Long time to eat.”
Midnight, Wednesday, Jan. 3
The encampment has grown to more than 40 people, including families with children.
Despite the cold, spirits are high. Around a campfire, adults laugh and pass cigarettes, while children throw kindling into the fire.
Then a Border Patrol van comes around the bend. Headlights wash over the group. They scatter and grab their belongings.
Agents line the migrants up single file, separating families from single adults. About a dozen adults pour into the van.
An agent turns to the rest of the waiting migrants, “OK, that’s it for right now. We’ll come back later tonight, OK? We’ve gotta get these people ready and set up, OK? We’ll come back later, in a little.”
A young girl watches the van drive off, leaving her and the others behind. As everyone walks back to the warmth of the fire, she whimpers.
Border Patrol agents return to pick up the rest of the migrants.
Before leaving, one agent hops out of the van and kicks dirt over a smoldering fire to put it out.
In the darkness, two cars swiftly pull up to a gap in the border wall on the Mexican side near Jacumba.
“Push, push, push!” someone yells and migrants shuffle out of the cars and toward the end of the opening. Several dozen file through the opening and march toward the camp.
The rising sun paints the clouds like cotton candy. It’s quiet for a few moments, then the rumble of an engine. Two more cars drop off migrants on the other side as they have every 20 to 30 minutes, systematically, like scheduled bus stops.
“¡Corre, mami, corre!” a young girl tells her mom as they scurry toward the fence. Run, mommy, run!
Suitcases and backpacks in hand, they cross the boundary. One woman carries a small child in her arms, followed closely by a man carrying a pink backpack. Concertina wire snags the jacket of another, trapping her for a moment, before another migrant rips the fabric free.
Meanwhile, a Border Patrol vehicle sits parked on the U.S. side of the break in the wall, headlights shining on the migrants as they cross the border and walk toward camp.
About 15 minutes later, another car on the Mexico side pulls up to the opening and drops off more migrants.
About a dozen cross this time. Two young men embrace, throwing their hands over each other’s shoulders as they walk toward camp.
Others video call loved ones back home, joyfully exclaiming they’re here, they’ve made it to the U.S.
About an hour later at camp, volunteers pull into the site and hand out breakfast: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and water. Dozens of migrants line up.
At the Boulevard camp, a mother from Peru wraps her son tightly in a blanket and kneels beside him. He tucks his head out of the wind and into the warmth. His father paces behind them.
Border Patrol just picked up a group of about 70, but more migrants stream into camp in smaller groups.
A mother from Ecuador who just arrived sits in the dirt trying to breastfeed her 1-year-old, but the baby won’t accept it. Her two sisters, all of them in their 20s, stand beside her.
It took them three months to reach the United States. Mexican officials sent them back twice, and at one point they were separated and searched for hours to find each other, they said. They’re grateful to be here now.
“I appreciated it so much because we entered, and the first thing they told us, instead of intimidating us, is do you want water? Do you want to eat?”
In Jacumba, members of the Mexican National Guard drive along the border. They park near a break in the wall where hours earlier dozens of people crossed.
They tell inewsource they are always patrolling – that’s part of their job. But volunteers say it’s one of few times they’ve seen the Mexican guardsmen at the border.
Some of them get out and wander about, rifles hanging in front of their chests, while the rain lightly showers them.
A few hours later, about 50 men, women and children clamber over rocks and boulders, crossing into the U.S., carrying suitcases, bags, backpacks and babies. On the south side of the wall, two pickup trucks and two SUVs sit idling. They pull away after the group clears.
The migrants walk down the dirt road that follows the border, looking for Border Patrol to pick them up. But no agents are in sight.
About a half hour later, Border Patrol arrives and guides them to the Boulevard encampment.
It’s 41 degrees and the wind is picking up.
A 21-year-old Egyptian man who just arrived with a smaller group asks, “What do we have to do now? We need some water.”
He echoed the confusion most migrants express when they arrive: When is Border Patrol coming? How long will we be here?
Minutes later, one of the Egyptians who just arrived collapses. The teenager is breathing but unresponsive.
His companions swarm around him, three of them try to lift his head and torso off the wet ground, while another rubs his chest. They turn the teen on his side, and he vomits. A Border Patrol agent calls paramedics, who arrive 16 minutes later.
Volunteers said response times have improved lately compared to previous months in the encampments.
“We are Egyptian. This is too much cold. We are used to the sun,” the man said.
It’s 39 degrees and an unpleasant drizzle slowly builds to a downpour. The wind whips through the camp, overturning chairs and flipping loose tents over.
More than 20 men are waiting for agents to return — the women already were taken away. Some seek shelter in broken down tents and loose tarps, while others remain in the line agents had told them to form, huddling together there as though to hold their spots.
No one is dressed for this kind of weather. Some people pull soaked blankets off the ground and out of tents and wrap them around their head and body — anything to provide additional cover.
While standing in line, one man leans over and vomits.
Another man further up the line huddles with others and shimmies with his arms and legs to stay warm.
Roughly 90 minutes later, two Border Patrol vans appear and migrants crowd around, freezing, wet and desperate to climb in.
An agent tells one man to take the wet blanket off and leave it behind. Those who are coming after them are going to need it, he says.
The wind sprays the sparks of a fire across the Jacumba camp.
Inside a tent, five Brazilians are the only migrants left. They’ve been there since 1 p.m.
They huddle in sleeping bags and sit hunched over, rubbing their hands together. Their belongings are neatly tucked into the corner of the tent, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Soon that moment comes.
A Border Patrol van rolls into the encampment and flicks on its sirens. The five emerge from their tent, backpacks in hands, and pack themselves into the back of the van.
Midnight, Thursday, Jan. 4
Rain blankets the Boulevard encampment where empty tents blow in the wind.
Border Patrol vehicles stake out the border, but it’s quiet. No arrivals yet.
Hours later, the rain clears up and a crescent moon breaks through the clouds, creating a silhouette of power lines and mountains in the distance.
Still no arrivals.
A pickup truck drops off a dozen Chinese migrants, including children, at the Boulevard camp. The driver, Kali Kai Braun, says he found them wandering around the property.
Braun says he took the job of watching over a 150-acre private property along the border in September, but lately much of his work has entailed guiding migrants to the camps and away from the property.
“It used to be real organized, but now, I don’t know what it is,” Braun said. “It’s just a freaking scene, bro. We had people, like 40 or 50 at a time, just all over the place back there. … It’s just insane.”
The first Border Patrol agent of the day arrives. He walks up to a group from Guatemala and offers food and water in Spanish. Be patient, he says, vans will come to pick them up from here.
For the migrants who speak Mandarin, the agent uses an app on his phone to communicate the same message.
Nearby, a 21-year-old man from Guatemala, named Manolo Monterroso, is contemplating his new life in America. He has plans to eventually make his way to New Jersey to connect with friends who are already living there. He hopes to land a job as a car mechanic.
“The situation in the country is very difficult,” Monterroso said. “We come from a place of very low resources and we really aspire for more.”
The sun is just starting to peak out above the mountain, casting sunlight across a frigid Boulevard camp. Just in time for breakfast, one group of Chinese migrants begin passing out bananas, oranges and sandwiches among themselves.
Using scavenged tent poles, some roast pastries that look like fist-sized marshmallows. Through an iPhone translating app, one man says they’re called mantou — Chinese steamed buns, sometimes filled with meat.
One man fashions a grill from the plastic poles. He sets down a dumpling, carefully so as not to burn himself. He moves it around, and turns it over. He doesn’t have much time before the plastic melts.
And then, with a slip of the hand, the dumpling falls into the flames. The entire crowd instantly reacts with a collective, “Oh!” and bursts into laughter.
Down the road, about 30 migrants stand on the side of Old Highway 80 as cars and trucks pass by. Border Patrol agents repeat their instructions:
Strip down to one layer of clothing. Remove belts, shoelaces and jewelry. Drawstrings in hoodies or pants are either pulled out or cut out.
Asked why migrants have to remove clothing, an agent tells reporters that the private security company transporting the migrants won’t let them board the bus without complying with those rules.
It’s 46 degrees but several migrants start stripping down to their underwear to comply, in some cases removing thermals. Others don’t understand what’s being asked of them – and the agents are growing frustrated.
One agent tells a woman wearing a sweatshirt with nothing underneath to find or borrow a T-shirt. Another agent approaches a man wearing a pullover fleece with nothing underneath — he doesn’t seem to understand the agent’s instructions.
“You put something else on, or I’m gonna take you back and I’m gonna bring someone else,” the agent says.
Workers with a private security agency line migrants up, shoulder to shoulder, preparing them to board a bus. Their belongings are stuffed into backpacks or suitcases sitting at their feet.
The workers click handcuffs onto the men, locking them to each other in pairs and women remain uncuffed.
They shuffle toward the bus, pulling up their beltless pants and fussing with their laceless shoes.
Climbing aboard, they disappear behind the blackened windows before the doors shut behind them and the driver pulls away.