Tijuana, Baja California — Thousands more National Guard troops are scheduled to arrive in Tijuana on Friday to take unprecedented steps in securing Mexico’s northern border and preventing migrants from crossing into the United States.
On Monday, Mexican army troops removed two migrants from Las Playas where other migrants have clashed with U.S. border agents in recent months. The troops, along with Mexico’s immigration agency, checked identification for people gathered near the Tijuana beach, according to a video recorded by human rights activist Hugo Castro.
Apoelnar Botello said he was among those whose ID was checked by military troops.
“They told me I can’t be this close to the border wall because I don’t have documents or permits. At one point, they told me I can’t be on the beach. What kind of documents do you need to stand on the beach?” he asked.
Botello said he has a business in San Diego, remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, but he went home to Puebla in southeast Mexico to visit family. He admitted he was eyeing the porous fence near Playas and considering crossing back into the United States illegally by swimming around the fence that extends about 30 yards into the ocean.
The increased military presence has made him decide to look for another place to cross, he said.
“It’s too hot here right now,” he said referring to the increased patrols of police and military near the beach. “It’s necessary (to cross) because I have family on the other side and I’m the one who works provides for my family.”
Human rights activists and attorneys say the deal struck between the United States and Mexico for migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed could run afoul of some people’s legal rights.
U.S. authorities say migrants are abusing the system meant to protect people from persecution in order to improve their economic situation.
Since October, record-breaking numbers of migrants have traveled in caravans across Mexico trying to reach the United States to claim asylum, causing tense diplomatic relations between the two nations. Many of the mostly Central American migrants said they fled violence caused by government corruption, poverty and gangs.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is facing intense pressure from the Trump administration, such as threats of crippling tariffs, to reduce the flow of migrants who reach the United States border.
The countries struck a deal to avoid U.S.-imposed tariffs that included Mexico securing its southern border and hosting all migrants as they wait for a decision on their U.S. asylum cases. But now, Mexico is volunteering to do more to prevent people from crossing into the United States by strengthening its northern border.
Mexican Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval González announced Monday troops and members of the country’s newly-formed National Guard — made of military police, the Navy, the Army and federal police — will also be deployed along the entire stretch of Mexico’s northern border with the United States from Tijuana, Baja California to Matamoros, Tamaulipas.
Baja California’s incoming governor, Jaime Bonilla, said he met Tuesday with federal police, federal migration officials and local Tijuana leaders to go over protocol for the arrival Friday of more National Guard troops and to secure resources from the federal government to shelter migrants while they wait.
“We are organizing so that when the migrants are returned, they do not cause any inconvenience to the population of Tijuana, Mexicali or at any other point in the state,” said Bonilla. He said the troops will also address safety in Tijuana where homicides caused by the local drug trade reached all-time highs last year.
Some National Guard troops were already sent to Tijuana earlier in the year to try to stem the increasing violence.
Experts say Mexico has never before deployed so many troops to engage in migration enforcement, and historically, the country has resisted U.S. demands to seal its northern border.
When López Obrador was elected last summer, he even vowed in his victory speech in Tijuana that Mexico would no longer do the “dirty work” of enforcing U.S. immigration policies, which he had called “arrogant, racist and inhumane” on the campaign trail.
His defense minister, Sandoval, said the National Guard and army units totaled between 14,000 and 15,000 men deployed in the northern part of the country. Bonilla did not have an exact count on how many of those troops would arrive in Tijuana or Baja California, but he said the region was the highest priority to secure.
Sandoval said the National Guard would prevent people from crossing into the United States, but other protocols for processing and sheltering migrants would be handled by different agencies.
“We only stop them,” he said, elaborating that migrants without papers will be handed over to the National Institute of Migration “considering that migration is not a crime, it is an administrative fault.”
“We put them at the disposal of the authorities to do their normal procedure that must be done or the authorities will determine what will be developed in the future for these migrants,” Sandoval said.
Meanwhile, López Obrador acknowledged Tuesday the National Guard already may have committed some “excesses” in their attempts to control migrants near the southern border and vowed to investigate all reported violent incidents.
“There may be these excesses, but the instruction they all have is that human rights are respected, and that will continue,” he said. “If there were cases, it is not the instruction they have. It is a job that, in any case, corresponds to the migration agents, not the army.”
Attorney Nicole Ramos is the director of the Border Rights Projects for Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based legal aid organization. She provides legal orientation and know-your-rights training to asylum seekers stuck in Tijuana, a dangerous border-city with skyrocketing drug violence.
She said returning asylum seekers to Tijuana could violate international law in some cases.
“International law protects against … the return of asylum seekers to a territory where they fear persecution,” Ramos said. “Further, any government deploying armed forces to stop asylum seekers from accessing safety has lost sight of its moral compass.”
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