El Éxodo Centroamericano: Resistance Through Solidarity

Central American refugees are confronting violence and harassment at the border after an arduous journey fleeing imminent danger in their home countries. How are binational solidarity groups responding?

Jennie Nelson 11/28/2018

Inside the shelter at the Benito Juárez sports complex, November 28, 2018 (Photo by Nidia Bautista)

On Sunday November 25, U.S. border patrol agents threw tear gas canisters and shot rubber bullets into Mexico at asylum-seeking caravan members and the peaceful protesters supporting them. The protest was organized as part of an international day of action organized by the San Diego Migrant and Refugee Solidarity Coalition (SMRSC), which consists of various social justice and migrant rights groups, many of which have been integral in the ongoing coordination of humanitarian support of the caravan in Tijuana.

Before the protest, SMRSC released a list of demands, including “respect for the right of asylum for all members of the Central American Exodus,” to “process all asylum claims made at Ports of Entry with expedience;” and that “The U.S. government must publicly acknowledge its role in the destabilization of the Honduran government.” Their demands also included a call for international solidarity, that governments that “violate international asylum agreements and processes” are held accountable; and that officials who violate the “human right to seek asylum in any country of their preference” be prosecuted.

The day of action also included a call for solidarity to social justice groups across the country. Over 75 migrant rights’ groups nationwide supported the march. Rallies in solidarity with the San Diego/Tijuana march were held in Texas, New York, Denver, and Los Angeles, including hundreds of supporters on both sides of the border. San Diego protesters marched South towards the border wall as Tijuana protesters marched North in a show of trans-border solidarity.

In response, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) began closing freeway lanes on the San Diego side early in the afternoon, and military vehicles lined the roads between Chula Vista and San Ysidro.

As caravan members reached the border wall and some attempted to cross the pedestrian pathway separating the U.S. from Mexico, CBP agents proceeded to throw canisters of tear gas and shoot rubber bullets into the crowd, which included significant amounts of young children. Borderclick, a digital living archive of the trans-border experience reported live videos of the chaos on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall via Instagram. In addition to hundreds of asylum-seekers, activists like Steven Nieder of Border Angels, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to migrants, were also tear gassed.

Local shelters welcomed emergency volunteer medics, who provided medical attention for members of the community who were gassed or hit by rubber bullets. A nine-year-old girl in Tijuana was hospitalized due to injuries from CBP’s rubber bullets, according to local activists, though CBP reported no one was injured. According to Jacquelyn Arellano, the Water Drop coordinator of Border Angels, “No one stormed the border. They [caravan members] were yelling, asking for water. CBP had war vehicles and military helicopters against peaceful protesters.


Although the U.S. government’s animosity towards the caravan is mostly grounded in a repudiation of illegal immigration, it is important to recognize that the pathway that caravan members are seeking into the United States is very much a legal one. According to international and domestic law, any individual presenting themselves at a nation’s border claiming fear of persecution in their home country has the right to an initial screening interview with an asylum officer.

Early this month, Trump once again demonstrated his ignorance of United States asylum law when he issued a presidential proclamation that would only allow people to apply for asylum at official ports-of-entry. After legal organizations like East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab, and Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles sued the government, by Monday November 19th, Judge Jon Tigar of the U.S. District Court of San Francisco effectively blocked the order.  

This situation demonstrates how the systematic denial of civil and political rights has created a crisis that impedes individuals from meeting their basic human needs. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a history of systematically denying asylum-seekers their rights to enter at ports of entry to apply for asylum, via blatant misrepresentation of the law, threats, intimidation, and physical abuse at the San Ysidro port of entry, a practice that appeared to ramp up earlier this year when the smaller Viacrucis caravan arrived at the border this spring. The binational legal organization Al Otro Lado, based in Los Angeles and Tijuana, is the plaintiff in a currently advancing a legal filing against the Trump administration for these actions delaying and deterring the asylum process, which led to hundreds of men, women, and children being forced to sleep outside of the port of entry as they waited to be allowed to apply. Humanitarian groups struggled to provide basic needs such as food, water, and shelter, as CBP officers attempted to coerce the migrants into voluntary departures. Eventually, they allowed the members of the caravan to submit their asylum claims.

This time around, the situation has compounded, and local binational organizations are working to respond to the needs of the approximately 7,000 migrants in Tijuana. Roughly a third are young children, including unaccompanied minors, and approximately 2,000 migrants in neighboring Mexicali are currently waiting to proceed to Tijuana.

LGBTQI  asylum-seekers face heightened vulnerability both in Tijuana awaiting to submit asylum claims, and in ICE detention. According to Brendan Cassidy of Otay Mesa Detention Resistance, a group of 40 LGBTQI caravan members, majority trans women, were forced to split off from the larger caravan last week after suffering multiple assaults in Tijuana. The women were accompanied by two human rights activists and a legal representative as they sought to maintain safety by traveling to a less trafficked port of entry. Roxsana Hernández, a trans woman who was part of the Viacrucis caravan earlier this year, died in ICE detention earlier this year due to abuse and medical neglect.

On Thursday November 20, buses and trucks that were taking some of the caravan members from Mexicali to Tijuana were unable to fit around 300 of the 1,000 people en route. A group of 20 continued on foot. Along the dangerous road that night, a young man named Oscar Baudiel Cruz Alcerro lost his life. While the strikingly disparate estimate of the caravan’s collective size fluctuates between 7,500 to 10,000, we must emphasize the significance of each individual life within it.

The longer asylum-seekers must wait to begin the first step in their asylum process—a credible fear interview—the longer they will be stuck at the makeshift shelter at the Benito Juárez sports stadium, and various shelters in the Zona Norte (North Zone) of Tijuana. Conditions are poor and shelters are over-capacity as they attempt to accommodate the growing number of asylum-seekers currently in Tijuana.

Local Organizations Respond

In the following days and weeks, legal, organizational, and humanitarian organizations will be coordinating aid and assistance. The magnitude of this exodus is making distribution of aid difficult, and caravan members, having fled unfathomable situations and undergone an arduous journey, often arrive exhausted or injured, with few or no possessions.

The demand for food and hygiene supplies is both vast and urgent. Local organizations in San Diego have been organizing donation drives within the community to provide basic necessities such as food, water, and hygiene products. Canned food, water, blankets, feminine hygiene products, and diapers are among the most needed items. San Diego-based organizations Border Angels and Otay Mesa Detention Resistance have been integral in this donation collection process, where they’ve set up online aid registries at Target and Walmart.

Volunteers from San Diego cook alongside year-round community kitchen volunteers in Tijuana, often with food contributed from Comida No Bombas (Food Not Bombs), a nonprofit that collects the overripe produce from local food providers that can no longer be sold in grocery stores. In the Centro Cultural de la Raza community space in San Diego’s Balboa Park, donations fill the rooms, waiting to be carried or driven across the border, and volunteers will distribute canned food and provisions. Many of the caravan members have come down with colds or worse, and chilly nights don’t bode well for those in camps whose shelter consists mostly of tarp coverings, where they’ve now been for nearly two weeks. Coughs fill the camps, and donations of baby Tylenol help infants get through cold nights.

Temporary housing is an especially urgent concern due to anti-immigrant hostility in Tijuana outside of the various locations where migrants are staying. Volunteers from trans-border organizations are continuing to engage in nonviolent resistance and peaceful de-escalation strategies to protect the migrants from attacks from these protesters. On November 14, members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), a tightly-knit group with years of experience supporting Central American caravans, linked arms around resting caravan members at an attempt to shield them from the violence of anti-immigrant Mexican protesters. The organization plays a central role in the continued support of migrants throughout the entire asylum process. Representatives of Pueblo Sin Fronteras stay in communication with caravan members during detention, through legal visitation and prison phone plans.

Organizing Against Detention

The spotlight currently on the visible commotion in Tijuana will inevitably fade, but the life-threatening situation the migrants face will not. After their numbers come up to even begin their asylum processes, refugees undergo credible fear interviews. These interviews are intentionally interrogative, and can consist of hours of cross-examination about unfathomably traumatic experiences. Those who pass a credible fear interview will be transferred to ICE immigration detention centers to await a court date. The vast majority of asylum seekers will be processed through the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.

Otay Mesa Detention Center is privately owned by CoreCivic, one the country’s largest for-profit private prison corporations, and contracted through U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Here, detained migrants report inhumane conditions, including forced labor and medical neglect. After two and a half months in immigrant detention, one woman reported to advocates that three separate women in her pod alone were medically neglected to the point of miscarrying their pregnancies. It is difficult to find legal accountability in such instances—in order to prove a miscarriage, they must possess an ultrasound as “proof” of their pregnancy, which most pregnant women fleeing their countries do not have. These women face not only poor prison conditions, but medical neglect resulting in the lifelong trauma that comes from losing a child.

If migrants are approved to proceed with their asylum cases after being held in detention, they are released on parole while they await their next court date. For these asylum-seekers, release from ICE detention means being dropped off in busloads at Greyhound stations across San Diego. Activists from Otay Mesa Detention Resistance await the undependable and late night arrivals of these buses for released detainees who have little more than the clothes on their backs, and red mesh prison bags holding stacks of immigration paperwork. Migrants stay in host homes offered by volunteers until they can make transportation for their respective next destinations. Many take cross-country buses to stay with family members or friends already in the United States. Others meet approved sponsors found through advocacy networks. Unaccompanied minors often go to group homes across the country. In the unseen aftermath of the Zero Tolerance family separation policy, hundreds of newly-released migrants have traveled cross-country to child detention centers in order to find and reclaim custody of the children that had been taken from them.

If the migrants’ asylum claims are denied, they will be deported. For the thousands of refugees who are fleeing immediate danger, deportation is quite often a death sentence, and oftentimes, their sponsors don’t even know they’ve been deported. Sponsors are often left with no information about where their friend, loved one, or family member is, with no way of locating them.

Upon deportation, migrants fleeing immediate violence are left with few options. Many find their way back to Tijuana, and try to build a life there despite the hardship and insecurity that remains. Others must consider extralegal routes back into the United States, where they will face the dangers of crossing over inhospitable, dangerous terrain. Over 5,000 migrants have died in the Sonoran Desert alone, though the numbers of migrant deaths in the desert have gone grievously underreported by CBP, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The unprecedentedly severe and multi-directional opposition facing the Central American caravan today calls for greater levels of nationwide support for refugees and forced migrants. Despite the administration’s cooptation of the caravan’s unity to package them into a singular threat, the caravan members and trans-border organizations in San Diego and Tijuana continue to centralize solidarity in their action.

The urgent situation unfolding at the border now is just one manifestation of a deeply-rooted crisis that originated at the hands of the United States’ historically destabilizing foreign policy, exacerbated by decades of “prevention through deterrence” policy and violently anti-immigrant rhetoric. So long as refugees are greeted at the border with barbed wire and tear gas, human rights groups will continue providing legal, organizational, and humanitarian assistance for migrants through networks that aim to emulate and preserve the strength and solidarity of the caravans themselves.

Jennie Rose Nelson is an immigration activist and organizer with Border Angels. She is currently a student with Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

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