The US has seen few mass migrant crossings from Mexico since the 1990s. Ever-increasing border militarization has failed to halt undocumented immigration to the US, but it has succeeded in pushing unauthorized crossers far from the public eye, crossing through perilous climes in small groups to evade detection. But two recent actions along the border seem to signal a shift in some migrants’ willingness to cross in large numbers, based on a growing sense of desperation.
The first attempted mass migrant crossing in recent memory took place last Thanksgiving when, in the glaring daylight of the early afternoon, 200 undocumented migrants attempted to cross the border together from Tijuana into the United States, about a quarter of a mile west of the San Ysidro port of entry. In the days leading up to the mass crossing, a flyer had circulated among breakfast halls for migrants and deportees that gave an open invitation to meet near the border “on the day Americans give thanks,” where there would be three organizers in charge of leading migrants into the US. The wording of the flyer seemed to hint at a protest as much as a true celebration of the American Thanksgiving tradition.
“We are doing this with the intention of being able to cross into the US,” the flyer read in Spanish, “to reunite with our children and families and to fight for the American dream.”
The call-to-cross ended by reproaching a number of Mexican President Peña Nieto’s policies, arguing that they exploited the working class and further pushed Mexicans to migrate. The rebuked policies included a higher sales tax that many see as regressive; constitutional amendments that allowed for the privatization of Pemex, Mexico’s oil and gas company; and the recent education reform bills which, among other things, diminished the political power of teachers’ unions. In the past months, these policies have incited popular mass protests throughout Mexico.
The day of the crossing, men, women, children and even a baby in arms met, fittingly, at the Tijuana River canal, which is dotted with encampments of homeless people, many of them newly deported migrants who have never before set foot in the sprawling city of 1.3 million. The organizers that the flyer had claimed would lead the migrants across the border were nowhere to be found, but the growing crowd decided to attempt the crossing anyway.
As several Mexican media outlets reported, the crossers’ hope was that a small handful of them would be able to reunite with their families, even while acknowledging that most of them would surely be caught by Border Patrol and face severe legal repercussions. The first time someone is charged with crossing the border illegally, they get hit with an up-to-ten-year ban from applying to enter the United States — a potential catastrophe to those fleeing the violence of their countries of origin or migrating to reunite with family members.
A group of young filmmakers making a documentary of the homeless encampments along the river canal caught the mass crossing on video. Their footage shows a quiet stream of migrants curving around a break in the border wall. The migrants approach three Border Patrol agents who quickly radio for backup, and within thirty seconds four more Border Patrol cars and a motorcycle surround them. Two minutes later a Border Patrol helicopter cuts through the air. Sirens ring, though it’s hard to tell from where. An agent throws a tear gas bomb and the coughing migrants begin to retreat.
What the video doesn’t show, but many US media outlets have decried, is that some of the migrants threw rocks and plastic bottles, striking several Border Patrol agents in the arms and legs, and one of them in the head. Even with the heavy reinforcements in tow, the migrant to border patrol ratio was about ten to one. In response, the agents used Tasers and fired rounds of rubber bullets, and several migrants were seriously injured and subsequently sent to the hospital. In the end, not a single migrant made it across the border.
In a city where recently deported migrants are pejoratively known as zombies (because of how they congregate in the river canal, hungry and wandering), this first attempt at a mass crossing since the 1990s exposes a growing desperation among an increasing number of Mexicans and the ineptitude of our immigration policies designed to stop the northward flow of people.
The second mass crossing took place on March 10, when a group of 150 undocumented migrants requested to be considered for asylum on both sides of the Otay port of entry in Tijuana. They were part of the “Bring Them Home” campaign led by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which has organized two previous mass cross-border actions in Arizona and Texas. Forty-four of the crossers were “DREAMers,” undocumented young people who grew up in the US, who argued that after being deported they were unable to continue their studies because of the great discrepancies between Mexican and US education systems. The other eighty were composed of the families and loved ones of the DREAMers and pleaded with authorities that their children be given legal status to be in the US.
Mass migrant crossings used to be popular in the 1990s. At that time, there were no drones, fewer checkpoints, and only small fragments of a wall here and there along the US-Mexico border. There are pictures taken in the 1990s of Border Patrol agents dressed up as Santa Claus, handing out gifts to migrant children and pointing people in the direction of the nearest food pantry. During this time of more lax border enforcement, it wasn’t uncommon that large groups of migrants would organize a “rush” across the border, and many would succeed in getting safely across.
But in recent years it has become far more difficult and dangerous to cross into the United States, let alone in droves, and mass actions on the border have evolved from pragmatic operations meant to get people across to symbolic protests of current US immigration laws. On Valentine’s Day in 2008, a judge simultaneously married 600 Mexicans on the border stretch between Tijuana and San Ysidro. Likewise, holding binational Sunday Mass is still popular at many points along the border. Families separated by deportations hold hands between the bars along the border wall while a priest belts out Bible verses.
The past two mass border actions mark a significant change in method. The hundreds of migrants that attempted to cross were willing to challenge our laws through civil disobedience, putting themselves and their legal status at great risk. This shift toward more radical actions points to the ticking time bomb that is our deportation machine. Around six hundred people get deported to Tijuana every day, a great number of them ending up on the streets, with nowhere to go, often without a peso in their pockets and with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Under such a barbaric immigration and deportation regime, it should be little wonder that mass migrant actions are making a comeback.