Steps from the bor­der, months from the dream

Mi­grants in Tijuana pa­trol the fron­tier fence as they pon­der their best chance of ap­ply­ing for U.S. asy­lum

The Washington Post Sunday - - GEORGE H.W. BUSH, 1924-2018 - BY KEVIN SI­EFF AND SARAH KINOSIAN kevin.si­[email protected]­post.com

tijuana, mex­ico — When it was her turn to slip through the bor­der fence, Cindy Romero dropped her son’s stuffed panda on the ground and looked through the barbed wire, to­ward the dis­tant lights of San Diego.

A few feet away, the Pa­cific Ocean crashed into the metal py­lons that di­vide the United States from Mex­ico. Romero, 24, and her son, Ja­son, 2, were small enough to fit be­tween them. So were the two other women, each with her own tod­dler, who hud­dled next to them. A few young men joined. No Bor­der Pa­trol agents were in sight. “Let’s go,” Romero said. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has made it harder than ever for asy­lum seek­ers to get inside the United States to file their ap­pli­ca­tions. With the mi­grant car­a­van’s ar­rival here, the wait­ing list in Tijuana has more than 5,000 names. 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 now here at the beach, 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.

When the three women ar­rived in Tijuana with the car­a­van in late Novem­ber, they learned that it would take two or three months to en­ter the United States legally. That 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.

So Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Romero 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.

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.

They 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.

“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.

“I’m not go­ing back to that place,” Chavez said. 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.”

CAROLYN VAN HOUTEN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cindy Romero, 24, from Hon­duras, shields her son Ja­son, 2, from the wind as they wait with friends at the beach in Tijuana, Mex­ico, and con­tem­plate whether to il­le­gally cross into the United States.

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