A red pickup truck pulls up next to a migrant tent encampment in the Mexican city of Tijuana, its bed filled with loaves of bread and clothes. Men, women and children run to meet it.
“A line! Form a line!” someone yells. A woman in a long skirt climbs into the truckbed and begins to preach into a microphone: “You all are hoping to cross into the United States!” she says. “You all are hoping to be blessed! Well, take God’s hand!”
Migrants raise their hands in prayer. Food can be scarce in the encampment, and the line stretches back down the road, past dozens of tents and dirty portable restrooms.
Right up against the popular pedestrian crossing from Mexico to the United States at El Chaparral, a refugee camp has mushroomed in recent months, filled with asylum seekers desperate to cross the still-closed U.S.-Mexico border.
Migrant activists say the camp, which started growing in February and now numbers some 2,000 migrants by one count, sprang up in part as an unintended consequence of U.S. President Joe Biden’s mixed approach to undoing the hardline immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The camp is growing increasingly dangerous, migrants and activists told Reuters, with unsanitary conditions, drug use, and gangs entering the area. Governmental organizations are largely absent, and humanitarian presence is only intermittent. Rumors fuel hope among migrants that they will soon be able to enter the United States.
Reuters spent four days speaking with more than two dozen migrants in the camp, which consists of tents and tarps sprawled out in different directions in a concrete plaza and under an overpass.
Hundreds of children, including infants, live in the camp. Most of the migrants are Mexican and Central American.
Talk of kidnapping attempts is rampant, and many migrants avoid leaving their tents for fear of their safety and the safety of their children. The only consistent state security are Tijuana municipal police cars parked at the camp’s edge. But migrants say that is not enough to make them feel safe.
“I don’t sleep at night,” said Rosy, a migrant from the Mexican state of Guerrero who is terrified that her three children, aged 5, 3, and 5 months, will be kidnapped.
The camp has no running water other than a diverted pipe used for cooking and bathing. Activists say its portable toilets are cleaned too infrequently to be hygienic. There is no governing structure within the camp, which relies on donations from churches, nonprofits and individuals for basic sustenance.
In February, the Biden administration announced it would begin phasing out Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which had forced thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to be heard. People with active MPP cases would be allowed into the United States. By March, the notorious Matamoros refugee camp just across the border from Texas – where many in the MPP program had waited for their turn to be processed – was closed.
Activists told Reuters that the announcement directly influenced the start of the new camp in Tijuana, opposite San Diego and some 2,500 miles (4,000 km) away from Matamoros. Migrants began to camp on Feb. 18, the night before processing began for the MPP migrants, amid confusion about who exactly would be admitted to the country.
The U.S. border remains closed to the vast majority of asylum seekers under a Trump-era COVID-19 health-related order which Biden has not revoked.
But the confusion remains. Many migrants Reuters spoke to said they had believed they would soon be able to claim asylum in the United States once they got to the camp, based on rumors and news items that the situation at the border had changed under Biden, who took office in January.
Biden is trying to balance a more humane immigration policy with a desire not to encourage further migration from Mexico and Central America. He is already contending with growing criticism from opposition Republicans and even Democrats over a rise in the number of people crossing the southern border illegally.
The White House said in a statement it would take time to rebuild the country’s immigration system after the Trump administration. It did not address questions from Reuters about the wind-down of MPP influencing the start of the Tijuana camp, referring further queries to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“The Biden administration has made it clear that our borders are not open, people should not make the dangerous journey, and individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion,” a DHS spokesperson said in a separate statement. “Physical presence at a port of entry or an encampment” does not provide access to the phased system for entry into the United States, the spokesperson said.
The Mexican foreign ministry said in a statement that government representatives had tried to encourage migrants to go to shelters.
Tijuana’s director of migrant affairs, José Luis Pérez Canchola, said officials were trying to find a safe space for the migrants, but there was no concrete plan yet.
Migrants said they feared that if they moved away from the encampment they might lose their place in a line that does not really exist, or that conditions in shelters would be worse than in the camp. Some were afraid to leave their tents for safety.
Some had lived elsewhere in Tijuana for months, while others had arrived only recently. Others said they had crossed into Texas and been expelled into Tijuana, and came to the camp because they did not know where else to go.
New families arrive every day at the Tijuana camp, entering what activists and camp dwellers say is an increasingly dangerous situation, with reports of gang members walking through the camp, selling drugs or checking for members of rival gangs.
The Matamoros encampment was widely seen as a result of Trump’s hardline policies, but some activists say that in many ways the situation in Tijuana is even worse.
While Matamoros was dangerous and squalid, there was eventually a strong NGO presence, and it was demarcated by barriers. Migrants there were also on a path to potential entry to the United States.
“The migrants in the Tijuana camp are definitely worse off,” said Erika Pinheiro, legal and policy director for Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit which initially went in person in the encampment but has stopped, due in part to a lack of in-person volunteers and security concerns.
“There is less infrastructure, more security concerns, and migrants aren’t connected to any functioning asylum process,” she said. The organization is serving migrants, including some from the camp, through a remote screening process.
Dulce Garcia, executive director of Border Angels, a nonprofit that has been working in the camp, said she regularly gets messages from terrified camp dwellers at night. They have reported beatings and kidnapping attempts. She no longer goes to the encampment alone, she said, because she fears for her safety, and is hoping that more volunteers will start working in the camp to make it safer.
“You stay quiet, but you live in fear,” said Ana, a 21-year-old from Guatemala who is desperate to enter the United States to rejoin her father. “I was kidnapped and bad things have happened to me, and I live with the fear that it’s going to happen again.”
In recent days, the migrants have begun marching to the San Ysidro port of entry with protest signs that read things like “BIDEN SOLUTION,” “WE WANT TO BE HEARD,” and “WE NEED POLITICAL ASYLUM.” There is talk in the camp of a hunger strike.
“The only thing we want is an answer from the president,” said Claudia Melendez, a Honduran asylum seeker who came to the camp a month ago. “He hasn’t said a thing.”