Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Bienvenido a Tijuana/Welcome to Tijuana



Time to read

5 Minutes

This post by Gabriella Sanchez, Research Fellow,  Monash University, Australia, describes recent research she has conducted in Tijuana, Mexico with Yesenia Trujillo.

The sun was already setting in Tijuana, a city on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, by the time Yesenia Trujillo and I arrived at the only shelter for migrant women in the city. The blue, picturesque house ran by a small group of Scalabrinian nuns seemed dreamlike, even out of place in this dangerously steep hill in Colonia Postal, a working class neighborhood a top of a dusty road in a city that despite radical changes has for decades managed to hold on to its place in the US-MX border’s consciousness as the capital of sin, violence and crime.

Highway safety sign in California
As we waited for the administrator in the comfortable yet perplexingly quiet living room of the shelter, I kept reflecting about the reasons that had led us here, to Tijuana, to the Border. What is Tijuana these days? What has happened to the city that during most of the 1980s and 1990s became associated with irregular border crossings, migrant deaths along desert canyons and with the iconic sign of a man, woman and child on the run? “Tijuana is no longer a border crossing town,” the coordinator of the men’s shelter a few houses down the street had told us a couple of days earlier. He seemed disappointed, his face hinting at desire for the times when Tijuana was the destination for thousands of people seeking to cross a much less militarized border; the city from where launching a run to cross into the United States extralegally seemed logical, reasonable, almost natural. Today, a double fence surrounds Tijuana’s urban core and separates it from San Diego County. Border Patrol’s all-terrain vehicles, helicopters and drones, search dogs and thousands of officers and privately contracted security guards are constant and vivid reminders of the (apparent) impenetrability of the border. New tunnels, bridges and lanes redirect “legal” crossings into labyrinthine paths that make for unusually long―and excruciatingly slow―waits.
The Border Fence from Otay. Otay, Mexico\nPhoto: Yesenia Trujillo
Today Tijuana and its nearby cities play a somewhat different role. For most of the people at the shelters, this city is limbo. According to numbers provided by the Casa del Migrante and Casa Madre Assunta, the two longstanding shelters providing assistance to migrants, those seeking refuge within their walls are no longer people looking to enter the United States for the first time, or stranded during their trans-border transits. The shelters now house thousands of deportees impacted by the internal efforts at enforcing immigration within the United States which have characterized most of the Obama Administration. As other scholars have noted, the criminalization of migration at the local level―deeply intertwined with and facilitated by the consolidation of collaborations among local law enforcement and the federal agency in charge of immigration—has facilitated the identification, processing and eventual deportation of larger numbers of irregular as well as regular migrants. These are the people who now reside temporarily at the shelters, and the ones who wander along the railroad tracks and bridges by Tijuana’s border crossing points. These are Tijuana’s new migrants: the deported.
Fence on Playas de Tijuana (Mexican Side) | Photo:Yesenia Trujillo
During our visit we listened to the testimonies of men and women who had been deported after having lived in the United States for years, even decades, following arrests for minor violations (traffic stops, administrative warrants, pending civil cases). We heard from  Manuel Alcantar, a legal US resident, cook and father of four US citizens, who following a driving violation was arrested and deported to Mexico, a country to which he no longer had ties having lived in California for over thirty years.  We learned of family separations, like the one endured by the three teenage daughters of Camilo Rivas, whose only shot at reunification was to cross the border extralegally with the help of a human smuggler or coyote. We witnessed the confusion and desolation experienced by those who having been raised in the United States lacked awareness, understanding or ties to Mexico despite their Mexican background and citizenship—young men whose tattooed arms and faces were often times indicators of their marginalization in the context of structural violence in the US, and who following their deportation faced a life in a country that treated them like foreigners.
We also heard of how Tijuana’s new role as a deportation site has also had a significant impact in the lives of women. While the majority of the women staying at the shelter continues to be constituted by recent deportees separated from their children (most of whom are US citizens), Casa Assunta has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of women with denied refugee status.
Women in waiting. Art Installation, Otay, Mexico | Photo: Yesenia Trujillo
Over the last few months, the Mexican state of Michoacán (and the cradle of US-bound migration) has experienced a significant wave of violence. Related to generations-long conflicts tied to control over land and other natural resources, weakened state powers and the morphing influence of groups involved in drug trafficking, the current crisis reached a boiling point in early January of 2014, when the Mexican military opened fire against civilians trying to stop the incursion of members of drug trafficking organizations in the towns of Antunez and Nueva Italia, leaving at least three people dead. While these events have placed Michoacán at the center of the ever ongoing discussion over Mexico’s viability as a state, much less has been said about their implications on human security and mobility, and about the unknown number of people who has been driven out of their communities or opted to leave as the means to their survival.
Crosses with the names of deceased border crossers. Art Installation, Otay, Mexico | Photo: Yesenia Trujillo
On the day of our visit, eight women and their children were at Casa Madre Assunta, all of them from Michoacán. Each one of them had traveled to this city on the border and petitioned the American authorities for asylum. Following varying times in immigration detention, all requests had been denied. Several of the women reported having being separated from their spouses while in custody, their whereabouts still unknown days following their deportation. Limited research has been conducted to-date on the impact of drug-trafficking related violence upon population displacement in Mexico. Yet there is a growing body of evidence suggesting the emergence of a category of refugees from displaced communities as a consequence of the war the Mexican government has launched against alleged drug trafficking groups, and which has in turn resulted in the death and/or the disappearance of tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians.
While additional research is needed, the visit to Tijuana provides insights into the morphing realities of this city along the US-Mexico border. The border rushes of yesterday have come to a grinding halt. The city is no longer as a point of crossing, but rather a zone of stagnation, of uncertainty, from where mobility options are increasingly limited―and when available, have the potential of being significantly dangerous. The emergence of concentrations of displaced women and children unable to return to their communities and lacking the support of their extended families, in a city unable to provide basic services to its inhabitants constitutes an eerily reminder of Ciudad Juarez. While Tijuana and its citizens have made significant strides at reclaiming the urban space and the drug trafficking related battles that afflicted it during the 1990s and 2000s have acquired less visible forms, US immigration policy concerning the deportation of increasing numbers of legal and irregular residents, the continued efforts (intentional or not) to separate of mixed status families, and the consistent refusal to examine asylum claims may eventually create new conditions that will significantly impact the everyday lives of all of those who call Tijuana home, and not only of those who find themselves lost and wandering amid its dusty streets and burning winter sun.
Interested in more on U.S. immigration policy and border control? See this post by Gabriella Sanchez and this post by Daniel Martinez and Robin Reineke on the Border Criminologies blog.
Want to start a discussion about this topic? Post a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Sanchez, G. (2014) Bienvenido a Tijuana/Welcome to Tijuana. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/bienvenido-a-tijuana/ (accessed [date]).

With the support of