SAN DIEGO — Twenty-four hours a day, adults with scuffed shoes and dusted pant legs file out of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry — sometimes alone and sometimes in groups — into Tijuana’s streets.
Many stop to charge their phones in the little plaza that receives southbound pedestrian traffic. Some hang around for hours, unsure of where to go next after their plans of reaching the United States have failed.
Most are Mexican men. And for most, this is not the first time they’re finding themselves abruptly returned to Mexico, expelled under a pandemic policy known as Title 42 from the country where they hoped to sneak in and build more stable lives.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, border crossings dipped as countries closed down temporarily to slow the spread of the virus. Since April 2020, the number of monthly apprehensions by Border Patrol has increased to a peak not seen since the spring of 2000. And despite the focused attention on unaccompanied children and families from Central America, the largest demographic group driving that increase is adults from Mexico traveling alone.
“I believe it’s related to the pandemic’s negative impact on the Mexican economy,” said Rafael Fernández de Castro Medina, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “This is something that you’re also seeing in Brazil and something you’re also seeing in Colombia. The border is basically connected with the well-being of the economies of the entire hemisphere. The push factors are very strong now.”
Through May of fiscal 2021, about 40% of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border were of Mexican adults. Along the California border, their share of apprehensions was even higher, at 80%.
But the recent apprehension counts are greatly inflated from the actual number of people attempting to reach the United States.
The borderwide recidivism rate, or rate of repeat crossers, rose from 7% in fiscal 2019 to nearly 26% in 2020, according to Jacob Macisaac, Border Patrol agent and spokesperson for the San Diego sector.
But even that does not fully capture the extent of the duplicate counts.
Nearly everyone interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after being expelled to Tijuana said that they had tried crossing the border three or more times in recent weeks in hopes of getting in.
One man, who declined to be identified, said he’d lost count of how many times he tried. He tossed out a guess — 30.
Part of the reason that border crossers are able to try so many times is Title 42, the policy that the Trump administration put in place at the beginning of the pandemic and that the Biden administration has maintained. It gives border officials the power to immediately expel people they apprehend back to Mexico or to their countries of origin.
Both administrations have claimed Title 42 is meant to keep COVID-19 out of the United States despite many public health experts questioning its necessity. Critics of the policy have argued that it denies asylum-seekers access to request protection.
For border crossers who aren’t trying to request asylum, the policy removes some of the consequences they would have otherwise faced for crossing multiple times. Illegal reentry is a federal felony and can come with up to two years in federal prison — or a decade or more if the individual has certain criminal history. Under Title 42, rather than refer repeat crossers for prosecution, agents are generally sending them back again and again and again.
After his most recent expulsion, the man who’d crossed dozens of times was not thinking about the U.S. border policies that made it easier for him to keep trying without ending up in federal prison. He was thinking about his needs, and his dream.
“If you need workers, why do you make it so hard for us to get there?” the man asked in Spanish.
A call from Wisconsin
The pandemic’s economic repercussions have been felt in the United States and Mexico, but they led to vastly disparate conditions in the neighboring countries.
In Mexico, jobs have disappeared and not returned. With no support from the government, many Mexicans are struggling to pay rent and other basic bills.
In the United States, when unemployment rose during the pandemic, government officials moved to distribute trillions of dollars of relief for workers and businesses. Now, for a combination of reasons, many industries are facing worker shortages.
“In the history of the border, you would say this looks like a lot of other periods where we had a lot of immigration from Mexico, like in the 90s where the economies were moving in two different directions,” said Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at University of San Diego. “When you have big gaps in growth in countries that are so intertwined, we should expect to see a bit of a labor market demand.”
The worker shortages in the U.S. led one Wisconsin employer in the construction and repair industry to reach out to former employee Enrique, a 42-year-old man from Puebla who spent several years as an undocumented worker in the United States before returning to Mexico on his own to be with his family. The employer begged Enrique — who, like others in this article, is not being fully identified because of his vulnerable situation — to come back to work for the company and even offered to pay the smuggling fee.
Hoping to save enough money to build a house for his family so that he wouldn’t have to worry about rent amidst job instability in his hometown, Enrique agreed. He left his wife and son behind and set out for Tijuana, where he heard that smugglers were good at getting migrants across.
He tried three times to cross near the Las Americas outlets, where a young Guatemalan girl was recently found left at the border alone by smugglers. Enrique said the smuggling group guiding him distracted Border Patrol agents so that he and other adults could run across and hide until the levantón, or person sent to pick up the crossers on the U.S. side, showed up. But each time, he was caught and expelled.
If he had made it across, his employer would’ve paid $8,000, he said. But since he didn’t make it, he didn’t have to pay anything.
Then, he tried with a smuggler who planned to pass out fake visas and take a group in a car through port-of-entry vehicle lanes. Success on that route meant a bill of $12,000 at the other end of the journey, Enrique said.
But Tijuana municipal police pulled the car over before the group made it to the borderline and arrested many of those in the car. Enrique found himself alone near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry around 4 a.m. and decided to wait with the recently expelled until the sun came up and different transit options opened before trekking back to where he was staying in the city.
In the darkness, Tijuana streets can be especially dangerous for those who have been expelled. Both criminal organizations and police alike are known for beatings, robberies and worse, and, like deportees and other migrants, the expelled are often visibly vulnerable, making them likely targets.
In the daytime, the expelled often carry Styrofoam containers of sandwiches given to them while they were being processed for return. Overnight, there are no to-go meals — they come back with whatever they carried with them on the journey north, days or even hours before.
Many choose to sleep in the light of the port of entry plaza in the hopes that they will be safe there until morning.
After his failed attempts, Enrique ended up waiting a few weeks in a place where smugglers kept the men who were trying to cross, sleeping on a tile floor in a hallway with at least a dozen others and more in the other rooms.
When he finally made it through without getting caught, it was over the mountains.
As apprehensions have risen over the past year, Otay Mountain — a 3,566-foot peak that is home to rattlesnakes, desert brush and off-roading trails — has been one of the most popular crossing areas in Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector.
Agents often catch more than 200 people per day on the mountain, Macisaac said.
“We use [Title 42] to the fullest extent that we’re able to,” Macisaac said, meaning that most of those caught on the mountain are quickly expelled. “It really is around the clock.”
On a recent morning, his radio crackled constantly with agents tracking different groups of migrants as he and fellow agent Jeffery Stephenson drove a loop along the mountain’s bumpy and winding dirt road. Other agents reported they were heading to the port of entry to drop off people they’d already caught and processed outside a nearby station.
Their SUV passed abandoned clothing, water bottles and dirty diapers that migrants have discarded along the way.
An agent driving the opposite direction along the road rolled up to their vehicle and rolled down the window.
“Did you see any bodies?” he asked Macisaac and Stephenson, using Border Patrol’s term for migrants. He was looking for two women who had called for help.
Would-be crossers often hike to the mountain from a Mexican highway that runs along the border. Though a few sections of the mountain have border barriers erected, much of the border there has no fence at all because of the treacherous terrain.
Smugglers often zigzag away from trails and even crawl through the brush to keep from being detected, though the vegetation makes the hike that much slower and more difficult. In the summer, soaring temperatures combined with the strenuous trek can lead to heat exhaustion or worse, and smuggling groups often abandon migrants who lag behind on the mountain.
“They’re misled about what they’re getting into,” Macisaac said, noting that many looking at Otay Mountain from the south side expect the journey to be much shorter than it actually is.
Francisco, a 23-year-old man from the state of Guanajuato, was among those who gave up on the mountain last month. It was his third time trying to cross the border with his 20-year-old brother to join his father in San Jose.
He’d fallen off of the border wall on a previous attempt, and his legs were already injured. On the mountain, he kept falling on steep boulders and banging his legs up even more. When he realized that he wasn’t going to make it all of the way through, he told his brother he was stopping. His brother wanted to stay with him, but Francisco told him to keep moving. The two parted in tears.
“I didn’t want to give up,” Francisco said in Spanish. “I said, ‘I have to get there, I have to get there.’ I did everything. I gave it my all.”
After he’d finished crying, Francisco went to find Border Patrol and turn himself in. A couple of hours later, he was back in the plaza outside of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, sandwich in hand, waiting for news from his brother.
His attempt at getting over the mountain was not completely free. He’d had to pay $500 to pass through an area of the border controlled by a particular criminal organization. He was going to pay $9,000 on arrival.
He’s waiting now with a new smuggler who said he can get into the United States with a fake visa once the border opens to nonessential travel from Mexico.
‘Killings every day’
Francisco’s motivations for crossing are more layered than Enrique’s.
Economics is part of it. His father is undocumented and works as a handyman. His father told him and his brother that they could easily get jobs with him and earn enough to save for a house. Francisco, who has a wife and 2-year-old, hopes that will take the pressure off of his need to find work back home, where long-term jobs that pay enough to make ends meet are difficult to come by.
During the pandemic, he went an entire month without work, he said, and his father had to send him money to help his family.
Francisco is also worried about the violence in his city, and that is the first reason he gave when asked why he wanted to go north.
“Killings, killings every day,” he said.
According to Mexico’s National Statistics Institute, the homicide rate per 100,000 people in the state of Guanajuato rose to 65.1 in 2019, from 20.1 in 2016.
Francisco has seen cartels burn homes near where his family lives, and the increasing violence also makes finding steady work even more difficult, he said.
In Mexico, as in many countries in Central America, economic struggles and high levels of violence are interconnected issues that often together influence migration decisions.
In addition to officially recognized homicides, Mexico is also grappling with forced disappearances, according to Meade, and if those were counted in the homicide rate, it would be considerably higher.
“The murders are just the tip of the iceberg,” Meade said.
In recent years, an increasing number of Mexican migrants have sought asylum from the country’s violence. But the long-term mentality in the United States that migration from Mexico must be economically motivated, coupled with the difficulty in winning cases where the persecution comes from a criminal organization rather than the government itself, have meant that most Mexicans don’t win their asylum cases.
Father Patrick Murphy, a priest who runs Tijuana migrant shelter Casa Del Migrante, said he’s seen an increase in Mexicans arriving at the shelter in recent months. Most are fleeing violence in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán, he said.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of ‘Your cousin is here and says now’s the time,’” Murphy said. “People are so desperate for hope. Even that little information is enough to move people.”
Among those waiting at Casa Del Migrante is Jonathan Solis, 29, who fled Guerrero with his wife and daughter after he was attacked and extorted.
“The truth is if that hadn’t happened to me, I would’ve stayed there,” Solis said. “I had two good jobs.”
Because they are traveling as a family with their child, the couple have not tried to cross with a smuggler.
Jose Maria Garcia Lara, director of the Juventud 2000 and Hotel Migrante shelters in Tijuana, said that most of the Mexican asylum-seekers he’s interacting with are families like Solis’. Juventud 2000 generally houses families while Hotel Migrante is meant for adults traveling alone.
Most of the men staying there on a recent night were longtime deportees whose hopes of life in the United States had become jaded and abandoned.
“Un sueño americano es inalcanzable,” said one 51-year-old who was deported 20 years ago. An American dream is unreachable.
Migrants become bait
Maria’s American dream was meant to be a temporary one — a few years spent working to save up to pay off her land and finish building a home for her four children.
But what happened on her migrant journey turned her into an asylum-seeker, one who was in enough imminent danger to qualify for a special exemption to Title 42 and enter the United States.
Now she may never be able to return home.
The single mother admitted she was naive when she set off with a friend to try her luck crossing the border. She thought it would be easy, like she had seen in TV shows and movies.
She worked several jobs before the pandemic, but after COVID-19 emerged, she lost all of them.
“The only thing I want is to work, to take care of my children, to pay for my land and to give my children a better future,” she said in Spanish. “That’s why I’m here.”
But her friend gave up and went home, leaving her alone in the border city. She met a smuggler who took her outside of Tijuana to a place where she and other migrants were held until the group tried to cross.
Time after time, they failed. Maria began to notice more about the smugglers — their weapons, their drugs. She realized they were narcotraffickers, and that she and the other migrants were merely bait to distract border officials while the drugs crossed.
Perhaps, she thought, that’s why the levantón never showed up for them.
“I saw and stayed quiet for my safety,” she said.
When the smugglers began to ask her to do favors for them, she found a way to escape.
“I never thought I would’ve been involved with narcos,” she said. “I had no idea.”
Back in Tijuana, she soon received threatening messages from them, and masked men showed up to look for her in places she had previously stayed in the city.
“They told me they were going to kill me, that they knew where I was, that they would kill my children,” she said.
Maria went into hiding until an attorney with Immigrant Defenders Law Center was able to get her case approved for the Title 42 exemption. Though she’s now in the United States, she’s not yet allowed to work.
She worries about her children, who call her asking for money for food. If she’s not able to send money to continue paying for her land, they will become homeless.
If she wins her asylum case, Maria hopes her children might be able to join her in the United States. With the immigration court backlog at 1.3 million, she will likely not know the outcome of her case for years.