The World

The Trump of Tijuana

A mayor’s nativist rhetoric is making the caravan crisis worse.

Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum.
Tijuana, Mexico, Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum. Juan Carlos Reyes/Agencia El Universal/RCC/GDA via AP

With the midterms over, most Americans have stopped paying attention to the migrant caravan that left Honduras in early October. But the influx of at least 2,500 migrants from the group in Tijuana has put the bustling border city on edge. Migrants have been steadily arriving in Tijuana over the past few weeks with the intention of seeking asylum in the United States. With points of entry very slowly processing potential refugees, migrants have found a bottleneck that will likely keep them in the area for months, if not longer.

For Tijuana, a city of more than 1.5 million people, the large group of new arrivals (which will likely grow in the coming days) presents a complex set of challenges. Even though the city had ample time to prepare for the arrival of the caravan, local government officials at first failed to offer safe accommodation or proper services to the crowd. Many ended up walking along Tijuana’s winding roads to the city’s beaches, including the area around the imposing border fence. Once there, as many as 25 men climbed the structure, straddling it, one leg wagging over Mexican territory, the other over Californian soil, where a group of Border Patrol officers watched their every move. Other migrants held hands and prayed.

Not everyone in Tijuana has reacted kindly to their presence. Residents along the city’s beaches verbally confronted local authorities. “Our families come first!” a man shouted on Wednesday. “Our country comes first and then it’s their turn. If they come here violently, they will leave the same way!” With tensions running high, city and state officials scrambled to turn a local sporting complex near the border into a large temporary encampment. Just as many had done earlier while passing through Mexico City, migrants slept in makeshift tents, children running around everywhere. The Mexican media reported that local authorities tried to persuade migrants to leave the streets and use the makeshift facilities instead. Not everyone heeded the call. Those who did received clothes and food.

In the last few days, small groups of Tijuanenses have begun vocally protesting the chaos surrounding the caravan situation in the city. On Sunday, a group of about 300 residents marched, sometimes shoving barricades set up by local police outside the migrants’ camp. News reports showed a woman wearing heavy makeup and carrying a Mexican flag shouting, “Leave, Honduran! We don’t want you here!” “No to the invasion,” read a banner held high by a man hovering just a few feet from the police line.
“Mexico First,” said another one.

Things were tense in Tijuana before the caravan arrived. The city is wrapping up its most violent year on record, with more than 2,000 homicides in 2018 alone. With the border effectively closed, the situation is bad and will likely get worse. It could even become tragic, in a heartbeat. This potentially nightmarish scenario requires a steady hand to soothe the community’s fears and help migrants in whatever comes next in their grueling journey.

Instead, Tijuana’s got Juan Manuel Gastélum.

Gastélum, the mayor since 2016, has made a tough problem considerably worse. Instead of being a voice for reason and temperance, Gastélum has gone after the caravan with nativist zeal. “Human rights are for humans who behave the right way,” he said, in an example of rhetoric that would make Stephen Miller proud. The mayor then went on to threaten the migrants with Article 33 of the Mexican Constitution, which states that the executive branch can immediately expel any foreigner whose presence becomes “inconvenient”: “Tijuana is a city of migrants, but we just don’t want them this way … they are aggressive, vulgar and they bully authorities,” Gastélum insisted. Not surprisingly, Mayor Gastélum quickly caught the attention of a man very much in tune with the mayor’s nativist ramblings. On Sunday, Donald Trump approvingly cited Gastélum in a tweet, telling the migrants to “go home!”

The problem, for men like Gastélum and Trump, is that crises rarely conclude by decree. There is no end in sight for the humanitarian calamity currently unfolding in Central America’s Northern Triangle. The caravan that has made its way to Tijuana might be the most numerous in memory, but it will not be the last. Even if entry into the United States turns nearly impossible and passage through Mexico becomes even more hazardous, Central American migrants will continue to flock north.

The reason is simple: For many, the alternative to the hazardous and unpredictable journey is death. People can’t be scared into turning back toward death. The solution to the crisis, then, lies not with coils of barbed wire tightly wrapped around the border fence but in a sensitive, ambitious approach to the region. The only way to prevent an exodus such as this is to guarantee that life is possible in the place people are leaving in earnest. In the meantime, Gastélum, Trump, and nativists on both sides of the border between Mexico and the United States should respect the caravan’s human rights. Those rights, after all, are for everyone, despite what the crude Gastélum might think.