When three women arrived in Tijuana with the migrant caravan in late November, they learned that it would take two or three months to enter the United States legally: The waiting list in Tijuana for asylum seekers now has more than 5,000 names, and U.S. immigration officials agree to meet with no more than 100 migrants per day, claiming that they do not have the resources to process more.
Increasingly, those seeking refuge in the United States are not willing to wait here as their living conditions deteriorate, motivating the kind of illegal border crossings the White House says it is trying to deter. Almost nightly at the beach in Tijuana, groups approach the fence and try to find their way to the sand on the other side, climbing the pylons or sneaking through the wire mesh. Even here, at one of the most high-profile stretches of border fence, they repeatedly find a way through.
So Wednesday morning, Cindy Romero, 24, along with her son, Jason, 2, walked with Marta Chavez, 23, and her daughter, Priscilla, 2, and Gisela Gadira, 19, and her son, Cesar, 2, for two hours from northern Tijuana to the beach, where they had been told it was easier to cross the border illegally. If they could make it 40 yards north of the border fence, where U.S. soil officially began, they could turn themselves in to American officials and start the asylum process. It was a right the Trump administration said it would eliminate but which remains in effect.
Waiting to meet with U.S. immigration officials would mean months of sleeping in tents that flood in the rain. There was no guarantee of food or security. Romero and her son were tear-gassed by U.S. agents when migrants rushed the border last month.
The women had met in Jalisco, in western Mexico, more than halfway through the caravan’s journey, and learned fragments about each other as they traveled. Under their donated winter jackets, each carried her birth certificate shielded in plastic shopping bags, the first thing she would show Border Patrol agents after turning herself in.
Romero said her ex-boyfriend was a member of the 18th Street gang, one of Honduras’s most dangerous criminal groups. She said he was sentenced to life in prison for multiple murders. “He wasn’t always like that. We got together when he was 15 and I was 14. But after two years, he started getting involved in the gang, and then he just kept getting more involved.”
He had been chasing her from her hometown of Chamelecon, outside the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, ever since he learned that she was pregnant with another man’s baby in 2015, she said. “Once he found out I was pregnant, he said I was done,” she said. She fled to southern Mexico with her son, and when the migrant caravan arrived there in October, she began traveling north with the group.
Chavez is from San Marcos, Guatemala, where she said a few of her friends from school had been killed in gang violence. Then she, too, had been threatened in the past few years, she said.
Gadira was from San Pedro Sula and was the quietest. No one was sure exactly what she was fleeing. “I don’t like to talk about those things,” she said.
They all had relatives in the United States. Romero said she had an aunt and uncle in New York who had qualified for asylum because of threats the family had received. Their children shared the same stuffed panda, which Romero’s son called El Peluche, or teddy bear. The women looked for ways to entertain themselves, flicking through Facebook pictures of their friends, rattled by their own impatience.
On the day the women decided they would try to cross the border, they waited until the sun set. They watched as, right in front of them, a woman with long hair, wearing what looked like a purple sweatshirt and sweatpants, sneaked through the border fence and turned herself in. When it was her turn, Romero’s eyes widened. “It’s pure adrenaline running through us right now,” she said.
Then a Border Patrol truck charged toward the fence, its headlights on the group. An agent got out of the car running toward them with a flashlight in his hand. Gadira was stuck between two layers of fencing. Romero yelled at him in Spanish: “Don’t you have kids?”
“Yes,” he said.
The group stepped away from the fence. A few hours passed. They stared at the U.S. side of the border, lit by a floodlight. Another agent arrived carrying a large gun. Then another Border Patrol truck came and turned on its siren. Then another agent came on a four-wheeler.
The children were cold and wet. A few feet away, the obelisk marking the place where Mexican and American officials drew the border in 1849 was slick with rain.
“We’ll try tomorrow,” Romero said.
The next morning at 7, the women walked to the beach carrying their children on their shoulders, covered in blankets. It was foggy. They couldn’t see any Border Patrol agents.
“Maybe it’s easier now,” Gadira said.
She tugged at the wire fencing, which appeared to have been reinforced after migrants slipped through the previous day. Then a Border Patrol truck appeared. The women stepped away again and walked under a concrete overhang.
“Honestly, the biggest reason I don’t want to wait here is because I’m bored,” Chavez said.
“I’ll cut that fence with a knife if I have to,” Romero said.
They had discussed the barrage of rumors in the camp, trying to discern what was true. Some said President Trump was going to close the border for weeks. Others said there was a plan to suddenly allow thousands of asylum seekers to enter. There were tales of people who had found secret, unmonitored places to cross the border. There were dangerous rumors about the women, too, including that they were prostitutes.
The idea of staying in the shelter for another two or three months horrified them. They had not heard about a new policy, called “Remain in Mexico,” that might force them to stay in Mexico even longer, during the length of the asylum process.
While the women stood under the shelter, a 45-year-old man in a brown jacket approached them with another rumor. His name was Jorge Rocha and he had climbed over the border fence at the beach a few months ago. He had been held at a San Diego detention center until a few days earlier.
“I’m telling you, if you try to cross illegally, you’re going to be detained for at least a month,” he said. “Wait until this all calms down.”
The women listened but did not respond.
They could hear the sound of construction nearby. Just a few yards away from the beach, dozens of U.S. soldiers had arrived to reinforce the fence, carrying an enormous bundle of razor-bearing concertina wire.
Romero had grown quiet.
“Maybe we just need to wait for our numbers to be called,” she said. “They’ve made it too hard.”
On Thursday night, Chavez returned to the beach alone. Romero and Gadira had decided that it was too rainy and cold. They returned to the downtown shelter, at least for a few hours.
While Chavez shared a pizza with a friend at a restaurant at the beach, a few Mexican police trucks arrived. Officers rounded up about a dozen migrants who had been planning to cross the border. The migrants were loaded into the trucks and taken back to the main migrant shelter.
The waiter looked at her.
“This is a touristic area, and there have been complaints against the migrants,” the waiter said. “They can’t just stay here and do whatever they want.”
In a crowd of strangers, Chavez grew quiet about her plans. She mouthed: “We’re going to cross.” But she did not budge. Her daughter ran around the restaurant until the waiter gave her a strawberry. With the new concertina wire, and the seemingly nonstop Border Patrol presence, was crossing even possible here?
After Chavez returned to a migrant hostel near the beach, and as the rain poured, another group approached the fence. One migrant, who goes by the name El Paisa, filmed them as they slipped through.
“Pass, pass,” he says on the video, and about six people run through, toward the headlights of a Border Patrol truck.
“Our Honduran friends are crossing to the United States,” he says. “Let’s see if they force them back, or if they give them political asylum.”