Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Finding a Way Around

By David G. Young

San Diego, CA, September 6, 2022 --  

Migrants from all over the world use Tijuana as a gateway to life in the United States.

The fortified wall that blocks much of America's southern border with Mexico starts in this southernmost city on the California coast. The steel fence begins about 300 feet out into the Pacific from the high tide line, and continues inland across the Tijuana River estuary that forms a natural barrier between the two cities along the border.

Despite the wall and the Border Patrol agents who swarm its northern side, migrants continue to cross. Some swim out to sea beyond the end of the tall steel fence, then head toward the sand on the American side. They try to blend in with locals sunbathing on Imperial Beach, before making their way inland. Others take more brute force tactic, using ladders to climb over the wall that separate Tijuana neighborhoods from parkland on the San Diego side. Another option is to go under the wall. Some use purpose-built tunnels, while others use drainage ditches and pipes that bring stormwater from Mexican neighborhoods into the estuary on the American side.

One such ravine is infamously named "smuggler's gulch". Another is about a half mile inland from the coast, and has iron rebar designed to allow passage of stormwater from uphill Tijuana, but still block immigrants. Yet the rebar was no match for a smuggler's blowtorch in July, which allowed over 100 people to use the drainage tunnel to enter the United States.1

That July 26 incident was not the first case of mass arrivals on this stretch of the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that a group of 144 were found and detained last November, another 123 on July 23 and then 100 more last Tuesday, the last group scaling a fence at Border Field State Park. The origin of these migrants, surprisingly, is mostly not from Mexico or Central America. Of those apprehended in the mass arrivals since July 23, 183 have been from Brazil, 37 from Somalia, 17 from India, but just two from Mexico.2,3 This follows a general trend where the majority of arrivals over the southern border are now from countries other than Mexico and Central America. Some of these have made the long overland trip from South America on foot over the jungles of the Darian Gap. Others like the three Cubans that were in the July groups, probably arrived on the North American mainland on flights from Cuba to Nicaragua.

But however they came, what they have in common is a lack of economic opportunity at home and often serious threats to their security. It's not hard to understand why six Afghans joined these groups -- after the Taliban regained power last year, repressive rule and economic collapse have inspired many to flee. A similar situation applies to the 37 Somalis amongst them, whose homeland suffers from a violent Islamist insurgency and severe drought. In Brazil and India, their countries' failure to recover from the economic decline of the pandemic is inspiring more people to try and make it to the United States.

Some of these people apprehended by the Border Patrol will request and receive asylum. Others will be sent back to Mexico or their homelands, only for them to give it another go later. And while repeat attempts inflate statistics, few would dispute that the number of arrivals is greater than ever before.

While the volume is striking, the makeup of the migrants is different, too. Before the pandemic, migration over the southern border was dominated by arrivals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in Central America. While Central Americans are still coming, they have been joined by large numbers from Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Haiti as well as many from countries in Africa and South Asia. And while few Mexicans are sneaking over this part of the border, that's only because undocumented Mexicans typically take different routes than crossing directly from Tijuana. After declining for several years after the Great Recession, undocumented migration from Mexico also began to increase after the pandemic began.4.

This surge in arrivals has not been popular with Americans, notably with Texas, where populist Governor Gregg Abbott has paid for bus tickets to send migrants to Washington DC and New York City, much to the delight of cash-strapped foreigners aiming to join friends and relatives in that direction. And while this stunt earned him media attention, it probably didn't make much difference, as most non-Latino migrants head to cities away form the border anyway -- Cubans and Brazilians to Miami and New Jersey, Afghans to Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Some black African migrants will choose to settle in Texas, as large communities already exist in Houston and Dallas. But as a whole, migrants who have travelled many thousands of miles to get to theU.S. border are unlikely to stop just over the line.

This is notably true of San Diego which has surprisingly few immigrant communities. Yes, San Diego hosts a huge number of immigrants from Mexico -- but that should not be surprising since Mexicans were living in the area long before the arrival of Anglo-Americans. Other than Mexicans, the next biggest undocumented immigrant community is Filipinos numbering only 15,000 in 2019 according to the Migration Policy Institute.5 This is an amazingly small number for a county of over 3 million people.

In an ideal world, Americans would stop all this wall building and Border Patrol chasing, and welcome these determined immigrants in a more civilized fashion. But that is politically unpopular, so American politicians can do little more than debate small tweaks to this crazy system. Given this reality, expect that migrants will continue to find ways to circumvent the barriers, accomplishing in practice what politicians can't or won't achieve achieve in policy.

Related Web Columns:

Cuba's White Flight, August 23, 2022

Breathtaking Determination, October 26, 2021


1. Customs and Border Protection, USBP Apprehends Two Groups of Over 100 Migrants Within 72 Hours, July 27, 2022

2. Customs and Border Protection, USBP apprehends 100 Migrants Near Border Field state Park, August 31, 2022

3. Ibid, Customs and Border Protection, USBP Apprehends Two Groups of Over 100 Migrants Within 72 Hours, July 27, 2022

4. New York Times, Ending a Decade-Long Decline, More Mexicans are Migrating to U.S., July 1, 2022

5. Migration Policy Institute, Profile of the Unauthorized Population: San Diego County, CA, 2019