World·CBC in Tijuana

'They've come here to create disorder': Migrant caravan faces hostility on both sides of U.S.-Mexico border

Little Padres Park is a city of space blankets and houses built out of shrubs, of outdoor showers and soccer matches played in socks. The baseball stadium in downtown Tijuana, Mexico, has become a makeshift city, hastily constructed and filled with more than 1,500 migrants.

Some Tijuana locals are no happier than Donald Trump with presence of migrants

Honduran migrant Wilmer Ramirez, part of a caravan of migrants now camped in Tijuana, Mexico, fears he won’t be able to get into the U.S. because U.S. soldiers at the border will 'stop the caravan.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

Little Padres Park is a city of space blankets and houses built out of shrubs, of outdoor showers and soccer matches played in socks. The baseball stadium in downtown Tijuana, Mexico, has become the makeshift home of about 1,500 migrants who make up one of the caravans of Central American migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bone-weary travellers like Wilmer Ramirez.

"Hiking, hiking, hiking, hiking like ants," he says. He points to his right leg, which no longer works, speaks of his elderly father, lost somewhere on the trail. There is some measure of safety here in this stadium. But the border, once so close, seems as though it's receding.

"We're so close, but Trump doesn't want us because we're delinquents," he says. "We can't get across because, supposedly, they'll shoot us all."

Hundreds of tents have been set up by migrants stalled in Tijuana after travelling from their Central American homes north through Mexico. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

He's referring to the Trump administration's recent measures to "harden" the border, including the addition of concertina wire in sections and the authorization for troops stationed there to use lethal force if necessary, as several American news outlets reported this week.

On Wednesday, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed to reporters that he had been given the additional authority but would await a request from the Department of Homeland Security before deciding how to use it.

Mattis said troops may be authorized to temporarily detain migrants but not to arrest them. They would only be permitted to detain migrants for "minutes, not even hours" while they transfer them over to border agents.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks through newly installed concertina wire at the San Ysidro, Calif., port of entry Friday. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

He said troops could help protect the border agents with shields and batons but would be unarmed.

Word of the new use-of-force guidelines was quick to reach the migrants at Little Padres Park, causing fear and panic among some.

"They'll kill us all just to stop the caravan," Ramirez said.

Many of the migrants in Tijuana were aware of U.S. President Donald Trump's hostility toward the caravan, which he called an "invasion," but were dismayed to hear that Trump's views are shared by some locals, such as Pablo Romero.

For decades, the mariachi musician has been playing his guitar for pesos on Tijuana beaches. Migrants from the south are part of life, he says, but he believes these massive caravans are bad news.

"There are lots of pickpockets who are robbing, taking advantage of being here, so they're doing more bad than good," Romero says.

Brandon Garcia supports the Tijuana mayor’s stance against the migrants, saying they’ve 'come here to create disorder and to steal.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

His sentiments were echoed by Tijuana's mayor, Juan Manuel Gastelum, who called the migrants rowdy and unclean "undesirables," and was seen wearing a red hat bearing the phrase "Make Tijuana Great Again."

Mayor doesn't speak for residents, activists say

"It's unfortunate authorities are copying the hostile language used by President Trump," says Oscar Contreras, a social scientist at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

Several activists have started a petition asking national authorities to investigate the mayor's comments.

"They're statements that are racist, classist, discriminatory," says Soraya Vazquez, legal co-ordinator of the advocacy group Espacio Migrante (Migrant Space).

"We can't tolerate that a mayor who has authority can make statements like that in the name of the residents of Tijuana, which don't represent the views of the Tijuana residents. We don't think like he does."

Much of the food and clothing at the migrant shelters has been donated by Tijuana residents. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

But Brandon Garcia supports his mayor's stance against the caravaneros. He's convinced the migrants swamping Tijuana are crooks and thieves. Sitting in the shade of the umbrella of his cart from which he sells elotes y vasitos — a Mexican snack of corn and cheese in a cup — he says, "They've come here to create disorder and to steal, nothing more."

He points to the stone wall about 100 metres from the border fence with San Diego.

"They're up there, doing drugs against the wall," Garcia says.

But his friend Francisco Juarez shakes his head.

"They're not doing anything they're not supposed to," Juarez says. "They've come here because they have needs, that's it."  

Locals hurl stones, cans at migrants

Since the first caravan's arrival earlier this month, several groups of Tijuana residents have protested and even attacked the migrants with beer cans and stones. However, the migrants have also received plenty of support. Many local residents have donated food and clothing. 

Outside the stadium, a Tijuana resident ladles out coffee and frozen rice treats to migrants lined up down the street.

"I don't believe any of the news about the migrants," said the woman, who didn't give CBC News her name. "I've spent time with them. I've been to church with them. There are only a few bad apples."

Overhead, migrants strung a banner between two trees that read, "Thanks, Mexico, for your help and caring."

Still, with more caravans arriving every couple of days, Honduran migrant Nolvia Navarro is worried about a growing backlash.

"Yes, the Mexicans are right, there are troublemakers in the caravan, but many of us are mothers, so we're asking them to accept us and don't throw rocks at us," she said.

For Navarro and her two children, the baseball stadium will be a precarious home as, day by day, the U.S. border grows ever harder — as do many Mexican hearts.

But, she says, they made it all this way, and after all that suffering, "God won't abandon us now."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

With files from Reuters