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Tijuana residents grapple with migrant crisis

Updated December 3, 2018 - 7:59 pm

TIJUANA, Mexico — The migrant caravan that sparked a skirmish along the U.S. border has ignited debate among Tijuana residents.

“Mexicans don’t want them here,” Cesar Mendoza, 38, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “They talk bad about us, they don’t like our food, and some of them are violent.”

Yet many Tijuana residents sympathize with the migrants, who have endured hellish living conditions and rampant health problems.

“I’d like to see them get help,” said Elizabeth Arreola, 47, who lives near a muddy encampment that the government evacuated. “I don’t have anything against them.”

Last month 6,800 migrants arrived in Tijuana after traveling north from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

While waiting to apply for asylum in the United States, more than 5,000 people camped at Benito Juarez sports complex, a recreational facility close to the international border.

But on Nov. 25, a protest against American immigration policy erupted into a melee as several hundred migrants stormed the border, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers fired tear gas canisters.

“They tried to cross by force,” said Mendoza, a sales representative at a nearby tour business. “You don’t want that in your country, and we don’t want that in our country.”

Then the rains came, turning the overcrowded Tijuana sports complex into a scene of squalor and sickness.

Stormwater flooded the encampment. Sewage seeped from port-a-potties. The baseball field, where families huddled in tents and under tarps, became awash in mud and filth.

Now many of the migrants are suffering from respiratory illness, flu-like symptoms and lice infestations.

“It’s difficult for the children,” said Eduardo Burgos, 56, who lives nearby. “No government wants them. … Only God knows what will happen.”

But on social media the migrants have been subjects of scorn, especially after a video went viral of a Honduran woman, identified by the BBC as Miriam Celaya, criticizing the free food.

“Look at what they are giving,” she said, displaying a plate of tortillas and beans. “Like they are feeding pigs!”

This didn’t play well in a culture where beans and tortillas are dietary staples. Although the woman later apologized, the damage was done.

“They don’t have respect,” market owner Vanessa Martinez told the Review-Journal. “When they arrived, they attacked us.”

Martinez, 40, lives down the street from El Barretal, a concert venue that the government converted to a shelter after conditions at the sports complex became unbearable.

The immigration debate in Tijuana echoes what’s being argued in the U.S.

“They don’t want to do anything, instead they’re making demands,” said David Mendez, 20, who lives near El Barretal. “They need to return to their own cities.”

His neighbor Irma Garcia, 54, said she’s concerned about crime. “They need to respect the law of the countries where they go.”

Martinez was blunter: “Some of them came to work, some of them came to rob.”

A survey last week by the newspaper El Universal found that seven in 10 Mexicans hold a negative view of the migrant influx, and 52 percent favor barring undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

Tijuana’s mayor, Juan Manuel Gastelum, went even further Friday, suggesting in a Fox News interview that caravan organizers should be jailed “for putting people at risk.”

But Maria de Jesus Gomez, 75, advocates a gentler approach.

“I’m not scared,” she said as pedestrians from El Barretal passed by her house. “Hondurans are peaceful people. I chat with them.”

Doug Kari is an attorney and writer in Lone Pine, California. Ismael Mejia of Rosarito Beach, Mexico, contributed to this report.

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