Caravan spotlights immigration tensions in Mexico

Members of the Central American migrant caravan who reached the U.S.-Mexico border found a hot-and-cold reception in the Mexican city of Tijuana, stoking fears that tensions over regional migration could erupt into violence.

A protest by caravan members Friday ended in a street brawl against 300 local residents who were demonstrating against their presence at Tijuana's beachfront park, Playas de Tijuana. After the brawl was quelled by authorities, the migrants were taken to shelters in a different part of town.


Mexican Ambassador to the United States Gerónimo Gutiérrez said “the situation in Tijuana related to the caravan is a wake-up call for the entire region — Mexico, Central America and the United States.”

“It forces us to think on how to better cooperate, in spite of the issue's difficulties, to achieve better management of migration at a regional scale,” Gutiérrez told reporters Monday night.

Tijuana's mayor, Juan Manuel Gastélum of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), panned Mexican federal authorities Monday for not providing special funding for migrant shelters, as they did for a similar situation in 2014.

“These people's rancor has to be justified by how things have gone down, the null support from the federal government. Tijuana is a place they know exists but [which] they never visit,” Gastélum told journalist Carmen Aristegui in an interview Monday. 

But Gastélum also blamed the migrants, some of whom he said had been arrested for smoking marijuana on the streets, and who he said had refused to receive sandwiches from a charity organization.

“We have nothing against migrants, but we believe that human rights are also paired with human duties,” he said. “The arrival of many of these people who integrate this caravan, not all, has not been at all comfortable. At the end of the day we were able to remove them from Playas de Tijuana, we were able to place them in shelters.”

Local counterprotesters who support the migrants say they’re appalled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“It’s barbaric. They are influenced by Trump’s speech,” Rebeca Escala, a local pro-immigrant protester, told BuzzFeed Mexico.

The polarization reflects a long-simmering class divide in Mexico that's been exacerbated on social media, said Natasha Uren, an expert on U.S.-Mexico migration patterns.

“The problem is how xenophobia in Mexico is growing, and it's due to a fear of poverty,” said Uren.

Anti-immigrant postings on social media have been increasing across the country, as four different caravans make their way north.

A Facebook post making false claims that migrants threw away clothes donated to them by Mexicans was shared more than 40,000 times, according to news site Animal Politico.

Other viral posts show Central Americans allegedly mocking Mexicans during the 2009 swine flu crisis and attacking law enforcement officers.

But practical considerations are also coming into play.

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money MORE issued a proclamation earlier this month banning people who've illegally crossed the border from requesting asylum.

The proclamation was temporarily suspended by a California judge late Monday, who argued the order essentially rewrote immigration law.

The traditional interpretation of asylum law was that any foreign national in U.S. territory was eligible to apply for asylum. That led many Central American migrants to cross the border illegally, where they would turn themselves in to the first American authority they encountered.

Locals warn that adding caravan members to the already-long lines at designated ports of entry could escalate tensions across the border, where the economy relies on speedy crossings.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) temporarily closed Tijuana's San Ysidro port of entry Monday — the world's busiest pedestrian and car traffic international border crossing — alleging that migrants were “planning to rush the border.”

And DHS last week reassigned Customs and Border Protection officers from El Paso to the San Diego sector, a move that's expected to slow down normal cross-border traffic in the second busiest pedestrian port of entry.

“Most of us in this area depend on business from people coming and going across the border. If they close it, it will be [the migrants'] fault,” Esther Monroy, a local Tijuana woman, told French news agency AFP.