The border crossing in this direction is a busy place. A long line of cars and buses takes hours to get to the front of the line on a good day and, due to the interminable inching forward, vehicles tend to keep their motors running, making the air full of exhaust fumes.
A steel post announces “United States”, with “Welcome” engraved into its base in English, Japanese, Thai, German and other languages. Tens of millions of people cross this border annually, from Tijuana, Mexico into San Diego, United States.
Almost 3,000 Hondurans who walked and hitched rides en masse from their homeland through Guatemala and Mexico are now stuck on the Mexican side of the U.S. border in the city of Tijuana, waiting, hoping to have their refugee claims processed and be admitted into the United States.
Some have family or friends across the way, others just knew they had to leave. The Central American group, known as the Caravan, started their 4,400 km (2,734 mile) march in San Pedro Sula on October 12, and it is made up of one third minors, with a great number of women with babies and small children, unaccompanied children and teens, LGBTQI youth and adults, and even senior citizens and handicapped individuals. Fleeing the world’s most murderous region, they have sought safety in numbers on their journey north.
In Tijuana, a coastal city of 1.3 million hard up against the border’s freshly installed coils of razor wire and steel pylons that stretch into the sea on its beach to the west, and far into the desert to the east, the caravan is a moderately-sized group, and even if a sister caravan of 2,000 meets up, they would not number more than those gather for a sporting event or pop concert.
By contrast, the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) arrests or detains over 500,000 persons yearly, accusing them of “illegal entry”.
But since the very moment of its spontaneous inception at a bus station in San Pedro Sula, where mothers nursed babies on the curb after the station was locked down for the night, this group captured the attention and became the obsession of the (arguably) elected leader of the world’s (arguably) wealthiest and most powerful nation.
First, President Trump attempted to stir fear and hatred of an immigrant “invasion” in advance of the country’s mid-term elections, consecrating millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers to “secure the border” on the U.S. side.
But his efforts to win votes for his right-wing Republican Party and keep control of the government’s legislative branch failed as the Democrats won back a majority in the House of Representatives, with voters electing an unprecedented number of women to public office across the nation.
Perhaps sensing a new tide since the elections, Trump has barely mentioned the caravan in his voluminous morning statements on Twitter, his preferred mode of communication.
The Trump administration also failed, at least for now, in its attempt to rewrite the laws governing the admittance and treatment of refugee claims.
On November 9, the White House issued a proclamation that anyone arriving between official U.S. border crossings would be prohibited from applying for asylum, even though it is impossible for the numerous caravaners to assemble at official posts and sustain the months’ long backlog to have their petitions seen and heard.
A federal judge ruled that the ban was outside the scope of the president’s authority and set forth a temporary restraining order.
Strangely, the 5,600 extra troops Trump dispatched to the border never went to Tijuana, where the slow moving caravan was obviously making its way.
Instead, the heavily-armoured forces have been stationed in McAllen, Texas, spending their time unrolling and installing razor wire along the border there, 2,449 km (1,521 miles) away. The president requested an additional $59 million for border control on Monday November 19.
Unfortunately for immigrants and asylum seekers, the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS) empowered its agents on Monday with broader discretion to deny visas to and speed up the deportation of crime and domestic violence victims (who would normally qualify for T- and U-visas respectively), human trafficking victims, widows/widowers, spouses and minor children of refugees, and other special groups. A large number of caravan members could fall into one of these categories.
Tijuana’s right-wing mayor, Juan Manuel Gastélum, has colourfully declared himself against the caravan, calling it a “tsunami” of “vagos y marihuanos” (tramps and marijuana-smokers), thereby earning him the respect of Donald Trump as the pair retweeted and misquoted each other over the weekend. Gastélum also inspired a small but vocal protest against the Hondurans that has gained much traction in the media.
But otherwise, empathy appears to be strong. Tijuana has long been a place filled with many charitable organizations in support of migrants and deportees, such as Border Angels and the catholic Casas del Migrante network. But poverty is ever-present and there is only so much they can do to help.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group who has been organizing earlier caravans out of Central America, shared a post by Nicole Ramos announcing five LGBTQ marriages among caravan participants in Tijuana, performed by ministers from the Unitarian Universalist Church.
“Today the world saw that love cannot be stopped– not by governments, not by homophobia or transphobia, not by organized crime, and certainly not by any wall or borderline,” Ramos wrote.
Right now, caravan members are subsisting on beans and Cheezits, sleeping rough on the beach, in donated tents and lean-to’s of their own creation.
Who could have imagined that a group of poor people with little more than plastic thongs on their feet and 200 lempiras (8 dollars) in their pockets could have accomplished such a triumph?
They have brought international recognition to the plight of their country and their people, organized themselves and are now at the doors of their goal. Upon their arrival in Tijuana, some young caravan members shimmied up the border fence and cried, “¡Sí se pudo! (Yes, we could!)”