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Two months after Tijuana shut down migrant border camp, asylum-seekers worse off

It has been two months since Tijuana police officers and Mexican soldiers displaced hundreds of asylum-seekers from a makeshift migrant camp just south of the San Ysidro border crossing.

Since then, those migrants have been pushed out to dangerous neighborhoods in the outskirts of Tijuana, where they have limited access to jobs, social services and stable housing options.

“Conditions for them, for many of them, went from bad to worse,” said Pedro Rios, director of the U.S./Mexico Border Program for American Friends Service Committee.

RELATED: Mexican authorities evict Tijuana migrant camp near border

Tijuana officials said they decided to close the camp because it was unsafe, especially for children.

Rios agrees that the camp was not an ideal place for children. But no one in Mexico is tracking the displaced migrants or doing anything to ensure the children who once lived there are now in better situations, he said.

Rosa, a 38-year-old asylum-seeker, fled her home-state of Michoacán in May of 2021, after a cartel stole her family’s small farm and kidnapped her oldest son. She and her two younger children spent several months in the border camp, which was known as El Chaparral.

When the camp was cleared out, the family was homeless for several days, sleeping in a vacant house under construction. Now they live in a one-bedroom apartment an hour away from the border.

Two months after Tijuana shut down migrant border camp, asylum-seekers worse off

Rosa, who asked KPBS to not reveal her last name, pays $150 a month to share the apartment among five people. And she pays another $60 a month ransom to her son’s captors. She says cartel members know the rest of the family is in Tijuana.

“I live in constant terror that, at any moment, they could find us in Tijuana,” Rosa said. "I felt much safer at the camp.”

Rosa knew who her neighbors were at the camp. They had access to legal and mental health services, volunteers would donate food and clothes, and they were close to downtown Tijuana where it was easy to find work.

Poor planning

Rios says stories like Rosa’s show that, if the camp was shut down to ensure safety, Tijuana has failed.

“It wasn’t a safe place, for the children especially,” Rios said. “But the alternative is to, in effect, disappear them into the general populace of Tijuana and make them susceptible to unknown greater dangers because no one knows what is happening to them now.”

Staff at American Friends Service Committee has kept in touch with some of the displaced migrants. Like Rosa, they’ve all reported troubling situations, including homelessness, lack of access to medical services, and being at greater risk of being robbed.

Rosa’s neighbor, Darci, is another asylum-seeker who was displaced from the camp.

She and her three children are from Honduras. They fled after local gang members threatened to kill them for refusing to work for them. The family has also been in Tijuana since May 2021 — waiting nearly a year for a chance to request asylum.

“We can’t work,” Darci said. “I’ve looked for work in the maquiladoras, but they don’t hire foreigners. So we make a living from the (border wait) line.”

Darci and her children make $25 a day begging and washing windows of cars waiting to cross in the United States. But it costs them $10 to take public transportation to and from their home. It's not enough to pay the rent and feed the family.

Darci and Rosa are both blocked from accessing the U.S. asylum system because of Title 42 — a public health order implemented by the Trump administration that allows border officials to turn away asylum-seekers without giving them a chance to plead their case in front of a judge.

“We’re always waiting,” Darci said. “With the hope that one day they will give us an answer, or a date of when we’ll be able to cross.”

Rios said some of the most desperate asylum-seekers had decided to cross the border illegally and turn themselves in.

Rosa said one of her former neighbors at the camp recently paid smugglers thousands of dollars to take them through dangerous desert crossings.

Unequal treatment

Currently, the only group of people specifically excluded from Title 42 are Ukrainian nationals.

In March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a memo directing border officials to use their discretionary power to issue Title 42 exemptions to Ukrainians fleeing the war. More than 2,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Baja California in the last couple of weeks, according to state officials.

Rosa and Darci are eligible for the same discretionary exemptions. But they have spent a year waiting to access the same system that is benefiting the Ukrainians.

The U.S. State Department currently has a Level 4 travel advisory for Michoacán. It is the highest-level advisory and specifically advises people to avoid traveling to the state because of crime and kidnapping risks — both things Rosa and her family are running from.

Both were frustrated by the fact that Customs and Border Protection created a special entrance exclusively for Ukrainian nationals in the same place where their makeshift migrant camp once stood.

They are not resentful of the individual Ukrainian war refugees, who are also fleeing for their lives. They just want access to the same protections.

“I know that Ukraine is at war, but, if you look at what is happening in Michoacán, you will see that Michoacán is at war,” Rosa said. “There are no tanks, but it feels like living in a war zone.”