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How Trump's Immigration Policies Are Provoking Insecurity at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The administration's mass deportations and refusal to take in escapees from disaster may be fueling organized crime in Tijuana and other border towns.
Two migrants lean against a rail next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 10th, 2018.

Two migrants lean against a rail next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 10th, 2018.

While the Trump administration makes headlines for its immigration policy once again this week—this time for a proposal to limit green card recipients based on use of government benefits—another controversy at the border continues to unfold: Donald Trump's immigration policies are spurring further instability at the United States-Mexico border, analysts say, as an apparent surge in migrants headed to and from the U.S. weighs heavily on already overwrought public infrastructure in places like Tijuana.

"U.S. immigration policy is making Mexico less safe—the border and the migration routes in particular," says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a policy professor at George Mason University who has recently traveled to Tijuana and other U.S.-Mexico border towns to conduct research on how the Trump administration's policies are affecting the situation there. She says that influxes of vulnerable people to places struggling with organized crime has threatened both the migrants' lives and regional stability.

Flanked by many migrants from Central America and as far afoot as Africa, there is a sizable community of about 4,000 Haitian newcomers living in Tijuana and environs, according to Enrique Morones, the founding director of Border Angels, an immigrant advocacy group. And more are coming, he says. The vast majority arrived there after a long, treacherous journey through South America, around the time of Trump's election, hoping to apply for asylum ahead of his promises to bar immigrants of all stripes from entering the country. Soon after Trump took office, though, word spread among the migrants that U.S. immigration officials were repatriating Haitians who had attempted to enter the country legally. Many chose to remain in Tijuana, and despite their relatively welcoming treatment by locals, struggle with unemployment and housing in what has become a makeshift home.

Still, it appears that more Haitians are heading for the border town. About 60 Haitians recently arrived at one Tijuana shelter, and more are expected, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Friday. Pacific Standard traveled in early 2017 to the shelter where the newcomers now stay—the Templo Embajadores de Jesús, located at the foot of a canyon. Some among the hundreds of migrants there explained that the stakes are high, not just for the migrants but countless others back in Haiti. Entire communities pool money in the hopes that a migrant will make to the U.S. and work to send home life-sustaining remittances. On Saturday, a deadly 5.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, which is continuously struggling to rebuild amid a seemingly endless onslaught of natural and manmade disaster.

Border Angels board member and field organizer Hugo Castro, who frequently makes rounds at Tijuana shelters, bringing donations of money, food, and necessities to migrants, says that the new Haitian arrivals had been living in Venezuela for years and that some have children with Venezuelan citizenship. These arrivals likely left Venezuela amid the ongoing heightened political turmoil and hyper-inflation there.

As Haitians and other newcomers arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to continue their northward trek to a U.S. continually removing legal status from immigrants of all stripes, they cross paths in border towns like Tijuana with an unprecedented southward-moving population of fresh deportees. Authorities are struggling to cope with a whopping 24,000 cases of Mexican deportees this year, the Baja California delegate of Mexico's National Institute of Migration told local publication Frontera.Info last week. That's reportedly a 41 percent increase from 2016, under the administration of former President Barack Obama, whom immigrant rights advocates frequently lambasted as "deporter-in-chief."

The effect of these migrant flows from all directions is a surge in transient populations in cities with already-cramped shelters, without the resources to adequately shelter and feed newcomers, despite an overwhelming push by Tijuanese people to welcome them. Many churches have become makeshift shelters. On any given day, the pews at the city's Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Cathedral are mixed with the faithful and migrants one otherwise finds aimlessly wandering the city.

Meanwhile, cartel violence appears to have surged in recent months. The city has become one of the most violent in the world; in July, there was a record 12 homicides a day, most of which were a result of cartel-related violence, according to Tijuana's investigative publication, itself the target of threats of violence from the cartels. In addition to the narcotics trade and other illicit activities, organized crime in Tijuana and similar border towns appears to be capitalizing on fresh inflows of people made desperate by Trump's immigration policy, analysts say, explaining that the Trump administration is essentially delivering them into the hands of cartel-affiliated human traffickers.

Cartels and their affiliates "are armed and violent. Either you pay them the fee to continue onward or to stay in the city, or you get killed, or you go somewhere else," says George Mason's Correa-Cabrera. Sometimes they are coerced into becoming involved in illegal activity themselves, she adds.

The Trump administration's deportations and refusal to take in struggling Haitians and others thrusts them into a situation where they have no practical tools necessary to navigate border town societies. Survival is not guaranteed. "Some are newcomers, the Haitians, but also there are Mexicans who have been in the U.S. for a long time with no networks in Mexico," Correa-Cabrera says. Many are older and find themselves deported after decades living and working in the U.S.

"Organized crime sees these people as easy prey," Border Angels' Morones says. "Their dreams are being destroyed. [Cartel affiliates] lie to them and say we can get you across."

Migrant rights organizers in Tijuana have told Pacific Standard that some organized crime affiliates promise to help smuggle people across the border only to hold them captive and extort exorbitant ransoms from their families. The migrants are ill-equipped to defend themselves. In Tijuana, a place beset by vast income disparity, one seldom sees migrants wandering the grand, tree-shaded avenues of the relatively posh Zona Rio; instead, they are frequently left to roam the streets of the Zona Norte, a neighborhood with several migrant shelters but also much of the city's drug and sex trade.

Both Morones and Correa-Cabrera blamed Trump administration policy pushing and pulling sudden surges of migrants to the border and corruption in local government for exacerbating the conditions faced by migrants and overall insecurity at the border.

"Definitely if you have more vulnerable people in these situations, you are gonna see an increase in murders," Cornea-Cabrera says. "This is my opinion. We have to do more research and evaluate cases. The fact is, in Mexico, these deaths are often not investigated, so for journalists it's hard to find out what's happening. And the murder of reporters hasn't helped."

While Mexican border towns continue to grapple with fears for security provoked by U.S. immigration policy, it appears that the Trump administration is moving forward with a plan to pay Mexico $20 million to assist Washington in its efforts to deport and bar more immigrants still, ABC News reported late last week. Mexico has not accepted those conditions, but the incoming presidential administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador is expected to stand firm against Washington's immigration policies, particularly where they stand accused of exacerbating insecurity and human rights concerns.

Mexican Consulate staff in Los Angeles did not respond to Pacific Standard's questions as to whether Mexico would accept Washington's proposed payment plan and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment on why it had reportedly begun to prepare the payment without Mexico's acceptance or congressional approval.