WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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31 Jan 2023 | Commentary

Tijuana’s migrant shelters under increased attack, as the U.S. sends hundreds of migrants per day

Non-profit migrant shelters in the city of Tijuana, Mexico, just south of San Diego, are experiencing an alarming wave of attacks. The frequency of threats and hostilities over the past four months raises serious concerns about the safety of migrants and shelter staff in a city experiencing high levels of violence. While U.S. authorities advise their citizens to reconsider travel to the state, they are sending hundreds of people into Tijuana—many of them non-Mexican—every day.

The nature of shelters’ work makes them vulnerable to organized crime, often enabled by official corruption, that would profit from the chance to smuggle migrants like those behind the shelters’ gates. Recent months have seen what appears to be a sharp rise in violence and threats of violence against Tijuana migrant shelters, with little or no protective response from local authorities.

A non exhaustive list of violent incidents in the past four months includes:

  • The most recent example, noted in local news, was a January 25 attack on the Embajadores de Jesús shelter in the city’s south. An armed individual opened fire on the shelter from outside. No injuries were reported, but it traumatized the hundreds of migrants inside, many of them victims of violence in their communities of origin. 
  • Earlier in January, unidentified individuals threatened to burn down the Assabil shelter, which opened in mid-2022 to accommodate Muslim migrants. Two days later, assailants shot at the shelter’s facade, leaving behind a note with “CJNG,” the initials of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación).
  • In December, hundreds of migrants from southern Tijuana’s Ágape shelter held a protest outside of the Army’s headquarters in the city, demanding that Mexican authorities provide protection.The protest came after armed men threatened the migrants and shelter staff by pointing firearms at them from nearby rooftops. 
  • The same shelter suffered an attack three months earlier, in September 2022. Unknown assailants fired bullets through the shelter windows as women and children slept inside, Telemundo reported. No injuries resulted, but several migrant women conveyed a plea to President Biden for sanctuary for their children, as they remained stranded in Tijuana by U.S. blocks on asylum. In May, a stray bullet from a nearby shootout wounded a woman in the Ágape shelter. This was not the first time surrounding violence collaterally impacted the shelter.
  • The Embajada Migrante shelter, on the Pacific near the border wall, was forced to close in November after an armed criminal group raided their property, threatening migrants and demanding $200 extortion payments. 
  • In September, the Movimiento Juventud 2000 A.C.and Ágape shelters reported receiving threats to burn down their facilities if they continued to provide refuge to migrants.

These incidents point to an escalating pattern in a context of intensifying organized crime disputes in Tijuana, a city of 2 million that saw over 2,000 homicides last year. (By comparison, New York City, with four times as many people, saw 433 homicides in 2022.) 

Tijuana has the U.S.-Mexico border’s largest community of migrant shelters: there were approximately 37 in the city when WOLA visited in May 2022. The oldest shelters, established in the 1980s, originally offered short-term stays to Mexican adults deported from the United States, or northbound Mexican migrants fleeing their home communities. As the migrant population changed in the 2010s, shelters began taking in many more non-Mexican migrants, including families and members of the LGBTQ community, from dozens of countries. 

In recent years Tijuana shelters’ populations swelled as they took in asylum-seeking migrants in need of long-term stays: those forced to add their names to “waitlists” to apply in the United States, and those sent back into Tijuana by the U.S. government’s “Remain in Mexico” program and the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy.

Baja California and Tijuana officials say that state government prosecutors and investigators cannot move ahead with investigations if shelters do not file a formal complaint. Shelters are understandably reluctant to file a formal complaint, which could worsen the climate of threat in which they operate. But that reluctance cannot be a pretext for impunity. Authorities at all levels—Mexico’s federal government, Baja California state agencies, Tijuana municipal agencies—must be proactive in guaranteeing shelters’ security. With or without a formal complaint, they should protect the facilities, and their vulnerable populations, from further attacks, and investigate and hold accountable those responsible. 

U.S. authorities, too, must take into account the shelters’ security situation.Between October and December alone, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used Title 42 to expel 24,320 migrants to Tijuana, from 16 countries. Mexican government statistics show that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported another 23,855 Mexican migrants into Tijuana during those same three months. In November 2022, meanwhile, the University of Texas Strauss Center reported that about 23,000 migrants are waiting in Tijuana for a chance to present themselves at the San Diego port of entry to request asylum. 

In this context, Mexican authorities in Tijuana must improve protection for the city’s migrant shelters and investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the current wave of threats. Simultaneously, the Biden administration must halt policies that continue to restrict access to asylum at the border, which is worsening the danger migrants face in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities. It can start by ceasing its expanded application of Title 42.