TIJUANA, Mexico – The woman crawled under first, squeezing face down through a gap dug under the border fence. The space is only a few inches high, and her feet kicked dust into the air as she wiggled. Next was her 3-year-old daughter, dressed in a pink sweat suit, pushed through to the California side on her back and feet first by a man who stayed in Mexico.
The mother anxiously urged them on. “Hurry,” she said. “I’m right here. It doesn’t matter if you get dirty.”
Fifteen seconds later, the mother and daughter from Honduras were together in the U.S. And soon a U.S. Border Protection agent approached on an all-terrain vehicle to take them away in custody.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Tuesday that the San Diego sector has experienced a “slight uptick” in families entering the U.S. illegally and turning themselves in to agents since the caravan of Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana two weeks ago.
Thousands of migrants on the Mexico side of the border are living in crowded tent cities in Tijuana after a grueling weekslong journey through Mexico on foot and hitching rides with the goal of applying for asylum in the U.S. Frustrated with the long wait to apply, with the U.S. processing 100 requests at most each day, some migrants are trying to cross over clandestinely.
Rachel Rivera, 19, told The Associated Press that Honduras had become unlivable. Moments before flattening herself under the fence, she said she was slipping through to the U.S. in an attempt to “give a better life” to her daughter Charlot.
An AP video journalist also witnessed more than two dozen migrants scale a fence between Mexico and the U.S. on Monday evening. Once across, entire families raised their hands before border patrol agents who arrived swiftly in white trucks.
It’s unclear where the families were taken from there.
On a typical day before the caravan arrived in Tijuana, U.S. border patrol agents in the San Diego area detained about 120 or so people trying to cross the border illegally from Mexico.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation in November suspending asylum rights for people who try to cross into the U.S. illegally. Rights groups question the legality of that proclamation.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Ralph DeSio said the U.S. was trying to deter illegal crossings by issuing the proclamation.
The U.S. has an established process for asylum seekers to present themselves in an “orderly” manner at a port of entry, DeSio told AP via email. “When people choose to ignore that process, they put themselves in danger and, in the case of families, they choose to put the lives of their children at risk.”
Trump took to Twitter again Tuesday to drum up support for a better border wall, arguing that the expense would be less than the U.S. incurs each year due to illegal immigration.
People mainly from Honduras but also from El Salvador and Guatemala formed the caravan to Tijuana, seeking safety in numbers while crossing Mexico to avoid criminals and the fees demanded by the gangs that prey on migrants. Dozens of the migrants have told AP they are fleeing poverty and searching for a better life, while many also tell of harrowing violence and death threats back home.
Margarita Lopez, a migrant from Honduras, said she would definitely jump the fence to the U.S. if she got the chance. But in the meantime, Lopez stood in line Tuesday to request a humanitarian visa from Mexican officials that would allow her to live and work in Mexico for a year.
Standing nearby, Luis Fernando Vazquez, a migrant from Guatemala, said he won’t make a run for the border.
“I’m not like that,” he said. “I prefer to work, to behave well, here.”
Associated Press writers Amy Guthrie in Mexico City and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.