TIJUANA, Mexico — Jorge Luis’ face is wound tight in white medical cloth from being hit with an object fired from the U.S. side of the border wall in Sunday’s clash between migrants and U.S. border patrol agents at the Tijuana-San Diego border. He says doctors tell him that if he had been smaller, he easily could have died.
Jorge Luis – he didn’t want to use his full name – had arrived in Tijuana two days earlier after making his way from El Salvador as part of a “caravan” of migrants seeking a better life in the U.S. He said he joined a group that was heading to the border fence as a spectator, to see what was going to happen.
“But I won’t lie,” he said. “I also thought, if I see this avalanche of people going north, I am going to get in the middle and cross too. Because I am not going to wait here watching them pass, while I am stuck here. But I didn’t want to be one of the first people to try and cross.”
After months of incendiary rhetoric and a growing humanitarian crisis, it’s not surprising that what began as a peaceful march to the border by migrants quickly turned into a violent confrontation. Hundreds of migrants evaded Mexican police and U.S. border patrol agents fired canisters with tear gas to keep them back. At some point — it’s unclear when — some of the migrants started throwing rocks at the agents.
On one side were border patrol officers who had been egged on by President Trump to use force against a group of migrants he has characterized as invaders and criminals. On the other side, thousands of desperate Central Americans who are living in overflowing makeshift shelters with scarce food and water, and no good options ahead. Around 2,000 migrants from the caravan are on a months-long wait list to present themselves to U.S. border officials and request asylum.
“The idea was to have a peaceful protest… to get the Americans to listen to us,” said Ilsa Ramirez, who approached the U.S. border with her three kids, aged 25, 14, and 11. “It was the Americans that started to fire tear gas. That’s when some of my companions started to throw rocks.”
Despite the experience, Ramirez says she still wants to enter the U.S. “I’m not going back. I prefer to die in Mexico than return to Guatemala.”
On Monday, Trump commended the response of the Customs and Border Protection agents – who counter that it was the migrants who first threw the rocks. “Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said 69 migrants were arrested on the California side of the border during the clash, and Tijuana police said 39 migrants were arrested in Mexico. Mexican officials also said 98 “foreigners” were deported.
Still, that’s a fraction of the more than 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in Tijuana in the past two weeks, creating a growing humanitarian crisis in Tijuana as well as an angry anti-migrant backlash in this border city.
The response by Mexican officials has been all over the map, accentuated by a power vacuum in the presidency. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto leaves office on Saturday and President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador assumes power. The migrant caravans present Lopez Obrador with an international political crisis even before he takes office.
Already, Lopez Obrador has faced a backlash in Mexico over news reports that his administration has agreed to require migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to stay in Mexico while their claims make their way through U.S. courts – a process that routinely takes years. Currently, asylum seekers can stay in the U.S. during that time.
But Brian Griffey with Amnesty International says Mexican officials told him such a deal was under consideration. In exchange, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told Mexican authorities that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would process more asylum seekers, Griffey said. The agency is only accepting around 90 asylum seekers a day at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana because it says it doesn’t have the capacity to process more.
Griffey called such a deal a “devil’s bargain.” “This means U.S. Customs and Border Protection has the capacity to admit more asylum seekers, and they are deliberately not doing so,” he said.
Gustavo Mohar, who formerly served as Mexico’s top negotiator for immigration with the United States, said his guess is that Lopez Obrador is trying to use the deal to pressure the Trump administration into giving more economic aid to Central American countries.
But, he added, if you’re just counting political scores, Trump will come out ahead. “I think Trump is going to win on this one because he is going to come out in a few weeks and say, ‘I succeeded. Nobody entered illegally. I defeated the invasion of these criminals.’”
For now, the migrants have retreated. Most are back at the makeshift shelters in Tijuana, sleeping on the ground or in tents. There are no plans for another march to the border, but the situation remains tense.
Seth Stodder, former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Border, Immigration and Trade Policy under President Obama, said it’s common for migrants in Mexico to throw rocks at border patrol agents.
“I don’t remember a time when Border Patrol has fired tear gas into Mexico,” he said.
Stodder said whether the response was justified depends on whether the border patrol agents thought their safety was in danger. “Certainly, one could question the use of tear gas in a situation involving a lot of children present,” he said.
In a statement, Customs and Border Protection said migrants from the caravan “assaulted U.S. Federal Officers and Agents” and trained personnel responded with “less-lethal devices to stop the actions of assaultive individuals attempting to break into the U.S.”
But several unarmed migrants and activists on the other side of the border were also injured.
Migrants’ right activist Ruben Figueroa, with the nonprofit Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, said he too was was injured in the head in Sunday’s skirmish. He was at the Tijuana River, near the border fence, when he said he saw a tear gas canister shot from the U.S. side of the border coming towards him. He said he turned and it hit him on the back of the head.
Members of Grupo Beta, a humanitarian group that’s part of the Mexican immigration agency, took him in ambulance to the hospital, where he received four stitches. “I was lucky the injury wasn’t worse,” he said.
Cover: Jorge Luis, a migrant from El Salvador, was injured and nearly killed when he was hit in the head by a projectile he believes was fired from the U.S. side of the border. He was photographed outside the sports complex converted into a shelter for migrants. (Photo: Encarni Pindado/VICE News)